Megan Dunn, Tinderbox

Galley Beggar, 151pp, £12.00, ISBN 9781910296844

reviewed by James Cook

About halfway through Megan Dunn’s memoir, Tinderbox, there is a scene in which she recalls her interview for a master’s in creative writing at the University of East Anglia. Her questioner, the acclaimed novelist and poet Michèle Roberts, offers aspiring author Dunn a sage piece of writing advice: ‘Play with your shit’. This she does, metaphorically speaking, throughout 150 pages of this wonderful, restless, formally daring first book.

Tinderbox is such a shape-shifter, such a sui generis work, that to call it a memoir does it a disservice. The bare facts of its narrative are this: from 2001 to 2009, Megan Dunn, a twenty-something New Zealander, was living in London, working for the ailing bookseller Borders, where she was ‘not happy to help’. She was homesick, her visa marriage to a young Irish actor named Mickey was faltering, and she was struggling to write a fictional, feminist riposte to Ray Bradbury’s 1953 sci-fi classic, Fahrenheit 451. However, Tinderbox is also an account of Dunn attempting to pen a satirical romance, ‘The Borders of Love’, while at work, to assuage the tedium of dealing with inane customer queries, and Jodi Picoult novels which felt ‘about as sincere as a cheeseburger’. In addition, Tinderbox is also a record of writing the book Tinderbox. ‘Sounds a bit meta’, as a male character says later in the book, when Dunn attempts to describe Tinderbox to him.

And it is all a bit meta. In the hands of a less assured author it might have been a failure. But Dunn pulls it off because her voice is hard to resist – sardonic, brazen, sagacious – recalling, in places, Nora Ephron, John Jeremiah Sullivan, and Maggie Nelson. Essentially, she’s an entertainer: ‘I know what temperature books burn at. Half price’, runs the trademark Galley Beggar pull-quote on the cover, and the reader has a fairly good idea of what they are in for. Or so they might think.

While handy with a one-liner, Dunn also reveals winning touches of vulnerability. The description of her break-up with Mickey has the former in abundance (‘sometimes love doesn’t return from a Ryanair holiday’), but also the latter – ‘You’ve been my family to me here’, she says, tearfully, as they part in a café, a beautifully controlled, bittersweet piece of writing. Dunn’s elliptical account of her relationship with her bookish father is equally moving. ‘Dad’s colours were blue and grey and his silences were this colour too, because with reading there’s always silence’. Familial tension is merely hinted at here, and the passage is all the more powerful for it.

Dunn is great noticer, and Tinderbox is rich with memorably conflated images. The tail fires of Gulf War missiles seen on television, and the after-dark eyes in the Big Brother house, are both ‘mint green’. London is vividly evoked: Dalston, with its pale chickens hanging in the market, the soot on buses, terrible flats, and the mice on the underground platforms with ‘their smoky backs’ the colour of ‘smudged pencil’. As any Londoner knows, this is the precise colour of a TFL mouse.

But it is Dunn’s exploration of Fahrenheit 451 that forms the spine of Tinderbox. She begins with Bradbury writing his book on a pay-by-the-hour typewriter in the UCLA library during the early 1950s. This provides her with the Vonnegutian tic, ‘the timer went off’, which closes many scenes (especially useful for situations about to come to an end – jobs, marriages, et cetera). Frustrated with the novel, she investigates the 1966 Francois Truffaut film version, starring Julie Christie and Oskar Werner, and here begins a system of motifs and themes as complex as any to be found in a 1970s Nicolas Roeg film (fittingly, he was the director of photography on Fahrenheit 451). Seashells, coins in slots, hairstyles (Dunn is preoccupied with Julie Christie’s hair: ‘at best Christie’s [character] Clarisse deserved a B minus. But at least her haircut was always an A plus’), the twin towers, Dostoevsky, and, of course, fire. No reference is accidental: embers, smoke, fire extinguishers, Hans Christian Andersen’s stories ‘The Little Match Girl’ and ‘The Tinderbox’, even Kindle reading devices are woven seamlessly into the narrative. In these segments the prose becomes filmic, scenes echo other scenes; Julie and Oskar become Megan and Mickey, superimpose, change places like Mick Jagger and James Fox in Roeg’s Performance.

If all this intricacy sounds daunting, Dunn’s wry humour and eye for the absurd keeps the writing grounded. (One day in the shop, a woman asks Dunn if they have The Story of Pee. She means The Life of Pi.) By 2005, with poor, doomed Borders diversifying (fridges full of soft drinks by the tills gurgling away), yet unable to lose its dated ‘whiff of the Friends generation’, Dunn moves to the Norwich branch to work, and to begin her master’s. The end comes in Kingston, four years later, where they are ‘re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic’. A closing down sale with ‘conga lines of shoppers driven insane by bargains’ concludes with Dunn telling a young couple convinced they have been cheated out of 2p that she doesn’t ‘give a fuck’. It’s a fitting denouement to the best account of working in a bookshop since Orwell’s essay ‘Bookshop Memories’.

Towards the end of Tinderbox, Dunn moves back to New Zealand with few sentimental feelings towards her old job. ‘No one in their right mind can pity the demise of a chain store’. But we do – or miss it, at least – largely because we have travelled with Dunn on her arduous journey, an odyssey which leads to her hatching the idea for Tinderbox.

While Dunn’s voice can occasionally be overwhelming, reservations are few. The ‘timer went off’ motif may be slightly overused, but it nearly always succeeds; like Vonnegut’s ‘so it goes’, serving to add different shades of meaning to what has immediately preceded it. During her many years at Borders, inhaling the fumes from the shrink-wrap gun, dodging snooping bosses and public drinkers using the staff toilets, Dunn would perhaps have wearily shelved a good many books with the adjective ‘dazzling’ as a cover quote. Tinderbox is genuinely dazzling. Or rather, to keep within its thematic framework – smokin’.
James Cook is an assistant editor at Review 31 and the author of Memory Songs: A Personal Journey into the Music that Shaped the 90s.