Imagine Donald Barthelme sending messages in a bottle to Gertrude Stein.” This is how the LA Times described Stanley Crawford’s The Log of the SS The Mrs. Ungeuntine, recently reprinted by Dalkey Archive Press. The Log—like all of his work—creates its own logic, flouting literary tradition as it spirals in and out of the thoughts of Mrs. Unguentine, an abandoned wife on an equally abandoned ship. Crawford is also the author of the fictional works Gascoyne and Petroleum Man, as well as several works of nonfiction and memoir, including A Garlic Testament. He and his wife Rose Mary sat down with the Independent after his reading last Thursday to discuss his life and work.
Indy: What drew me to The Log of the SS The Mrs. Ungeuntine was this notion of self-sufficiency: how Mrs. Unguentine is married to this man who has created a mythology out of self-sufficiency, who has created this barge, created this world for both of them to inhabit. As the author and as someone who lives off his farm, how important is this notion of self-sufficiency?
Stanley: I very quickly came to understand that self-sufficiency is an illusion. First of all, I don’t want to address that issue at all—or, Mrs. Unguentine does not address that issue at all, in the Log. The tools that we use have evolved through the sort of open-source method of development over thousands of years. So even if you have every tool in the world, you still are tapping into cultural history, until the beginning of time. So it’s not truly self-sufficiency. The other thing is, even when you’re growing your own food and providing a lot of your own fuel, there is the whole thing of fossil fuels, of electricity…. I think one of the reasons that I was attracted to the life that we took up there, was the element of community cooperation. To me—and I think that still distinguishes where we live from most other places that we know about—the community’s still supportive. Our greatest sense of security is in our neighborhood. Not financially, we don’t have financial security, but we have the social, the sort of real social security in our community there. So, I haven’t answered your question.
I: That’s totally okay.
Rose mary: When we came to this country—we met and married in Greece, and we had six months in Ireland, where I actually had our first child, Adam. When we got to San Francisco, it was a pretty miserable year. We were there for, what, about eight months? And Stan was wondering why he’d come back to the States. Were you? [He nods] And I was looking after the baby. It was a strange time. I’d go to take him to Golden Gate Park and someone would say, You’re not taking that kid to Golden Gate Park, you’re going to get murdered, and I said, What? And I took him anyway and wasn’t murdered. And it was quite a lonely time… And it was, he was wondering why he was back.
I: Was the sense of community that you ended up finding in Dixon, New Mexico, something that you were looking for, or was it something that became important after you’d found it?
S: No, it was not expected. What induced me to come back, I was beginning to realize that as an expatriate I couldn’t participate. You were always a foreigner. You had no civil rights, even property rights were questionable in parts of Greece. So I was beginning to miss something; I wasn’t sure what it was. It was probably that sense of community, which we found there somewhat accidentally.
R: I think when I arrived in Greece you were getting sick of the expatriate life.
R: So he just—
S: The good life, the good life of drinking a lot at night—
R: Oh yeah, you were a smoker, drinker—
S: Writing in the morning, going to the beach in the afternoon—
R: You were actually stingy, too.
S: Now some of this.
R: Don’t worry, Stanley.
I: We clean up well.
R: They’ll leave the juicy bits in.
S: It was also a destructive life, I could see that. I could feel that myself, and see it in other expatriates too, they weren’t going anywhere. They were losing touch. And, they’re all dead.
R: Yeah. [Laughs] Sorry to laugh about that. It’s just the way he says [it].
I: I guess this might be a little off the beaten path but maybe not so much with all this smoking and drinking. What draws me to your work is the fact that it doesn’t fit with the Beat movement or something that was happening when these folks were being published. Anyone can pick up the Log today, or pick up Gascoyne, and it would read like today’s literature. Maybe you didn’t consciously move away from the writing at the time, but what drew you away from the prevailing literary trends of the day?
S: I was blessed with a certain amount of ignorance. I was at Chicago as a student when William Burroughs got in trouble with something.
I: Not surprising.
