Last month my classes Skyped with Stanley Crawford (author of 10 books, including the short novel we read together, Log of the SS The Mrs. Unguentine) and with Marty Riker (who hand-sold me Unguentine when I did this profile eight years ago at Dalkey Archive Press, where Marty was second in command.)
Unguentine is a lovely, funny, weird, melancholic, post-apocalyptic book, first published in in 1972. It might be deemed a “cosy catastrophe”: Husband and wife are afloat on their sea-going barge, which started as a garbage scow and became in turn smuggler, slaver, cargo vessel, floating brothel, “ocean-going rest home with international cuisine and daily sea-burials,” home for a government in exile, duty-free bazaar, and formal gardens. As evidence mounts of global civilization’s destruction, the barge becomes its own ecosystem and then its own landmass—perhaps the world’s last, in an early nod to global warming. The Unguentines are likely the last two people on Earth, Adam and Eve come full circle, giving new meaning to the saying, “I wouldn’t sleep with you if....” Thanks to their hard daily work as stewards of the land and the fecundity of their barge, they lack nothing, except more perfect union.
The “log” that Mrs. Unguentine keeps of these adventures is not so much a ship’s log as it is a fictional memoir, a portrait of a marriage, and an ecological fantasy, all told in past tense, apparently from beyond the grave. I’ve read the novel enough times that certain paranoid views creep in—that not only is it not a log, it may be the narration of a widow in an everyday nursing home, who happens to have brilliance and imagination and who casts her marriage as near-allegory.
Mrs. Unguentine is at best unreliable, due to her experiences and her ambivalence about her 40-year marriage. She says on the second page:
“...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.”
Nearly every aspect of this assertion is disproven by later details or by her own admissions. (At her husband’s death: “I had never visited the pilot-house before”; “Can I say he died with no personal touch at all? Not even with no toppling overboard with bottle to lips...?”). Students who take her early assertions at face value see only grimness, but I cannot find evidence of boozing once the very brief exposition is done, and not a single act of domestic abuse. What the book often shows is love, bliss, even perfection:
“Unguentine was happy; I was radiant.”
“My glowing message: ‘I never want to see land again!!’ ... At last his reply: ‘You never will, my dear.’” (This is often read as her being his slave, but an alternate reading suggests he has saved her life—without the courtesy of explanation—after the rest of mankind perishes.)
“The view, when I had time, exhilarating and grand. There might even seem, as I would lift a sail and peep through the glass at the garden three stories below, the goat grazing at a pile of brush, ducks waddling from one pond to another, nothing else could I possible desire.”
“Our bliss, I know, has been fantastic. The last crop of pumpkins broke all records for size and tastiness. Our hybrid zinnias have attained blooms nineteen inches in diameter, glow in the dark.”
In an afterword to the Dalkey edition, Ben Marcus describes the vessel as “a garden of Eden with very little joy and not one dose of shame....” While I think that’s wrong on both counts—as is his overestimation of the role Gordon Lish played in original publication, according to Crawford—there are indeed problems in paradise, from boredom and loneliness to ecological disaster.
One day, for example, Unguentine inexplicably destroys all the magnificent, life-giving trees on the barge and erects metal trees with plastic leaves in their place—the birth of the artist as destroyer, through technological simulcra.
Mrs. Unguentine wants a child (“the very core of my being”), and after a comic coercing of Unguentine, and a comic, ritualistic, and ultimately failed coupling, she hides that she’s not pregnant by purposeful obesity: She doesn’t want to disappoint her doting, tender husband. Unguentine has been shown to be a mechanical and botanical genius, so when a baby is delivered anyway, one suspects he grew a baby below-decks as consolation to his not-pregnant wife:
“I could hear his footsteps. Perhaps he knew. Perhaps he was coming to murder me. I deserved it. I had brought it all upon myself. I could feel his hand steadying the swinging hammock. ‘Open your eyes,’ he said softly. I did. I gasped. For there, before me, in his outstretched arms, was a perfectly formed nine-month-old baby, grandly sexed as male, and staring at me thoughtfully. Such eyes. I fainted.”
