a bit more on stanley crawford’s log of the s.s. the mrs unguentine

Reading Stanley Crawford’s Log of the S.S. The Mrs Unguentine
Ben Marcus

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


two short stories from gordon lish

(captain Fiction making serious,
for once).


The Death Of Me

 

I WANTED TO BE AMAZING. I wanted to be so amazing. I had already been amazing up to a certain point. But I was tired of being at that point. I wanted to go past that point. I wanted to be more amazing than I had been up to that point. I wanted to do something which went beyond that point and which went beyond every other point and which people would look at and say that this was something which went beyond all other points and which no other boy would ever be able to go beyond, that I was the only boy who could, that I was the only one. 

 I was going to a day camp which was called the Peninsula Athletes Day Camp and which at the end of the summer had an all-campers, all-parents, all-sports field day which was made up of five different field events, and all of the campers had to take part in all five of all of the five different field events, and I was the winner in all five of the five different field events, I was the winner in every single field event, I came in first place in every one of the five different field events–so that the head of the camp and the camp counselors and the other campers and the other mothers and the other fathers and my mother and my father all saw that I was the best camper in the Peninsula Athletes Day Camp, the best in the short run and the best in the long run and the best in the high jump and the best in the broad jump and the best in the event which the Peninsula Athletes Day Camp called the ball-throw, which was where you had to go up to a chalk line and then put your toe on the chalk line and not go over the chalk line and then go ahead and throw the ball as far as you could throw. 

 I did.

 I won.

 It was 1944 and I was ten years old and I was better than all of the other boys at that camp and probably all of the boys at any other camp and all of the boys everywhere else. 

 I felt more wonderful than I had ever felt. I felt so thrilled with myself. I felt like God was whispering things to me inside of my head to me. I felt like God was asking me for me to have a special secret with him or for me to have a secret arrangement with him and that I had better keep on listening to his secret recommendations to me inside of my head. I felt like God was telling me to realize that he had made me the most unusual member of the human race and that he was going to need for me to be ready for him for me to go to work for him at any minute for him on whatever thing he said. 

 They gave me a piece of stiff cloth which was in the shape of a shield and which was in the camp colors and which had five blue stars on it. They said that I was the only boy ever to get a shield with as many as that many stars on it. They said that it was unheard-of for any boy ever to get as many as that many stars on it. But I could already feel that I was forgetting what it felt like for somebody to do something which would get you a shield with as many as that many stars on it. I could feel myself forgetting and I could feel everybody else forgetting–even my mother and father and God forgetting. It was just a little while afterwards, but I could tell that everybody was already forgetting everything about it–that the head of the camp was and the camp counselors were and the other campers were and that the other mothers and the other fathers were and that my mother and my father were and that even that I myself was, even though I was trying with all of my might for me to be the one person who never would. 

 I felt like God was ashamed of me. I felt like God was sorry that I was the one which he had picked out and that he was getting ready for him to make a new choice and for him to choose another boy instead of me and that I had to hurry up before God did it, that I had to be quick about showing God that I could be just as amazing again as I used to be and that I could do something, do anything, else. 

 It was August. 

 I was feeling the strangest feeling that I have ever felt. I was standing there with my parents and with all of the people who had come there for the field day and I was feeling the strangest feeling which I have ever felt. 

 I felt like lying down on the field. I felt like killing all of the people. I felt like going to sleep and staying asleep until someone came and told me that my parents were dead and that I was all grown up and that there was a new God in heaven and that he liked me better than even than the old God had. 

 My parents kept asking me where did I want to go now and what did I want to do. My parents kept trying to get me to tell them where I thought we should all of us go now and what was the next thing for us as a family to do. My parents kept saying they wanted for me to be the one to make up my mind if we should all of us go someplace special now and what was the best thing for the family, as a family, to do. But I did not know what they meant–do, do, do? 

 My father took the shield away from me and held it in his hands and kept turning it over in his hands and kept looking at the shield in his hands and kept feeling the shield with his hands and kept saying that it was made of buckram and of felt. My father kept saying did we know that it was just something which they had put together out of buckram and of felt. My father kept saying that the shield was of a very nice quality of buckram and of felt but that we should make every effort for us not to ever get it wet because it would run all over itself, buckram and felt. 

 I did not know what to do. 

I could tell my parents did not know what to do. 

We just stood around with the people all around all going away to all of the vehicles that were going to take them to places and I could tell that we did not, as a family, know if it was time for us to go. 