S: And I was not aware of it. When I was in San Francisco, I didn’t [really] know any other writers… I can’t remember when I read Brautigan first. Maybe New Mexico, maybe I read it there. You know, the question came up yesterday, when do you really feel like a writer? Maybe I didn’t feel much that I was a writer…. But that wasn’t the thing I was trying to figure out. It wasn’t the writing. It was more the peculiar question of, you come back to your own country after five years of being away, and the changes have been so fast and so deep that you don’t know how to act. I think I represented that in Unguentine’s silence, and his difficulty in speaking, because I didn’t know how to address people. I had come from France and Greece, where you address people in very formal ways, whether you know them or not. It was a ritual there.
R: And we weren’t at all happy in San Francisco. You didn’t know what you were doing with your life. I had the baby. I was wandering around. We had no friends. It was awful.
S: It was also this time of horrible polarization. It was really dreadful.
R: And you were writing Log. You gave it to me to read. I said, “Cut out all the other characters. Just leave him and her.”
I: That’s really interesting that there were more characters.
R: There were a lot more characters.
S: There was one more. Maybe two.
R: There were several, Stan. I knew it was a stunning book.
S: I was worried it was too short.
R: It was wonderful. I absolutely saw it was wonderful.
S: Gascoyne came out after a year or two of other attempts. It came out from a binge of reading Ian Fleming and Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and those guys who were not in the canon in school at all.
I: Speaking of the Log, I remember an interview in which you said that you had come to think of the Log as a purely apocalyptic tale and hadn’t read it in years until you were approached about the reprint. How has your reading of the book changed in the few years since its republication?
S: Maybe since I’ve read from it twice, once at Dartmouth, and once last night, I’m a little more comfortable with it. When I reread things within a few years, I’m also reliving a kind of shadow experience of writing it, and I’m not really in the writing of it. I’m a little away from it, but I’m not entirely away. So it’s this anxious kind of thing… I don’t quite feel that anxiety because it’s so remote. But Log always stayed kind of close, so it wasn’t a surprise. It is also a surprise in the sense of, “Oh, I used to be able to write like that. Why can’t I now?”
I: There’s a younger cadre of writers, really exciting writers, in my opinion, who are championing Log. Writers like Blake Butler, Brian Evenson, and Deb Olin Unferth are coming out and saying, “This is really great. I don’t know why people aren’t talking about this. This is something that needs to be taken to the masses.” What are your thoughts about these writers taking the Log up? Do you find there might be a reason why it’s that book and not others, like Petroleum Man, or Travel Notes?
S: It’s very gratifying. It’s lovely being connected to a younger generation of writers in that way. It’s inspiring me to reciprocate and catch up with all these books I haven’t read. We’re going home with a stack of books.
I: That’s great.
S: The other question, maybe you might say the book’s time has come because there is an apocalyptic element there, but it’s not as familiar as I remember it. I think it’s the concern with the fate of the planet, and I’m not certain what else. It seems to me an unconscious glossary of all the things we’re worried about but in a poetic way. Petroleum Man, whether it’s going to have its day, I don’t know. That’s a hard book to love. It was a hard book to love when I was writing it. Whereas I think—and I hope this doesn’t sound arrogant—but I think one can love Log.
R: I certainly love Log.
S: The other books don’t have that warmth, and passion perhaps, that expansive passion.
I: Have you read much of Ben Marcus, or Brian Evenson, or Deb Olin Unferth?
S: I’ve read three or four stories of Brian’s. I’ve been liking them. I haven’t reached a place to read Ben Marcus’ stuff.
I: I’m in love with the novel he wrote, Notable American Women. It does something similar to the Log, where it’s taking this apocalyptic, very claustrophobic place, and giving it an incredibly personal voice to it. That’s something I see in contemporary literature. George Saunders does it, Ben obviously does it, and there are other writers like Gary Lutz and Sam Lipsyte who use this very strange but personal end-times discussion. I think that’s why people really get drawn to the Log.
S: I have the sense that by reading some new territory here, this time is going to be very helpful in advancing that. So I may finally get to that place where some of the writers out there who I have trouble with will become accessible to me. I had coffee with Marcus in NY last March. I wanted to thank him for writing that fantastic afterword, which made me feel like the novelist I wish I really was.