The Ever-Shifting Status
By Tobias CarrollApril 2, 2014
Travel Notes by Stanley Crawford
STANLEY CRAWFORD'S CAREER has been as strange and surreal as many of his novels. As a young writer in the 1960s, published by such powerhouses as Simon & Schuster and Knopf, Crawford found that the all-powerful New York Times book section of the day met his books with both acclaim and perplexity. The paper of record described his first novel, Gascoyne (1966; reissued by Overlook Press in 2005) as a “a satiric phantasmagoria” and pronounced it “wonderful.” Richard Lester planned to film this absurdist story of a man controlling a Los Angeles-like city from the confines of his car. Two years later Crawford published Some Instructions to My Wife, in which another insanely controlling narrator laid out detailed instructions for how his house was to be run and his children raised.
Writing in The New York Times, the novelist Stanley Elkin was not amused by Travel Notes, finding its absurdist humor and non-sequiturs to be “arbitrary” instead of inventive. Crawford eventually moved to New Mexico to run a garlic farm (about which he wrote two memoirs), while continuing to publish and to see some of his earlier work re-published, all the while quietly building a kind-of cult following in the next generation.
In 2008, for instance, Dalkey Archive Press reissued Crawford’s Log of the S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine with an introduction by Ben Marcus. Marcus asserts that in 1972, the year of the book’s publication, the nation was so wrapped up in Vietnam, Watergate, the killings at the Munich Olympics, and other apocalyptic events that it had neither appetite nor patience for this idiosyncratic tale of an abusive marriage that takes place entirely at sea, as told from the point of view of the ship’s log kept by the victimized wife. (That unconventional perspective is a quality it shares with Travel Notes.) For domestic drama, Marcus argues, readers at that time preferred the more realistic worlds of John Updike, John Cheever, and Saul Bellow, and when they opted for more surreal choices, the reading public was drawn to less literary tomes, such as Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives.
Marcus makes the case that Crawford has been overlooked and underappreciated. He describes Mrs. Unguentine thusly:
This may have been the first time that readers could sample a collision of such radically different literary sensibilities as Ingmar Bergman and Jules Verne: the bleak, life-loathing (affirming, loathing, affirming, who knows anymore) sensibility of the great artist of domestic cruelty, Bergman, with the wondrous vision and spectacle of Verne, the adventure story mad scientist […] [The book’s] aloof approach to the sanctity of marriage, what indeed at times can seem like a satire of bad marriage fiction (she wants to talk, he wants to work and be alone, she wants kids, he drinks, he hits, she lies, he disappears).
Marcus goes on to say that Crawford’s art is in making stories “about the failure to love properly or love deeply or at all — in bizarre, defended, solipsistic worlds.”
No doubt Crawford would have liked to see reviews like this one earlier in his career. He “developed a craving for what I called the real,” as he said in an interview, which led him to become a garlic farmer. Few, if any, other authors sell shallots alongside books on their website.
Now that Calamari Press has just reissued Crawford’s 1968 Travel Notes, an even newer generation of readers may begin to discover what Marcus calls a “rigorously inventive” writer “attuned to the most potent, and timeless, possibilities in literary fiction.”
Travel Notes is a deconstruction of travel writing in which one can find elements of everything from the metafiction of William T. Vollmann to the detached narratives of alt-lit to the thematic voyages of Norman Lock. Classifiable? Hardly. But given its many inscrutable elements, Travel Notes takes pride in its uncategorical nature.
The novel begins in a straightforward manner; the first few paragraphs could be the opening of a far more conventional novel. The unnamed narrator arrives at an airport, about to set out on a journey. The second paragraph consists of two sentences that convey a sense of the narrator’s narcissism: “We were there for over an hour. I had to hold a child on my knee.” At times buffoonish and sometimes worse, the narrator is a kind of Ugly American disrupting the lives of those he encounters. In a 2008 interview with Bookslut, Crawford commented that “all of my narrators are obsessives,” and that’s certainly the case here. “As a rule, I travel only in underdeveloped countries,” the narrator writes halfway through the novel, and it’s a line that takes on a number of unpleasant connotations that range from the patronizing to the openly malevolent.
Is Crawford’s narrator a do-gooder with a trail of devastation in his wake, with shades of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American? Or are we in a fantasia with a particular worldview, much like Norman Lock’s dreamlike A History of the Imagination, in which Westerners in colonial-era Africa share their disquieting dreams where their own fixations run rampant?
