by Jen Craig
Puncher and Wattmann
Published April 2023
In an era of sentences that trend not only towards our laziest tendencies but also towards the speed and rhythm of our economy: the elevator pitch sentence, the jump-cut sentence, the news hook sentence, the perfectly manscaped short back and sides sentence, in short the short sentence; a long sentence is antiseptic, so much so that defending its intrinsic value has become something of a moral duty.
And in an era of moral duties that trend toward self-promotion, readers of the long sentence have spawned Bookstagrams, BookToks, YouTube channels and Twitter threads with the surrogate combativeness and braggadocio of an office clerk in private browsing mode. Let it be known that these readers are not the kind of three pump chumps who jack-hammer their slender little flash-fictions before rolling over and falling asleep. These are sensitive and patient readers whose night-long stamina coaxes penetrability from the otherwise impenetrable. Not necessarily gauche enough for a muted post horn tattoo, these readers will almost certainly greet the owner of one with a nod of recognition — the kind that needs the world to know, in their own self-effacing way, that when you embark on a life-long journey to read every maximalist ‘systems novel’ to have ever gone out-of-print — no, you don’t get it, the unreadability is actually the point because it’s a schizoid reflection of post-60s paranoia — no, because you lose so much of the word-play unless it’s read in the original Catalan — the Gordon Lishes of the world will start to feel less like editors per se and more like cosmetic surgeons, financially motivated to perform syntacticoplasty on the loose folds of an author’s prose, because these readers prefer sentences so prolapsed by the weight of their own complexity that those tiny cotton balls, blackened to become full-stops, can barely staunch the flow of conditional clauses.
This subculture genuflects to many Kings: of course there are Henry James, Gaddis, Bernhard, Murnane, Krasznahorkai, Fosse and Enard but fewer Queens have been crowned. So I was intrigued, and driven to investigate, when Jen Craig, a female writer from Australia, was championed for her long sentences and other syntactical achievements.
Panthers and the Museum of Fire was published in 2015 by Spineless Wonder, then later republished in 2022 by Zerogram Press. A narrator who shares her name with the author walks the streets of Sydney carrying a manuscript written by a recently deceased childhood friend. She is returning it to the friend’s sister, who, having accosted her at the funeral urging her to read it, now mysteriously wants it back. But this outline says almost nothing about the contents of the book because Craig’s novels — while thin — are endomorphic: the skeletal frames of their narrative plots are barely visible beneath the roving stream of consciousness that encases them.
Likewise we could say, without saying much at all, that in Craig’s new novel Wall, the narrator is an artist returning to Australia from the UK after the death of her father to clean his house. In both novels, the narrator is stuck at an artistic impasse. In Wall, she has been working on a giant installation dedicated to anorexia. ‘Working,’ we discover, means years of circular rumination about the immense impossibility of the project. In a moment of panicked self-consciousness, she convinces an old mentor and gallery owner that she intends to create a ‘post-war manifestation of twenty-first century anxiety on a suburban Australian scale’ from the contents of her father’s obsessive-compulsive hoarding. The narrator is inspired by the artist Song Dong, whose installation Waste Not comprises over 10,000 objects owned by his late mother, whose early life was marked by such scarcity that she refused to throw anything away. Song Dong orders the disorder of his mother’s life by arranging each object by category — from empty toothpaste tubes, to bottle caps, to scraps of fabric, to disposable lighters. The touching irony of Song Dong’s Waste Not is that the spectator has the power to elevate his mother’s irrational hoardings to the status of an artwork by virtue of their spectatorship, thereby granting her the fulfilment of having finally found a rational use for her irrational collection of objects. He successfully retrofits mental stability onto an otherwise unstable impulse and so his artistry lies in his ability to manipulate the spectator into participating in a loving and generous kind of historical revisionism. Craig’s narrator expects that her project will enable her to do the same but instead, the ‘definite and ordinary thingness of it all’ overwhelms her to the point of abandonment.
The hoarder wards off the full force of an event horizon by covering all her bases. A baby pram can come to represent the child she hasn’t yet had just as much as a rusty nail can come to represent an artwork she is yet to hang. Not only do objects become place-holders for unfulfilled desires, the hoard effectively allows these desires to remain suspended in a kind of post-consumer formaldehyde such that every minor consummation — every ordinary decision, every concerted effort — can be delayed in an endless foreplay of everyday life. If the hoarder never faces up to her own desires, she is also not required to confront the emptiness that may lie behind them. The narrator of Wall draws a parallel between the artist and the hoarder:
This tendency to overcommit — to overexplain. As well as the clearly unlivable state of where I allow myself to work. And so it might or might not come as a surprise to you that, despite how it is when I’m definitely ‘onto something’, it has not been enough that I have now been enlivened in every limb of my body to do this clearing-out work on this Chatswood house. This brutal work. So proud, actually, that I’ve been managing to do it — that I rang for the skip in the first place. Not enough that I have managed to will myself to work in a way that pushes hard and decisively against my usual instincts. Not enough, as even you should realise. Should recognise immediately. Because, as you also know, every time that I seem to have found the answer to something — some sort of solution — it usually turns out to be just another problem. Another obsession. Another way (as you would probably see it) of trying to avoid the unbearable sight that is revealed when you remove an old tarp(aulin) from its long-settled place in a hallway.
