“Hunger makes you forget grace” (Pulse Points).
This is how I imagine it.
Jennifer Down has a picture of Helen Garner above her desk that she looks to in times of need; prayerfully, she asks, “Helen, what would you do?” I have portraits of myself in every room of the house that I turn to when I need a good chat—there’s one of me in a white shirt in Capri (although I’ve never been), another of my stint as a Shinto monk, several of my trailer-park-just-outside-of-Texas period, social snaps of a West Coast bohemian gent, and a huge one of my stay as a resident at Can Serrat in El Bruc, Catalonia, where I decided to learn Catalan, and where I briefly spotted several budding celebrity writers, perhaps even Juniper herself. There are so many portraits of me in different international hot spots either because I have good connections in aviation or because I’ve got a serious case of the Meryl Streeps. After reading Pulse Points and viewing one of Jennifer’s YouTube performances, I think Down might have a case of the Streeps too.
[Breaking News: I just received this warning from Aicha Marhfour: “They better not come near Jennifer Down”. Marhfour then displays her widely-acclaimed lyrical gifts in a message sent directly to me: “I know where you can put your reviews … up your arse (coincidentally where they emerge from first)”. Sadly, Jennifer Down ‘Liked’ Marhfour’s arse tweet. This flurry seems to be in reply to something Chad Parkhill tweeted, which I can’t see because he blocked me (I’ve never heard of him). Clearly, Chad had a Russell Crowe Moment of Gallantry and stepped in to protect Ms Down from a book review. What is it about being a twenty-six-year-old woman that makes men so chivalrous? With no provocation other than to say my review was imminent, Marhfour and Parkhill bristled, and Down applauded from the sidelines, much like Nicky in her ‘Dogs’ story.
On Twitter, I’m struck by Down’s high levels of self-absorption, a sign of a great writer to come. However, her dedication to self-fashioning didn’t stop her from wearing the same Breton shirt too many times in promotional photos. I intuited that Down’s sweet demeanour would drop if she sensed any qualification of her idealised self. When someone disagreed with Handsome, Handsome became Ugly. I learnt this the hard way when I threw coffee at a lighting guy because he said male models couldn’t be writers. Chad Parkhill’s online photos prove that male writers can be models too. Chad also shows signs of being a Man Genius, just like Nigel Featherstone, who blocked me after I suggested that Tim Winton’s comments on literature were reminiscent of Kirk Lazarus’s observation that “being an actor’s no different than being a rugby player or construction worker, save for the fact that my tools are the mechanisms which trigger human emotion”. Without exception, I find the men who block me are aspiring Men Geniuses. It reminds me of a friend who found that the only men who had a problem with him being The Grand Goose were other geese.
Down’s mobilization of her bee swarm means she should be reminded of her hero Garner’s regrets, conveyed to the late, great literary reviewer Susan Wyndham thus: “[I remember] the narcissism [of being twenty-six] wounding people and in fact wounding myself and being numb to it,” “the wreckage that was strewn behind me now, the selfish cruelties, the terrible waste.” These kids’ high self-regard is awesome to behold. Just imagine how hard-nosed you must be to appear so consistently sensitive and delicate.
Do you notice that I still haven’t written anything about Pulse Points yet? In this time of social media, it’s all bookend and no book. So, it’s time to leave Twitter and return to the collection and the topic of acting. End square bracket.]
There’s something of the Year 12 school captain who’s also the school’s dynamo of the English and Theatre department at work in Pulse Points. Yes, the yearly production of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is impressive, but it’s still clearly a high school production. No, it’s slightly older than that, more First Year at the Uni Bar and then Back to the Dorms for an Awkward Fuck Fiction. The Text Publishing Company’s sneaky production means that the book appears to be more substantial than it is. Nevertheless, in what is a slim volume, there are many, many examples of overacting.
Let’s meet the leading roles: a long-term gay couple; a young dying gay man; a lesbian couple in a violent relationship; a titty-bar dancer; a male chronic fatigue sufferer; a retiring forester; an ex-coalmine worker; a gang of violent youfs; an undertaker!; a lonely dad; an ANU scholarship failure; an American rust-belt high-school waif; a forty-something TAFE graduate and holistic healer; a twenty-something everygirl from Wichita; as well as a swag of supportive boyfriends, regretful ex-boyfriends, and cute pets. The only person not to appear in Pulse Points is a twenty-six-year-old woman from around Melbourne, which Jennifer is. I commend Pulse Points for this staunch anti-memoir stance, but this is taking fiction too far. However, to her credit, she writes more authoritatively about being a gay man than many gay men.
