Saturday
Jul262014

Travel Notes

By Stanley Crawford


 

Calamari Press
March 2014
978-1940853024

Reviewed by Patrick Crerand


 

From its title, Travel Notes, Stanley Crawford prepares us for a travel story, maybe even a hero's journey. However, we quickly find the narrator to have blind spots, and the terrain he is covering is elusive, disruptive, and absurd. Told in three Beckettian sections, "So To Speak," "After a Fashion," and "As It Were," the novel is narrated by a wealthy, unnamed aficionado of parachute-orange bathrobes who journeys through strange lands with accented destinations: a Famôus Lake, for example, or the Ruiñs outside New Curío City, or the Resørt.

Sometimes a plot synopsis is useful in a review. This may not be the case here. As proof, consider the following summary of the middle of the opening section: The traveler gets stuck in the Famôus Lake region due to bureaucratic restrictions on travel, where he meets and hires a linguist who resembles him (green eyes, blond hair) and who helps him find a way over the mountains via a large, antique golden coach pulled by an elephant that briefly freezes on their mountain journey. After a rendezvous with some mountaintop hircine monastics and, somehow, his wife (also a traveler, but in opposite directions from him), he enters the capital and stays as a guest of a cabinet minister, where the traveler is again quasi-imprisoned and forced to dole out gifts and tips to the multitude of the cabinet minister's children and servants, gifts which he finds in the pieces of luggage he has carried and kept on behalf of a mysterious heiress. After the cabinet minister is assassinated with a cherry pie, the traveler fills the deceased minister's post and quickly flees the manor, only to be swept up in the revolution outside its gates.

Then things get weird: "At last came a point of blockage, where two oblique lines of soldiers stood across the boulevard in such a way as to funnel us into a single file, into a serpentine line that extended down the boulevard as far as the eye could see." At the end of the line, each person comes to a man waiting at a wooden table: "Exactly every minute he directed the person at the head of the line to follow a pedestrian crossing to one side of the boulevard, to an alley, to a firing squad. Their rifles had silencers on them. There was no sound above the shuffling of feet, which trailed off behind us now in one-minute waves."

What begins as a hallucinogenic trip of chance encounters—a plot where doppelgängers abound, cause and effect seem to have been unbuckled, frozen elephants can simply be massaged back to life, and cherry pie can be wielded as a deadly weapon—quickly devolves into a bleak doomsday scenario reminding us how worthless a single life was in the bureaucratic Nazi killing machine and those of its dictatorial descendants. Somehow lightness transcends effortlessly, seamlessly into heaviness, a re-entry from the space of absurdity into the oppressive atmosphere of history. About fiction, Flannery O'Connor once said, "You can do anything you can get away with. But nobody's ever gotten away with much." Crawford then might be the D. B. Cooper of prose. Certainly Crawford's protagonist has the right kind of bathrobe.

So much of the book itself is not about a journey of the body but of the mind of a writer. Traveling becomes a metaphor for writing, for imagining, for experimenting. One cannot help but see the metafictional pulse thrumming through this world. The act of writing can no longer be contained on the page or in one uniform consciousness of a grand narrator:

In spite of its situation, the capital is very chic. Filled with notable monuments, buildings, exhibits, affairs, activities, trade, cultures, which you can find adequately described and illustrated in the handy reference works at your local public library which indeed should be your companion to this volume.

The lack of description and piercing of the fourth wall is humorous, but the impulse of the narrator to confront the reader is compulsive, and indeed compulsory, for us. Like all narrators, he cannot travel alone.

This reader-writer relationship is echoed in the first part of "After a Fashion." The narrator follows a mysterious He that waits only for the narrator to watch Him act and be, revealing Himself to be another of many narrative doubles. Indeed, the narrator follows Him just as we readers follow the traveler, and yet all that following is for naught: "traversing a brief opening in the traffic, He walked around the bushes and into the crowd before the tent, where I lost sight of Him against my own will, a first and most painful time." Lost in the throng of people in the hot tent, the narrator flees and "He was no longer to be seen. There or anywhere." Is this He a train of thought, a deity, or the ideal self of a travel narrative? In many ways, the search is parodic and paradoxical, as if Crawford is asking if there is a grand truth to experience or if the subjectivity of experience warps all meaning.

At the end of the second section, when the traveler is on his way from the Ruiñs to the Resørt and happens to finds his wife (again) on the side of the road, this metafictional relationship shifts into a higher gear as they discuss their mutual fatigue of wandering despite discovering new experiences: "Though I confessed to a seeming unreality about my travels, which could not be helped, such was the world nowadays, invaded by a uniformity that threatened to make all places alike and the people the same everywhere, devoid of even national character; and often I felt like I was treading water without advancement." One can see that this homogeneity speaks not only to traveling but to writing as well, a sameness that the book seeks to defy. If in conformity there is comfort, this circularity and lack of advancement is the risk a writer takes in confronting and, in many ways, displeasing a readership that desires progression in character and in narrative. Instead it seems Crawford offers an alternative where progression becomes a matter of kind and not degree. Clearly, the traveler moves from place to place. Indeed, the traveler flies planes, rides trains, and drives onward, even motoring away from the only named city in the book, New Curío City, a play on "new curiosity." But the significant movement is always internal as it must be with reading and writing. Fittingly, when his wife presses him on what the answer is to this dilemma, he has none:

I explained to her charming smile that I much preferred to see the question as the fixed thing which must always remain a question, for in the answering of it, for in the attempt to answer it, one becomes swallowed up in the tangles of finite possibility, and I did not know of one thing which I could safely call finite, or fixed, or certain.

The response is, of course, for our benefit and reads more like a credo extending outward to the late 60s or perhaps further to the future of experimental literature, or perhaps even further, to the world that literature reflects—not only the then of 1967 but now. Ultimately, though, that response travels furthest inward. Traveling becomes the search for the self, which brings one around full circle. In the opening scene, the narrator's wife makes "a curt remark to the effect that she knew this thing would never get off the ground." Whether the traveler's plane ever lifts off is irrelevant. Rest assured, it's a round trip ticket back to the mess of identity. What is clearer is that given the uniformity of the major presses and the many formulaic narratives they promote, it is staggering to think that there was a time when a publishing house like Simon and Schuster would have printed this book. Luckily, Calamari Press has filled this void.