Book review: Felix Culpa by Jeremy Gavron

Jeremy Gavron’s seventh book, Felix Culpa follows an unnamed narrator who fills his directionless days as writer-in-residence in a men’s prison. When the dead body of teenager Felix, a recently released inmate of the prison, inexplicably turns up in the north of England, the writer becomes obsessed with solving the mystery of his death. His detective work leads him on the boy’s trail, collecting clues about his shadowy life. Like the narrator, the reader of this experimental novel is obliged to wrestle with the ghosts and gaps in this story.

‘Felix Culpa’ means ‘fortunate fall’ in Latin, a reference to original sin. Gavron uses this biblical framework as a unifying structure; just as man’s expulsion from Eden is redeemed by the coming of Christ, so too the writer finds his moorings via his subject, the fallen boy, Felix. Gavron deconstructs his narrative scaffold to untangle the guts of story-telling; to high-jack an old cliche: stories are like sausages, it’s best not to see either of them being made.

‘Never open a book with weather. Never use the word ‘suddenly’. If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.’ Elmore Leonard’s rules of writing open Felix Culpa. These rules are immediately contested: ‘But what if a story begins with weather? What if a writer goes to work in a prison in a long gypsy summer and the world turns? Suddenly turns.’ Subversion of form is signaled from the outset of Gavron’s novel, a pastiche, with most of its constituent sentences lifted from around one hundred works of fiction. The effect is a mosaic gaping with cracked and missing tiles. The eighty authors it draws from are canonical: Calvino, Chandler, Dickens, Fitzgerald, Nabokov, a heavy dose of Cormac McCarthy and a sprinkling of women. The author’s note tells us that fourteen of the thirty-three chapters are made up entirely of sourced lines, which begs the question: why not the whole book?

Chapter three opens with more of Elmore’s rules: ‘Use regional dialect, patois sparingly. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. Leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.’ Each sentence in the novel is spaced as a stand-alone paragraph. This parade of solitary lines causes the reader to pause; it is reminiscent of reading poetry. The chapter continues, ‘But which parts are these exactly? And which readers? And what if these are the parts that prevail on a writer?’ By facing off against the rules, Gavron turns storytelling into an artifice; he shifts reading into a self-conscious act by making the reader work. When the narrator’s quest eventually follows Felix’s trail north, his own narrative bleeds into the boy’s. Gavron is asking us to consider if this story is of the writer or the subject, if we are readers or co-authors.

Within the constraints of working with mostly borrowed words and in only 191 pages, Gavron weaves a faint thread of plot, builds hints of characterisation and succeeds in creating atmosphere. The chill of the northern wilderness comes through via descriptions of landscape; solitude is echoed by the novel’s spare prose. Felix Culpa keeps the reader at an emotional distance, making the novel feel like an intellectual exercise. In music and visual arts, sampling and remixing is an established artistic practice, in writing it is still regarded as a dirty business. With Felix Culpa, Gavron opens up the chance to create a Warhol-esque cut and paste of the literary canon that is not quite realised. While the novel raises interesting questions about storytelling it falls short of its potential to subvert genre. What might have been a satisfying meal, in the end, is more like a tasting plate.

Things That Helped: book review

Jessica Friedmann’s book, Things That Helped, deftly threads essay, memoir and critical theory through the despair of Friedmann’s post-natal depression to weave an impressive debut. 

Friedmann reflects on her experience of motherhood with the benefit of distance, both geographic and temporal. She now lives and writes in Canberra, anchored in an inland city far removed from Melbourne’s Maribyrnong river where she fantasised about drowning herself. The cool, calm river a siren calling her from her misery towards annihilation.

While Friedmann’s focus is her post-natal depression, her essays radiate out across art, feminism, music, the environment, marriage and race. It is an enthralling journey through her expansive knowledge and sharp mind. This isn’t a 10-step recovery narrative. It is a 12-chapter chipping away at the edifice of depression, each chapter offering a thing that helped.

Emily Laidlaw and Kara Nicholson both place Friedmann’s book alongside Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and Fiona Wright’s Small Acts of Disappearance as stablemates in genre. I found Nelson’s dense critical theory a hard slog. In contrast, Friedmann wears her theory delicately. It never weighs her writing down. Like Wright in her exploration of anorexia, Friedmann deconstructs her mental health struggle honestly in all of its complicated mess. Neither Wright nor Friedmann offer easy answers, instead they raise difficult questions about being a woman. 

They simultaneously hold up a mirror to themselves and to society, laying bare the imperfections of both.

It is a revelation to watch the recent emergence of women’s writing on mental health from Australian writers such as Friedmann, Wright and Anna Spargo-Ryan. Their important narratives open up room for discussion and better understanding of the experiences of the many women wrestling mental health challenges. This kind of writing can save people.