The head of the camp came over and said that he wanted to shake my hand again and to shake the hands of the people who were responsible for giving the Peninsula Athletes Day Camp such an outstanding young individual and such a talented young athlete as my mother and father had. 

He shook my hand again. 

It made me feel dizzy and nearly asleep. 

I saw my mother and my father get their hands ready I saw my father get the shield out of the hand that he thought he was going to need for him to have his hand ready to shake the hand of the head of the camp. I saw my mother take her purse and do the same thing. But the head of the camp just kept shaking my hand, and my mother and my father just kept saying thank you to him, and then the head of the camp let go of my hand and took my father’s elbow with one hand and then touched my father on the shoulder with the other hand and then said that we were certainly the very finest of people, and then–he did this, he did this!–and then he went away.

 

 

The merry chase 

 

Don’t tell me. Do me a favor and let me guess. Be honest with me, tell the truth, don’t make me laugh. Tell me, don’t make me have to tell you, do I have to tell you that when you’re hot, you’re hot, that when you’re dead, you’re dead? Because you know what I know? I know you like I know myself, I know you like the back of my hand, I know you like a book, I know you inside out. I know you like you’ll never know. You know what this is? You want to know what this is? Because this is some deal, this is some set-up, this is some joke — you could vomit from what a joke this is. I want you to hear something, I want you to hear the unvarnished truth. I want you to hear it from me, right from the horse’s mouth, from the one person who really cares. You know what you are? That’s what you are! Ages ago, years ago, so long ago I couldn’t begin to remember, past history, ancient history — you don’t want to know, another age, another life, another theory altogether. I am telling you, I am pleading with you, I am down to you on bended knee — just don’t get cute with me, just don’t make any excuses to me — because in broad daylight, in the dead of night, at the crack of dawn. You think the whole world is going to do a dance around you? No one is going to do a dance around you. No one even knows you are alive, they don’t know you from Adam. Don’t ask. Don’t even begin to ask. Don’t make me any promises. Don’t tell me one thing and do another. Don’t look at me cross-eyed. Don’t look at me like that. Don’t hand me that crap. Look around you, for pity’s sake. Don’t you know that one hand washes the other? Talk sense. Take stock. You think this is a picnic? This is no picnic. Don’t stand on ceremony with me. The whole world is not going to step to your tune. I warn you — wake up before it’s too late. You know what? A little birdie just told me. You know what? You have got a lot to learn — that’s what. I can’t hear myself talk. I can’t hear myself think. I cannot remember from one minute to the next. Why do I always have to tell you again and again? Give me a minute to think. Just let me catch my breath. Don’t you ever stop to ask? I’m going to tell you something. I’m going to tell you what no one else would have the heart to tell you. I’m going to give you the benefit of my advice. Do you want some advice? You think the sun rises and sets on you, don’t you? You should get down on your hands and knees and thank God. You think death is a picnic? Death is no picnic. Face facts, don’t kid yourself, people are trying to talk some sense into you, it’s not all just fun and fancy free, it’s not all just high, wide, and handsome, it’s not just a bed of roses and peaches and cream. You know what I’ve got to do? I’ve got to talk to you like a baby. I’ve got to talk to you like a Dutch uncle. I’ve got to handle you with kid gloves, just in case you didn’t know. Let me tell you something no one else would have the heart to tell you. Go ahead, look! Look far and wide — because they are few and far between. Go ahead, go to the ends of the earth, go to the highest mountain, go to any lengths, because they won’t lift a finger for you — or didn’t you know that some things are not for man to know, that some things are better left unsaid, that some things you shouldn’t wish on a dog, not on a bet, not on your life, not in a month of Sundays? What do you want? You want the whole world to revolve around you, you want the whole world at your beck and call? That’s what you want, isn’t it? Be honest with me and let’s be done with it, be finished with it, over and done with it, enough, for crying out loud, enough.