The boy is never named, matures “a genius at five,” and, tiring of his parents’ home, swims away, never to be seen again, in a parody of the empty nest.
Of course Mr. Unguentine does abandon his wife, first emotionally, from her view:
“We have identified and named three new species of porpoises. I love that diamond necklace you brought up [from the sea floor] last week. Yet these things, however fulfilling they may be, scarcely add up to tell me what you refuse to speak, and if you could possibly see fit to spare a moment now and then to take me into your confidence, discuss something anything in fact, then I might venture to suggest—brazen hypothesis, I know—that we could start working our way towards the heart of the matter, on the way to engaging in many a colourful argument, discussion, seminar, so on, so forth. Permit me to cite a few examples of the things you have never spoken to me of. Your mother, for one, your no doubt dear old mother. [T]he scar on your left kneecap. What did you think of the soup last night?”
And his suicide, the ultimate abandonment? So it would seem, for years.
I often assign Howard Nemerov’s essay “Composition and Fate in the Short Novel” with Log of the SS The Mrs. Unguentine, to use as a lens for reading. (As one might expect, Stan Crawford says he did not write the book with the intent of it conforming to some idea of form.)
Nemerov says a novella is “not simply a compression but a corresponding rhythmic intensification,” “neither a lengthily written short story nor the refurbished attempt at a novel sent out into the world with its hat clapped on at the eightieth page.”
He says there are two ways of thinking of literary composition: that the general elicits the particular (allegory), or vice versa (which in its pure state would signify nothing more and heads off in the direction of surrealism, dada, and koans).
Nemerov says short novels look intently at large philosophical issues that have “direct and profound moral concern.” They carry an “explicit awareness of themselves as parables, as philosophic myths and...demonstrate the intention of...becoming sacred books.” They tend “with a peculiar purity” to dramatize (and dichotomize, I’d add) “appearance and reality (Benito Cereno), freedom and necessity (Notes from the Underground), madness and sanity (Ward Number Six)”—all these under the umbrella of a single problem, “pervasive to the point of obsession...identity.”
Nemerov says “the action deriving from [this theme] may be generalized as follows: the mutual attachment or dependency between A and B has a mortal strength; its dissolution requires a crisis fatal to one or the other party; but this dissolution is represented as salvation.”
Thus, he says, the novella tends to make selection of details extraordinarily fateful, and the symbolic-metaphorical is highlighted, giving the whole a luminous quality. It’s certainly true with the Unguentines’ life aboard their barge, its magnificent greenhouse glowing and kaleidoscope-like, which Ben Marcus calls “a literary invention so beautiful it...becomes a kind of distorted monocle through which to see this experiment in isolation, gardening, and love....”
And this is where Unguentine becomes something other than a widow’s tale. Nemerov says “the short novel strikes a very delicate and exact balance between motive and circumstance; its action generally speaking is the fate of the agonists, and this fate is regarded as flowing demonstrably and with some precision and in great detail from their individual natures.... What happens...happens expressly to them and because they are who they are....”
Even after Mrs. Unguentine long stops missing her husband and grows Thoreavian, then fatally ascetic, Unguentine seems to appear like a weed in her garden. She doesn’t want it, the marriage, his ways, her life with him: “Beautiful as it all might have been, once had been enough,” she says.
But by the end, there is a literal flowing, as Nemerov says, of one “in pursuit” of the other. “Thus I joined him,” the book finishes.
What Log of the SS The Mrs. Unguentine does so wonderfully in its 107 pages is to present the mystery of life—each of us inhabiting a space different from others’, without inherent meaning, yet tied inexorably together.
“With a sweeping gesture meant perhaps to encompass the whole barge, gardens, all, [Unguentine] then asked, ‘Do you know what it will mean?’ ‘I certainly do not,’ I snapped, impatient to get on with it, not discuss it. And so we fell to making love.”