Reading Stanley Crawford’s Log of the S.S. The Mrs Unguentine
1972 was a difficult year for the novel. This might—and perhaps should—be said of all years and times, since the novel is forever, genetically, finding everything a struggle and all things difficult (I think we’re supposed to be worried when the novel does not do this). But 1972 was particularly special in its overshadowing, domineering, mattering way. It was a year that refused to cede an inch to the make-believe. The merely imaginary might finally have seemed trifling up against some of the defining and grisly moments of the century that collided that year and chewed up every available dose of attention in the culture. 1972, in short, produced the Watergate scandal, the Munich Massacre, and Bloody Sunday. Nixon traveled to China in 1972, and the last U.S. troops finally departed Vietnam. It wasn’t clear that a novel had leverage against all of this atrocity, deceit, transgression, and milestone, let alone a novel posing as a ship’s log, narrated by a widowed ship slave who has witnessed logic-defying architecture, radical ecological invention, and faked a pregnancy while being banished—by her alcoholic, abusive husband—from all land and humanity.
Forget that painting (or sculpture, or the better poetry) was never asked to compete with the news, or to be the news. The novel’s weird burden of relevance—to reflect and anticipate the times, to grab headlines, to be somehow current, while not also disgracing the language—was being shirked all over the place, and Stanley Crawford, already unusually capable of uncoiling his brain and repacking it in his head in a new, gnarled design for every book he wrote, was chief among those writers who seemed siloed in a special, ahistorical field, working with private alchemical tools, producing work just out of tune enough to disrupt the flight of the birds that passed his hideout.
Architectural dreamwork, end-times seascapes so barren they seem cut from the pages of the Bible, coolly-rendered Rube Goldberg apparati, and the crushing sadness that results when you tie your emotional fortunes to a person whose tongue is so fat in his mouth he can barely speak, mark this little masterpiece of a novel. Cast as a soliloquy in the form of a ship’s log, a grief report from someone who has no good insurance she will ever be heard, the novel moves fluidly between its major forms: love song, a treatise on gardening at sea, an argument against the company of others, and a dark science expo for exquisite inventions like a hybrid lichen that makes things invisible. Published by Alfred A. Knopf under the editorial guidance of Gordon Lish, the fiction world’s singular Quixote—a champion of innovative styles and formal ambition—there may have been no better year in which to tuck such an odd, exquisite book. Instead of rushing for relevance and breaking the news, Crawford was taking the oldest news of all—it is strange and alone here, even when we are surrounded by people, and there is a great degree of pain to be felt—and reporting it as nautical confessional. The result, now thirty-six years later, seems to prove that interior news, the news of what it feels like to want too much from another person, will not readily smother under archival dust . . .
—from Ben Marcus’ afterword to Log of the S.S. Mrs Unguentine
The complete text of log of the s.s. mrs unguentine is here.
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