However Crawford’s novel is interpreted — surreal voyage or satirical picaresque — there’s an element of uneasiness from the outset. The first of the novel’s three parts follows the narrator on a journey through an unnamed part of the world, where landscapes and identities seem to be in a state of constant flux. The novel’s second part finds the narrator still wandering, albeit in a more industrialized landscape. In the third and final part, the narrator finds himself living in suburbia sans notebook, and the deconstruction of the travel narrative becomes something very different.
Early in the novel the narrator briefly alludes to having a wife but notes that she is an absent presence in his life: “She too travels, but never do we cross paths. Never.” We even see a few of his habits and personal quirks, such as a certain fondness for gunplay. In fact, he almost kills one of his traveling companions after he decides to engage in target practice during a lull in their journey.
The narrator’s journey is one quickly characterized by absurdity. During a group trip across the landscape by bus, the travellers find their roadway obstructed and attempt to deal with this by disassembling the bus, carrying the pieces around the obstruction, and rebuilding it. (This, unsurprisingly, does not work — though Travel Notes isn’t strictly realistic, it is not a cartoon either.) Places and people the narrator encounters become surreal through oddly-placed accents over familiar words; our narrator’s visits the Famôus Lake, and the Païnted Wo̅man repeatedly appears to beguile and besiege him. Crawford even uses randomly deployed quotation marks, eerily prefiguring a stylistic device of many an alt-lit writer:
‘“Where” does that “train” go?’ I asked.
This linguistic confusion, and the sense of traveling through a space where geography itself seems to shift, establishes Travel Notes as a cousin to Jan Morris’s Hav and Renee Gladman’s novels of the surreal city-state, Ravicka. In all of them, intellectual observation and the natural curiosity of the traveler compete with somewhat sublimated anxieties. In Crawford’s case, he upends his narrator’s position in the world: in one long journey he goes from tourist to head of state to fugitive and back around again. He has trysts with partners of both genders. It’s not for nothing that the Païnted Wo̅man returns throughout the novel, culminating in one of the most memorably unerotic love scenes in all of literature. (A reference is made to “the limp petals of our flowering conjugation.”) This leads to a turn towards domesticity as the novel winds down and the narrator’s travels end, in a plotline that takes traditional noir elements — a failing relationship, a break-in, a gun, a detective — and refuses to connect them in any expected fashion.
That this is an unreliable narrator may go without saying. He omits and edits as he pleases. “That is a long story which I cannot tell,” he says, after fleetingly mentioning that the Famôus Lake Grand Hotel has no toilet. In describing the lake itself, he meditates:
It is said to be the deepest lake in the world. In fact, either it is an ordinary large blue lake or something beyond description. If these travel notes are to be effective and useful I must make up my mind about such things, and fairly soon.
Later, the narrator hires a servant, who gradually becomes his doppelgänger and then his lover. And, slowly, the travel notes we are reading become a sneakily collaborative effort:
I have been able to put down as much as I have only because of my servant’s cooperation — he writes one word, he writes the next, I write one word, I write the next, and you see how perfect the results are: utterly indistinguishable from my solitary labors.
In the novel’s second part, the narrator becomes fixated on a possibly suicidal foreigner “He,” who may be some sort of divinity. Then again, so might the narrator.
Through his oblique journey, the emotional compass of Crawford’s narrator seems to shift from cynicism to naiveté to weariness to a kind of fugue state. The references to God, and to a possibly suicidal deity, are among the many clues here that there’s more going on than satirical and surrealist adventures in an unknown landscape. This isn’t simply weirdness for the sake of weirdness; at the book’s heart is a kind of wrestling with right and wrong, or with the presence or absence of a higher power. As the novel’s epigraph warns, “All landscape is moral.”
It’s easy to get lost in the wildness of Travel Notes and to be captivated by its games with space, time, reliability, and language. But beneath the novel’s playful surface is repression, violence, and authority.
The level of ingenuity in Crawford’s slim volume would be reason alone for its return to print. Like the best journeys, it allows for a new perspective on the expected and the familiar. And through its constant invocation of its own status as a written document, Travel Notes keeps its themes and concerns ever-present in the mind of the reader. Much as the narrator constantly refers to the act of writing, Crawford himself keeps the reader aware of the dizzying discontinuities at work, the tension arising from that narrator’s flaws and fractures, and his disruptive relationship to the world around him.
Tobias Carroll is managing editor for the online literary journal Vol.1 Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in Tin House magazine, The Collagist, Underwater New York, The Paris Review Daily, Necessary Fiction, Bookforum, The Collapsar, and Joyland. He can be found on Twitter at @TobiasCarroll.
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