The narrator is herself a kind of hoarder. Her creative project is buttressed by a two-fold hoarding of the work of others: first of Song Dong’s original artwork and then through the hoarding of her father’s hoard. Failing this, she becomes the consummate hoarder by hoarding certain ideas about hoarding only to not end up using any of them at all. In Possessed: A cultural history of hoarding, Rebecca R. Falkoff draws parallels between what the hoarder and the artist produce (rather than what they fail to produce):
Among disorders included in the DSM-5, hoarding is unique because its diagnosis requires the existence of a material entity external to the patient’s psychic reality: the hoard. However fatal its magnitude, the hoard is an aesthetic object produced by a clash in perspectives about the meaning or value of objects; it is caught between phenomenology, aesthetics, and ontology. This bears a significant implication: the hoarder resembles an artist or an artisan whose identity as such is a function of the (composite) artefact he produces — facit artem. Diagnosis is, in part, an aesthetic problem.
The hoarder’s contradiction is that she is simultaneously retentive and expulsive. Jamieson Webster writes that ‘hoarding encapsulates the moment when order becomes disorder, when control over one’s faeces reverses course.’ The narrator of Wall, too, is caught between shame and possessiveness over her own ideas and a desire to make that shame public, or, as Dodie Bellamy puts it: ‘Hoarding is a private act. You feel embarrassment and guilt over your manic accrual. The best writing embarrasses the author— at least a teeny bit—emerging from a compulsion to flaunt what any sane person would camouflage.’ What the narrator of Wall ends up producing, her hoard, so to speak, and her justification for delaying whatever imminent masterpiece has yet to be realised, is the novel itself.
Written as a letter, she begins by writing that she has given up on her installation and has called a skip from City Hire to remove the contents of her father’s house. What follows, is not so much a description of what occasioned this failure, but a description of her own descriptions. Jamieson again:
Embedded in the question of hoarding, collecting, mess, clutter, rests a question regarding civilised life. The control of the hoarder creates, little by little, a visible spectacle where what is kept and what is garbage are rendered indistinguishable such that, finally, we can see human creation as creation: there is no natural order, we’ve made it all up, one man’s gold is another man’s shit.
Likewise in the long sentences of Wall, important events and minor transgression are given equal weighting. The narrator’s thoughts are laid bare in the kind of equalised pattern of significance that emerges when a patient is freely associating with her therapist. As an epistolary novel, this makes Wall successfully unconvincing — but only because Craig’s novels are anti-realistic. Her masterstroke is in her ability to write carefully constructed sentences that attest to the mind’s capacity to make sense of what Susan Sontag would call ‘time’s relentless melt’. To choose a passage at random:
And yet, despite this dread, this practically superstitious horror, I kept on with these panels as if only to do something to avoid thinking anymore about the Wall — the ostensible Wall I was supposed to be assembling in situ, as I was remembering while I stood there in Hackney watching what looked to be the stubbornness of Lord — the complete incomprehension of Nathaniel Lord. Yes, all of this coming back to me then: my stupefaction with Lord and my shrinking sense of self worth as well as my determination to remember something in me that might withstand him. Thinking all this as I worked like an engine in the hallway in dad’s place[…]
The spiralled grooves of Craig’s narrative return time and again to an original point of departure (waiting for the skip to arrive outside her father’s house). Craig doesn’t drive her narrative forward so much as she drives it deeper and deeper into the unfenestrated wall of her own imagination. Observe in the passage above how the narrative collapses back into itself in the space of one sentence, how the narrator remembers her own remembering which is then finally remembered while she is writing it. They suggest, in their long and meandering way, that the reader can never study the same sentence twice: because it is not the same sentence and she is not the same reader. This is the sense of wonder that compels us to proselytise to strangers on the internet about the merit of long sentences in general and the merit of Craig’s novels in particular. Craig often situates the reader in the present, only by the end of the sentence, to suddenly wrench us into the past. Such is the nature of the present moment and Craig seems to remind us, even as her popularity grows, that for all the points scored, for all the subcultural notoriety gained, as it is in the process of happening to us, it is also in the process of being taken away.
- Dodie Bellamy, Bee Reaved, Semiotext(e), 2021.
- Rebecca R. Falkoff, Possessed: A cultural history of hoarding, Cornell University Press, 2021.
- Susan Sontag, On Photography, Penguin Classics, 2009.
- Jamieson Webster, The Psychopathology of everyday object life: Some reflections on Barry Yourgrau’s Mess: One Man’s Struggle to Clean Up His House and His Act, Division Review, 2016