Now that we’ve met the actors, let’s look at the Big Problems they deal with in this slim book: dementia; suicide; gang bangs and rape; apocalyptic fires and screaming horses; miscarriage; the death of mothers; heroin overdose; more rape; abysmal anxiety; middle-aged men sadly masturbating; car accidents (several); violent storms (in general); and Hurricane Katrina (specifically). At one point, I was afraid that we might have to watch a vegan being forced to cook a lamb roast. This is teenage morbidity, Sturm und Drang. The only fun is an all-to-brief oxycodone afternoon spent rolling around in the sunlight.
But that’s nothing, for it’s the settings that show an unusual prolificacy at work: Aokigahara (Suicide Forest, but of course); Saint-Antoine (including references to Belleville, Chatelet, Republique, Sacre Couer); St Kilda; Toowoomba; New Mexico (“it was the New Mexico sky”—oh, what familiarity!); Halliburton (including references to Farmington, Albuquerque, Morgan Lake, Angel Peak, Denver, Boulder). Is Down an exotic American? Did she travel to New Mexico as an exchange student? Or is she just Streeping ahead? Then we’re in Sheffield, UK, with passing references to High Bradfield, Castleton, and Hathersage; then Elizabethton—back in the States again with a staggering list of locations for a short story—a “titty bar” in Johnson City, Carver’s Gap, Engine Gap, the Tennessee-North Carolina state line, the Appalachians (of course, such a poetic name), Louisiana, Florida, Gainesville, Yellow Mountain Gap, and Roaring Creek; then back to Australia and Victoria’s Hazelwood (coalmines are bad), Omeo, Hotham (“Franca hated driving the Great Alpine Road at night”—each place name is a little ad—Juniper would imagine a Lexus climbing the mountain), Traralgon, Paynesville, Doctors Flat, Bruthen, Sale (are you bored yet? I was, but it’s all in the name of authenticity); then back to the States again with “Tacoma to Portland”, Mount St Helens (do locals refer to it thus?), Mt Scott, Woodstock, Disneyland, Anaheim, Palos Verdes, Berkeley (of course), Toluca Lake, Eugene (each of these places is a big world and not just a name to toss off), Granta Pass (I find myself scanning ahead), Brookings (this tic is driving me mad), Astoria, Sacremento, SFO, Ukiah, Cannery Row, Big Sur, Cedars-Sinai (of course), the Becker Building (who taught this writing workshop?), Wichita (where’s the linesman?), and Mulholland (again, of course).
This is a proper noun orgy. The last twenty or so place names appear in one short story, ‘Vox Clamantis’. There’s even a reference to Winona, which puts readers in mind of the controversy over ‘Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver’ and David Pirner’s counter-song ‘Les Claypool’s a Big Fucking Asshole’, which puts me in mind of Aicha Marhfour. After hearing Down drop the name ‘Big Sur’, the reader is also put in mind of The Bold and the Beautiful, and the category of ‘Soap Opera’ is not unfitting.
What exactly is it that is irritating about the exaggerated internationalism of Pulse Points? Does Down have a big Tennessean readership? If not, why is she writing about it for her small OZ audience? Not to simply show what a precocious and protean being she is, I hope. I pray it’s not all actressy gestures with little substance. But let’s examine.
I think the presentation of an almost endless list of place names is a tic learned at a writing workshop. The teacher, let’s call her Jilly Kostel, instructs her class, when she breaks through her debilitating social anxiety disorder, to “use place names to establish a high degree of authenticity” and to “juxtapose the quotidian and the profound”. Juniper, Year 12 English and Theatre dynamo, soaked it all up and then applied it small-l liberally. She took the formulas and looked for the formula under all of them until she had it. Not only did she juxtapose the quotidian and the profound, but the catastrophic and the commonplace, and then the grandiose with the unimposing. But somehow it still felt like the School of Garner or the School of Munro. What to do?
Go deeper, polish those common pebbles even more until they glisten like gems. Complete a detailed domestic portrait in under 10,000 words, in under 5,000, in under 5. Use place names, of course, so something as simple as ‘Inner-City Melbourne’ conjures everything one needs to know about a fictional world, or indeed this book. That place name, ‘Inner-city Melbourne’, does a lot of work, like all clichés, like that line about cracks and light that everyone uttered when Cohen died.
