Reviewed: Wall, Jen Craig, Puncher & Wattmann
Jen Craig’s new novel, Wall, is a powerful exploration of an artist’s need to explain herself and to be understood by herself and others. Written in the form of two long monologues addressed to her partner, we learn that the unnamed narrator is in Sydney from overseas to clear her dead father’s house of the junk he refused to ever throw away, and that she intends to convert some of the detritus into an art installation in the style of the Chinese conceptual artist Song Dong.
Particularly relevant to understanding this book is Song’s exhibition, Waste Not (2005), which collected and displayed 10,000 items belonging to his mother, and which she kept up until her death, thinking they might have been of use later. In the installation, Song meticulously arranged the objects (which ranged from empty tubes of toothpaste and old nubs of soap to household items like cutlery and cookware) into neatly organized rows and groupings. Waste Not was a presentation of Song’s mother’s existence to the audience, a glimpse into her mind. He later remarked of the exhibition that in a way his mother continued to live through it. There is an easy parallel to be drawn here to Wall’s narrator—her father was a hoarder, and through her changing attitude towards the objects in his home as she clears it, we witness her grief and her desire to feel closeness to him, even if it was impossible in life. In one poignant moment, she writes that ‘this place, this house, isn’t all dead yet’.
The reference to Song’s art goes further than being merely Craig’s narrative vehicle for exploring the narrator’s relationships to art and her family, however. If Song’s sculptural works consist of meticulous arrangements of many objects into orderly arrays, this novel—which packs the narrator’s entire world into under two hundred pages—can equally be considered a similar style of artwork. Wall encompasses the narrator’s full set of thoughts, loose associations, memories, and emotions. In this sense, the book is full of clutter, arranged into a meticulously complex edifice demanding full attention from the reader.
Despite Wall’s narrative density, Craig and her narrator are unhurried as the book meanders its way through its many turns, beginning with her artistic aspirations, through her family relationships to her rivalries with her art-world friends and the fraught relationship with her art school mentor. This encourages us to sit with the narrator’s thoughts while her attention drifts across the tangled web of her relationships. Ultimately, what continues to propel and buoy the narrator are her artistic aspirations. As she deals with the objects in her father’s home, the narrator finds a renewed confidence in herself and her artistic vision.
It’s impossible to give a full account of this novel in succinct terms, which is ironic considering the book itself is slim. In Wall, Craig goes to great lengths to dig deep into her narrator’s inner life. Even though the book makes high demands on the reader’s attention, and its loose pacing can feel frustrating in its expansiveness, readers are richly rewarded for the effort. This is a book about grief and artistic achievement and the way in which art cannot be separated from life, and its vast ambition and meticulous execution will reward rereading.