What do I say to you, where do I start with you, how do I make myself heard? I don’t know where to begin with you, I don’t know where to start with you, I don’t know how to impress on you the importance of every single solitary word. Thank God I am alive to tell you, thank God I am here to tell you, thank God you’ve got someone to tell you, I only wish I could begin to tell you, if there were only some way someone could tell you, if only there were someone here to tell you, but you don’t want to listen, you don’t want to learn, you don’t want to know, you don’t want to help yourself you just want to have it your own sweet way. Who can talk to you? Can anyone talk to you? You don’t want anyone to talk to you. So far as you are concerned, the whole world could drop dead. You think death is a picnic? Death is no picnic. Face facts, don’t kid yourself, people are trying to talk some sense into you, it’s not all just fun and fancy free, it’s not all just high, wide, and handsome, it’s not just a bed of roses and peaches and cream. You know what I’ve got to do? I’ve got to talk to you like a baby. I’ve got to talk to you like a Dutch uncle. I’ve got to handle you with kid gloves, just in case you didn’t know. Let me tell you something no one else would have the heart to tell you. Go ahead, look! Look far and wide — because they are few and far between! Pardon my French — but put up or shut up! Oh, we could just laugh in your face. Oh, you — you dirty dickens, you! Can’t you just leave us in peace?

—from Gordon Lish’s Mourner At The Door: Stories (1989)

 

from stanley crawford’s great aquatic adventure, log of the s.s. the mrs unguentine

 

“Forty years ago I first linked up with Unguentine and we made love on twin-hulled catamarans, sails a-billow, bless the seas…”

My novels all describe “systems” of various degrees of derangement. The plot consists of a description of the system, and the end comes when the description is complete and/or disintegration sets in or takes place. I “hear” the novels: a voice arrives in a paragraph, or even just a line — the case of Log. Sometimes there has been a pause between the first intimations of the voice and when I really began to pay attention to it. For the first four novels, the experience was fairly uniform: five weeks of seven-days-a-week writing, mainly mornings, and then a year of working over unrealized sections, usually endings. When I was young, an ideal was to write books each as different from the other as possible. I now see this as an interesting illusion.

 —from an interview with Stanley Crawford at Powell’s Books

 

     

     One of Gordon Lish’s favourites.

Log of the S.S. The Mrs Unguentine
by
Stanley Crawford

I 

The name is Mrs Unguentine. I was not the one born with it, he was. We were married by telephone when the great cable was laid across the ocean floor well before the weather turned so foul; it was the thing to do then, the thing to do indeed. Some high priest on a party line made us man and wife or at least did consecrate the phone line, the electrodes, or whatever. And made me drop all my names, maiden, first and middle, the result being Mrs Unguentine.

II

Forty years ago I first linked up with Unguentine and we made love on twin-hulled catamarans, sails a-billow, bless the seas, but Unguentine–now dead after a bloody eventless life–turned out to be a ferocious bastard who beat me within an inch of my life everywhere we sighted land, not because of me, not for land, but for drink, he with his bent for alcohol up to the very last moment when his grey lips touched the blue sea for the final time, moment of his death. Suicide. So I sailed that ship, I sailed it every nautical inch of our marriage.

III

What’s worse, as he went overboard, bottle clutched to his lips and probably already dead of a rotten liver as he toppled into the froth, what did I see in his hip pocket? The pocket that concealed a flabby backside? What did I see? All our navigation charts rolled up, and so down they went with him to the bottom and there I was, left alone in the middle of a nasty squall far from all land. He beat me one last time before he died, though limply. I should have known. Not a scrap of land in sight. And now I wonder why I even bother, this three-thousand-and-no-doubt-somethingth-time it must be, with Unguentine, ferocious bastard, catamaran, alcohol, beating, blessed seas, suicide, the sails, the how and the where, for why multiply anything any more and heap it all higher, heap and clog?

