A Review of Panthers and the Museum of Fire by Jen Craig

“I was in a daze, nothing short of euphoria during those long, sweet hours from late on to the Saturday morning, when it all became clear. At first I had been relieved to find that the manuscript was nothing it seems to be, nothing—and yet as I read it my mind was bated: the idea of a mind being bated in the way that breath can be bated entranced me as I walked along the narrowing part of Victoria Road where the cars, parked tight by the kerb, even crammed to the corners, made me think that everyone had been affected as I’d been affected and that no one had slept.” (2) 

Jen Craig’s Panthers and the Museum of Fire is a quiet, introspective work of autofiction that explores the internal emotional fallout surrounding the death of those closest to us. Our narrator learns of the death of Sarah, a friend from her younger school days, by receiving the manuscript of her unpublished novel. The narrator reflects that Sarah’s work is “a feast of words, as the blurb has put it, surprisingly correctly; I have often been impressed—overwhelmingly impressed—in this way by the books that I have read and then promptly given away—these books that disappoint me, that fill me with distaste; these books that do nothing but glance off my mind. Yet I force myself to read the books that others give me—these books that weigh the floors of my flat with the impressive descriptions of their contents.(73) The complexities of her responsibility to the work itself, as well as her complicated relationship with her own ideas of self and memory, grab hold of Jen as she attempts to navigate what she must do with this storehouse of who Sarah is in her prose and what place her final words have in her endless storehouse of the books with which she has filled her life.

The words in the manuscript manage to transform Jen and set her on a path to exploring her own writing as it emerges from a crippling creative block after reading the ill-fated pages. She examines her relationship with those friends they shared, and reflects on what the true nature of knowing someone even is. Eventually, this leads to the examination of how well she knows herself, and the years she spent struggling with an eating disorder that almost killed her on several occasions, and as we all have a tendency to do, completely lose all semblance of self-worth as she observes that she is “a freak…my opinion worth nothing, my thoughts about the manuscript she had given me, Panthers and the Museum of Fire, therefore of no value to anyone at all.” (77)

Does it complicate matters that the book Sarah left behind may very well be the one we hold in our hands, hastily named after the words on an exit sign on an Australian highway? 

The written word, relationships, the difficulty of communication, and the concept of what space we occupy and leave behind are central to Craig’s beautifully brief novel. As the book’s titular novel is in fact Sarah’s, Craig’s work is a reflection on the act of taking up space in the written word and what it means to carry the weight of one’s own stories around, hidden from those around us. I was mesmerized by Craig’s use of sentences that tumbled around the narrator’s head without losing momentum. Additionally, Craig presents an adept and captivating portrait of the effects and impact of suffering from an eating disorder in a way that I have not seen in writing before. While most of us have not experienced it, I have found myself caring about and understanding the condition of the narrator more here than in any other written or real-life engagement with the topic.

Panthers and the Museum of Fire is an internal foray into consciousness-driven modernist writing and is easily a beautiful addition to the Knausgaard/Ellman/Ferrante genre. Her prose captures the hyperbolic and complicated internal worlds of memory, relationships, and creativity while meditating on existence and what we leave behind with our art. Perhaps we also fear that we will never be more than Craig’s “delusion that, despite the evidence of…absolute failure, [she is] still a writer of novels in the making.” We hold the result, however; a minimalist novel that captures the gorgeous intentionalism of autofiction in a surgically-precise execution. Beautiful and true.

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Garrett Zecker is a writer, actor, and teacher of writing, literature, and theatre. He holds an MA in English from Fitchburg State University and an MFA in Fiction from the Mountainview MFA. His fiction and nonfiction work has been featured in many publications, most recently Parhelion, Black Dandy, Porridge, and The New Guard. He is the co-founder of Quabbin Quills, a nonprofit foundation focused on literary publications, free writers workshops, and high school scholarships for writers in Central and Western Massachusetts. Learn more about Garrett at GarrettZecker.com and follow him on Twitter at @mrzecker

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