Rebecca Varcoe on Jennifer Down's Pulse Points, and the complexity of critiquing the work of a person who exists in your real life too.
It’s really hard to write a review of a book written by someone you know. I don’t even know if you can – or should. I’ve written before about my thoughts on criticism, and how to approach reviewing literature, though that time it was in the context of comedy writing. I was writing that piece because I loved comedy, and wasn’t sure how to judge a book that judged comedy. I’m writing this piece because I loved Jennifer Down’s Pulse Points – but am I also writing it because I love Jenn? It seems it’s a recurring dilemma.
I first came across Jenn’s writing on Tumblr, years ago. We followed each other – I’m not sure why, I don’t even remember what I would post on mine. She’d post excerpts of her writing, some of the pieces of which turn up in Pulse Points. Reading the collection, newly released this week, made me feel warm and weird, knowing that I’d read parts of this book before – I felt like I was somehow more connected to those bits. I’d read Aokigahara, the story that opens Pulse Points, and Coarsegold, the one that closes it, back when they were originally published. I followed what she published closely, not because I knew of her, but because I really, genuinely liked her work. I remember a friend remarking one time "But she’s really good", as if it was a surprise someone we knew actually would or could be, which is odd given we both worked in creative fields.
But it’s true, she’s actually good – and if you didn’t know it from her debut, Our Magic Hour, it’s so, so evident in Pulse Points. It’s not just me who thinks she’s a great writer; reading the list of awards Jenn’s received out loud to my boyfriend was met with impressed, arched eyebrows – he’d met her as the Jenn sitting on my living room floor the night he had to rush out to replace the botched dinner I was cooking for her and Laura (who I could write a thousand essays on), and I was listing off her achievements to him like she was a celebrity. Her publisher, Text, are so impressed, they have already gotten her to sign on for her third book. She’s twenty seven.
Are accolades what proves work is good? If you don’t win a prize, if your publisher doesn’t adore you, can your writing still be good? Certainly. I’m not suggesting otherwise, but rather trying to come to grips with the talent of someone who I know as my incredibly normal, witty, kind, friend. It’s so strange to be moved to tears by a single sentence in a story and know that the girl you scoffed two-minute noodles with in a hotel in Newcastle wrote it. To read a heartbreaking story and marvel that she was able to craft it sitting at the desk between the two windows in her room, next to that floppy lean-y Monstera she’s got, writing outside of the long, stressful work hours I know she works.
I’m certainly one to sentimentalize and I do adore my friends. I am vocal and earnest in my love of them and I am constantly overwhelmed by the talent, grace and success of those around me. But it’s tricky to read something and feel like it’s becoming one of the best things you’ve read, and to try and work out if that is an authentic feeling – to try and work out how much of this is Jenn my friend and how much is this a talented author who stands on their own.
I think there are a few things that can go in Pulse Points' ‘independently good’ evidence pile.
The way she writes dialogue that doesn’t make me roll my eyes, or pause, or remove myself from the story. She moves flawlessly between working mums out near Hazelwood to teen girls in rural America. She uses words like ‘crook’ and ‘knackered’ and ‘vag’ in a way that isn’t cringey, or trying too hard to be Australian.
It’s not just the dialogue that feels familiar either – she uses places like the rural highways you drive up the east coast of Australia, the Dish, pit-stop Motels. There’s subtle class stuff that hits so close to home - expats in London saying things like ‘you can’t not trust him because he went to University. You’re like a reverse-snob’; dads skeptical of their daughter’s Uni-taught feminism, describing Omeo as a place rich people stop off at on their way to the snow.
Even though the characters are often moving (literally and figuratively) - walking in St Kilda, driving in a stranger’s car in Japan, travelling between Jerilderee and Canberra, catching the Metro in Paris – Jenn captures them in tiny details and with sharp perspective. As a person with anxiety, even though I didn’t know much about the main character in Eternal Father, when Jenn writes “She’s gentle, but I can decode what she means: I want us to have a good night but I’m scared you’ll freak out and I’ll be too drunk to look after you properly but someone should” I know all about her. Jenn is an Australian woman, but she writes a teen boy having an affair with his teacher like she is one – and he’s rendered in just a few lines.
The tiny details in Pulse Points killed me and made me think about how much Jenn must notice and take on the very small things. Couples coordinating lunch breaks; a rest stop dining table smeared with dishcloth streaks; an Ansett duffel bag; “the catch of my toenail on the bedsheets”. I don’t know how to articulate anything better than those tiny bites.
I could keep going on and on about every little element. Pulse Points isn’t just made up of technical proficiencies and clever motifs, it is a quick heartbeat. It’s a bus ride on a Greyhound when it’s raining outside. It’s a foggy brain with a lightning crack sting. Jenn’s not just a good writer and a smart storyteller – she’s generous, she’s hardworking, she’s funny as hell, and she’s my friend.
Buy my friend’s book, Pulse Points. You won’t regret it.
Rebecca Varcoe is an arts and culture writer from Melbourne, and the editor of print humour journal, Funny Ha Ha.