Go further still, locate the narrative voice in a curtain or a cardboard box and write your finely calibrated miniature from that perspective, only a billowing curtain and a crumpled box would better capture the pathos of the world and this author, a billowing “net curtain” at “the cooling hour”. Why stop at being a young woman who writes so perceptively from Ramesh’s, the middle-aged #SSM supporter’s, POV? Be the lost son Ramesh never had with the lesbian couple he never met. That might capture the spirit of the times, l’esprit du temps that is 21st Century Melbourne.
Down uses the word ‘bleachers’ ten times to conjure Main St USA, and ‘net curtain’ twelve times, around about. She drops the ‘al’ in ‘almost’ to give us “I would have done most anything he’d asked” for the same reason.
There’s one autobiographical moment when she refers to bad sinuses and a really snotty nose.
But the Big Problem for Down is that there’s no existential insight into all the human trials she plates up. There’s no breaking of new ground in emotional experience, no power of movement through difficult stuff. What is being achieved or prosecuted here? Where’s the judgment? She doesn’t even pursue conceits, merely a style. It’s a twig on the lighter branches of literature. It’s a technology, an algorithm, and a decidedly commercial one.
Inner-city gentrification is an antibiotic that destroys all flora. All of Pulse Point’s working-class signalling is just a pose set against its jet-set aspirations. The drinking and drugging is an affectation too because people who are serious about it don’t advertise what they’re plugging on Twitter. Bad won’t do. Bad might get in. Bad might bring Worse—that’s what the publishers feel.
Literature is gentrified in Australia, more precisely ladified. And this is where I would go on about how feminised OZLit. is, but not today. This isn’t Women’s Lit., it’s Ladies Lit., even though it says ‘fuck’ and she makes jokes about ‘sweaty vags’ and it offers the horror of vomiting girls being gangbanged. It’s clickbait sensationalism in a pretty frock. It’s Laura Ashley Literature. It’s Taylor Swift.
The book’s cover has only the author’s name and the title on it, plus “Sydney Morning Herald Young Novelist of the Year, 2017”. With fewer words, each word has greater weight. The problem is those words don’t acknowledge that she’s one of four Young Novelists of the Year, which tempers the lone comet pitch. It does convey she’s young and talented. Novelists of the Year are like Poets of the Month, who knows where they’ll end up. But in her ‘Acknowledgements’ she says she’s “championed” by Michael Heywood, so everything’s going to turn out all right. Champions are championed, right?
Let’s get past the problem that all the narrators sound the same and one can’t fathom why the story has been told after one has read it. Let’s get past the narrator who messiah-like brings a dying woman briefly back to life. Let’s forget that at one point we are in a scene with Michelle Pfeiffer from Dangerous Minds.
Let’s remember that the final story shows just how far she has come. Let’s remember that she delivers consistently high-quality prose and that there’s a reason she won a prestigious award. Down displays in this collection and on Twitter a striking sensibility and a good eye. Her output is great for a twenty-six-year-old. She works hard.
It must be perplexing to walk around Melbourne at twenty-six being absolutely admired by friends and strangers alike. You must feel like you’re getting away with it, that, surreally, you’re walking the streets with blood on your hands and no one will mention it.
Genius overcomes itself, and comes over itself sometimes too.
This review, my no-nonsense-bad-Daddy-saying-what-needs-to-be-said review, might be sourced to a sexual desire for women in their twenties. I want to lie in Melbourne lofts with them, and after surprisingly wild sex hear them talk about peach-flavoured coffee and the other interesting artisanal products they’ve encountered that week at the markets. I want to be there when they write he “kissed me with his devastated, expensive wine mouth”. In sunlit oxycodone-bombed mornings, she will wander downstairs, pass the billowing net curtains, and return with my poached eggs. When she sits down to write, she will know that I’m the boss. She’ll know that I’ve known her. (By the way, I have expensive wine mouth every morning and have developed serious French teeth, which revolts the hip chicks at The Espy. Then I mention my new book contract and watch their minds tick as they recalibrate their interest. I always win.)
She will know that I have known her. And this is where I pose the question, can literary criticism be a bit ‘rapey’? I do not like that Gen-Y word, and prefer ‘lecherous’. Yes, I think it can be lecherous. Who doesn’t, as they write, have in mind the author they write about, and are not sexual assessments made. I often have a different inner feeling when I write about Zadie Smith than when I write about Frank Moorhouse, or when I think of Dorothy Porter instead of Thomas Keneally. Such are my morning shower reveries. It moves the other way too: the writing of Hilary Mantel invigorates my picture of her, while the photos of ex-Myer model Tara Moss are not enhanced by her literary output. As for Jennifer Down, she’s pretty on both accounts. But who’s that woman up the back with the dirty teeth and lazy eye, and what’s she muttering into her page?