IV

Yet the thought for example that the miseries of my life with Unguentine might have been brought on by myself as in catamaran, lonely seas, wife, the first and fatal swig at the bottle, and so on. Yelling at him across the wind as he leaned against the tiller, pipe or cigar or baby’s rattle clenched between his teeth, for all he wanted was the sea and the depths while I cried for company, my old and dear so long-lost friends, while I poured him another drink and he drank himself into visions of forever setting sail across oceans unbefouled by man and where women knitted sails or nets or clothes, and sang, not talked, sang with the wind and with the slicing of the prows through aqua glazes. Unguentine was a man who grew nauseous upon land, he could not walk upon a solid, unmoving surface without trembling at the thought it might all crack and crumble into bits and drop into some great hole with the dust of beaten mattresses. His terrestrial asthma. And no wonder, for what was then called land, that shambles, was a sorry surface unfit for the conduct of anything but a harrowing traffic. But I kept him on land, I forced him to skip rope. He did. Our last vessel was a barge, a barge such as is used to tow garbage out to sea with. It was the only way I would go to sea again, I said. We got the thing for a song, garbage and all, rot, stink and a flock of squabbling seagulls. We had the garbage covered with earth and planted trees and flowers, and there was a great canvas with brass fittings to cover it all up from the wind and the waves, and thus we set sail upon a course that kept us to temperate zones, for the sake of my plants. And many times we were halted by hostile navies who had never seen such a sight; once we were claimed by an impoverished government which sought an island cheap by virtue and confiscation. While I watered my plants, Unguentine drank. On some equator or other I added dogs and a cat who ate fish and provided fecal matter for my garden which came to flourish to such a degree that it grew impenetrable in places, while vine-reinforced leafy boughs overhung virtually the whole barge and we could go for days on end without seeing each other, amused at our respective ends by visitations of uncanny birds. I deceived myself into thinking he was happy. Was it not, after all, the year he cracked the Joke? And that was even the year he said he’d rather not do much talking. I had the cat and the dogs, remember. I was not listening very attentively. His unfortunate end therefore took me by surprise two days later, and right after the plunge–the same, bottle, grey lips, froth seas–immediately after his plunge I rushed to the pilot-house in the interests of keeping the barge on a true course despite my grief and against the possibility of some scuttling going on. I had never visited the pilot-house before. My surprise and shock can then be imagined when I flung open the door and stumbled inside and grasped the pilot wheel and peered through the windows ahead or aft or fore or whatever, forever confused by those silly nautical terms and hating the hairy men who used them, smirking. But of course nothing was visible through the windows but the thick vegetation of the garden, that is, Unguentine had been steering all these years with no idea of what he was steering towards; and as I was now. The motto of his death was simple, as inscribed on a business card tucked between the glass and frame of the window before the pilot wheel: ‘Fundamental Ship and Boat Repairs Performed: That would be his touch, Unguentine’s touch deliberate, thoughtful, and devastating. I knew it. He would have saved that business card from years before for precisely that moment. Our barge most certainlyneeded no repairs, however. Not one.

V

Unguentine, suicide, the business card, the barge, alcoholic’s leap into the sea, bottle, grey lips, boughs dragging in sea currents. So goes the sequence, the awful chain, and between my despair at not knowing how many times I have told it and whether I shall ever finish telling it once well and decently, I do wonder about that business card, Fundamental Ship and Boat Repairs Performed, and what if in fact it had nothing to do with his death? Coincidence? The business card inserted into that gummy little gap between the glass and varnished wood frame of the pilot-house window on our ocean-going barge, inserted there casually in the summery sub-equatorial January eleven months before his death, November it was, with no connection whatsoever? Possible? For if so, then it means that my Unguentine with his flowing white hair and yellow beard that ringed his mouth like a cloud in late afternoon, it means that he left me with no message at all, no last words, no final touch other than the act of leaving itself. Can I say he died with no personal touch at all? Not even no toppling overboard with bottle to lips, navigational charts in hip pocket? Perhaps then there would be no telling what, no watery punctuation to that eventless life of his, no noise, no error; only his silence.

 
Sometimes when I am weary of seeing things in that flat, three-dimensional manner once so much boasted of, two plus two, and all the rest, there seems no longer to be any precise moment when old Unguentine vanished from my life, it seems rather an almost gradual process that went on over many years and as part of a great rhythm, as if, through some gentle law of nature, his disappearance would be followed by his gradual reemergence, that he would come back, so on, so forth. And in fact when I dared venture into the pilot-house that day I knew he would be gone, I knew my hands upon the pilot wheel would do whatever they had to, that all those carelessly listened to remarks about charts and stars and buoys and lighthouses, anchors, piers, waves, swells and so on, all would fall into place, and there I would be confidently sailing our barge towards the luminous brown clouds of some foul but splendid city, there to be forever free of those wanderings. But as I say, there were no navigational charts to be found anywhere on the barge, which is why I assume he took them with him if in fact he had ever used such aids to sail with at all–though here I suppose that if one is to sail anywhere out of sight of land one must carry maps and charts. The point being, since there were no charts, at least I could spare the garden which completely obstructed the view from the pilot-house and made any sort of steering impossible–and here it strikes me that, in practically unbearable truth, my first response to the discovery of Unguentine’s death was to cut down the garden. And so I must ask now, so many years later, so far distant from the scene, whose garden? Here, the loveful mourning that casts the prized possessions of the dead upon the pyre? Here, in glee at last the garden unprotected? Whack? Whack?

—from
Stanley Crawford, “From Log of the S.S. The Mrs Unguentine”. The Review of Contemporary Fiction (Summer 2008).

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