Adam Cullen (1965-2012) was a controversial Australian artist who destroyed himself with alcohol and drugs. Six years ago, Cullen asked nineteen year-old journalist Erik Jensen to live with him for a year to write his biography. Last year, the book appeared – Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen, a story in which life and death do seem to have equal weight.
Jensen begins the book with an intriguing email exchange with the man who mentored Cullen, Dale Frank. In it, Frank expresses his unease at Jensen’s biographical project, questioning Jensen’s motives and the interpretation he will put on Cullen’s life.
I suspect your concern is to wonder why a book might be written about Adam at all: Whether I might be a hatchet man looking to dress up a corpse, or an acolyte looking for stories to embroider a myth. I hope I am neither. I am not writing about Adam because of his art, although that was obviously why he called me in the first place. I am writing a character study in which art – in the end – is not the most important part. (Kindle loc. 99-101)
This prologue serves as an explanation of Jensen’s approach to the book, and does it in a far more effective way that a conventional one addressed to the reader. Yet Frank himself disappears from the book, at odds with the prologue’s promise of an ongoing conversation.
Indeed, even Jensen is less present in the narrative than I expected, given all the attention in reviews and interviews to his part in the story – and particularly the fact that Cullen shot him in the leg and threw him from a motorbike, incidents which make sense in their context. I had expected that this book would be a memoir of the time Jensen lived with him, but instead he steps back from the story after a chapter about that time, and keeps the focus on Cullen.
The structure is topical, with only a loose sense of chronology, as we begin with the story of Cullen’s funeral, and then read chapters on things such as drugs, art, his mother, his father. The loss of chronology diminishes the sense of narrative but suits Cullen’s character, giving a sense of a perpetual messed-up present of delusion, lies, and self-destruction. I was contemplating a topical approach to my own biography, but I don’t think it would work for most subjects. Even here I’m not convinced if the trade-off is worth it.
Acute Misfortune reminds me of Roger Lewis’s biography of Anthony Burgess, in which the biographer catalogues the lies and egotistical delusions of the British writer. I couldn’t finish Lewis’s book; it was witty and insightful and artfully written, yet he had already demolished Burgess so thoroughly in the first hundred pages my desire to read on dried up. Jensen’s book is only the same in that it is so concerned with exposing the delusions of its subject. Jensen’s aim, though, truly does seem to be a study of character, as well as a journalistic desire to tell this story. Lewis’s motivation is revenge for his own disillusionment with the man he once idolised.
I had the privilege of hearing Jensen speak at the Perth Writers’ Festival. He is an impressive speaker, quietly insightful. There’s always a moment of dread when the questions from the audience start, and the first one thrown at him was a grenade from a woman who demanded to know why anyone could believe a word he had written when he stayed with a man who had shot him. Her hostility was so uncomfortable. He fielded the question gracefully, mentioning, I think, he himself had been drinking a lot at the time. The woman needs to read the book; then she can answer for herself.