‘Acute Misfortune’ by Erik Jensen – The Monthly Book

October 2014

Welcome to the Monthly Book.

Each month Ramona Koval chooses a book, provides reading notes and posts a video interview.

Acute Misfortune: The life and death of Adam Cullen – Erik Jensen

This month’s Monthly Book is Erik Jensen’s Acute Misfortune: The life and death of Adam Cullen (Black Inc.). This is Jensen’s first book, a finely written account of the self-destructive, charismatic Australian painter who won the Archibald Prize for portraiture in 2000 and died in pitiful circumstances 12 years later at the age of 46.

The first chapter of this episodic book is called ‘Death’ and begins with the line “Coffins weigh more than you expect.” The biographer is one of the pallbearers at Adam Cullen’s funeral, and the fact of the artist’s death is the ever-present shadow through the rest of Acute Misfortune.

Erik Jensen was only 19, a journalist at the Sydney Morning Herald, when he was assigned to interview Cullen, who by then was well known for his antics designed to shock and his willingness to offer a pithy quote. After the article was published, Jensen received a phone call from the artist: would he like to write a biography that had been contracted to a publisher? Flattered and intrigued, the young man agreed, and thus began years of Jensen arriving at Cullen’s squalid home in the Blue Mountains, armed with his shorthand notebook, to interview his subject.

But this is no orderly biographical study, for Cullen has a thirst for alcohol, for drugs of many kinds, for guns, for mythmaking and celebrity, and for approval. In our interview, Jensen says, “I was frustrated at times by his self-destruction, by the fact that there was this horrible inevitability to the entire time that I knew him.” Jensen discovers there is no contract for the book and that the image the artist projects as an original and precise thinker is a rehearsed act, “the Adam Cullen Show”. And Jensen comes to understand that the ambivalence for women that Cullen expressed in his paintings and personal relationships masks a kind of love and sexual longing for the biographer himself.

Jensen describes Cullen’s life and death in unflinching and elegant prose. Jensen’s method was one of immersion: he stayed with Cullen in his home; he witnessed drug deals, endless hangovers and bouts of serious illness; he interviewed Cullen’s parents, friends and associates; and his relationship with his subject became so strained that at the end of Cullen’s life, Jensen avoided his calls.

As Jensen tells me:

“I was interested in journalism that required some endurance. And with Adam, he pushed that much further than I would have liked it to have gone. But I took also as my model something that he said about his own painting. He said that he painted human car crashes, and while everyone wanted to see the car crash, no one wanted to go up close, but he did, and he kept his eyes open and saw the blood. And any time he tried to make me blink, to test my resolve, I just refused to recoil. I probably wouldn’t have the same resilience now as I did when I was 19, but I wanted to write this book that went up close, and that didn’t blink, and that couldn’t be shocked.”

Did Jensen really have to stay in Cullen’s house, sleeping in a room with dried vomit on the rug? How close can a writer get to his subject without changing the very parameters of the subject’s personality? How should we respond to the myth of the tormented artist? If you have a happy childhood, should you manufacture an unhappy adulthood to be able to plumb the depths of your soul?

Acute Misfortune is told with wit, perception and empathy by a young and gifted writer, and I’m happy to introduce it to you as the Monthly Book for October.

Watch the interview

Read the transcript