Monday, May 4, 2015

Flicking Stanley Crawford's Innerly Switch

"Art objects to the lie against life that it is pointless and mean." --Jeanette Winterson

The only "ism" mentioned in SEED is the aneurism that felled protagonist Bill Starr's wealthy wife leaving him alone as he nears the end of his own cushy if isolated days, his only companions paid caretakers--Ramona the housekeeper, Jonathan the lawn boy, Patty the bookkeeper, Max the auto mechanic. And yet SEED is a deeply political book.

SEED is Stanley Crawford's surgical dissection of an unrepentant beneficiary of the spoils of U.S. empire, a post mortem on a mindset capable of articulating this polite yet shockingly immoral soliloquy, in which all the violence of contemporary neo-liberal capitalism is erased and replaced with seductively pleasurable language:
"Leave me alone in my bubble please. Do not disturb my complacencies, thank you. Deserving of my privileges, I claim. But untenable, I know. Injustice earns good profits, distributes them wisely to the blindfolded, the ear-stoppered, to those with duct-taped lips. Who am I to refuse the benefits? Capital, the encrustations of misery grown up and filtered and refined and purified into the sweetness of the good life. By what right me? We give up our seats for the old, the sick, the very young. But just our seats, mind you, and only for short periods of time. Not our reservations. Certainly not our tickets."
Starr represents an advance in authorial boldness over another of Crawford's creations--billionaire buffoon Leon Tuggs, the protagonist of Petroleum Man. In that more pointedly satirical novel, Tuggs gifts his grandkids, one boy and one girl, custom models of the many cars he's owned over the course of his rise to billionairehood, accompanied by letters to the future containing his vehicle-specific personal history, thinking, wrongly, that they'll be valued. While Tuggs' monomania provides more laugh out loud jokes and ridiculously fun and chaotic scenarios, Starr in his, relatively speaking, reduced circumstances, is far more relatable. It's one thing to laugh from afar at a narcissistic degenerate billionaire and another to look in the mirror and reflect upon Crawford's "Certainly... not...our...tickets."



As his surname suggests, this character is attuned to the sublime beauty of nature; he catches and makes visible in words the effects of light--Rococo moons, "feeble blanched dawns,"--and he waxes magnificently lyrical about weather events, internal and external:
There is a switch somewhere, innerly, to flick, in order to be rocked and cradled by the wind, to sing to the lashings of rain against windows, the gurgle of drain spouts, to submit, to be swaddled, to drop into slumber. But I can't find it. Stubbornly, they remain irritants, affronts, slaps. A distant crack and thud. Another one of the trees in front of of the Partons' gone down? Chainsaws will howl and whine tomorrow. The front storm door vibrates and rattles.

From the safety and comfort of Starr's insulated bubble, a gracious private house and gardens in some lovely unnamed hamlet in western Massachusetts, Starr initiates a game of sorts, inviting members of his extended family--nieces and nephews, progeny of various cousins--to visit him to collect the often weird and sometimes bizarre souvenirs from his iteration of the aforementioned "good life."

Most of his visitors are young people, or "Somewhere between twenty-one and forty-nine, my keen eye would estimate: young, in short." There is a tension throughout the novel between old and young as Crawford explores the borders and depth of the chasm. "The young. Terra incognita. When the future is still distant and vague and shimmering, not pressed right into your face, cold like plate glass, but taped over  with white butcher paper on the inside." Like Voltaire in Candide, where beauty does not just fade into a paler version of itself but is hideously transformed into "withered necks" and other grotesqueries, Crawford is unsparing in confronting the loss of physical beauty, and the depradations of decreptitude.
Jonathan. Time stops in his simple brute radiant presence. My cells cease the aging process, stop in their tracks. Wait, they say. Hark, they say. Youth is present, they say. How can we go on like this, they say. There must be some mistake, they say. Did we take a wrong turn somewhere, they ask. Why can't we go back, they demand. Is reincarnation the only way out of this incarnation, this deteriorating carnation, they wonder. Embracing a tangle of creeper vines to his hairless chest Jonathan disappears around the side of the house. After a sigh, aging resumes unabated, cell by cell, perhaps even at a slightly accelerating pace. I can feel them all grumbling like passengers in an airliner that has been circling to land far too long.

Starr is aware but unconcerned about the petroleum his far flung kin must burn to reach him, the time and energy they must borrow from other pursuits; and still he plays with those curious enough to make the trip, toying with their expectations and hopes for a prize or a deeper familial connection, as he bestows his trinkets and white elephants and accidental wisdoms on them.

Hillary, I say.
Halley, she corrects.
Halley, daughter of Liquor Lily.
What?
Oops. I didn't mean to say that. Family nickname. Awful, I know. Sorry
A silence, glacial, rigid, in which dust mites can be heard to turn with little crepitations.
She was called Liquor Lily in the family for obviously good reason, I advance into the void.
Suddenly she bursts out laughing. That's so funny! Almost hysterically. You all called her that behind her back? More laughter. If only I would have known!
Would you, in retrospect I so inappropriately ask, would you like a drink?
I can't wait to tell my brother! Liquor Lily! ... I'm sorry, she says, wipes eyes. That was worth six years of expensive therapy.
I chew my cud, speechless.
 For his part, the visitors who stop by barely encode on his exhausted and preoccupied brain; the seekers seem almost interchangeable and are often objectified, reduced to body parts. "Her bare knees stare at me from across the room like buttocks or breasts." Pages later...
But Hillary, your name is Hillary, isn't it?
Halley.
Halley, of course, how could I forget, how could I not forget.
Starr explains to the visitors when they ask that he's seeding narratives, narratives that involve him personally, into the future.

Things are seeds. I wish to plant mine into the future, deliberately, though I am not yet clear as to the eventual intended result, if there can be one, intended, within the vast fields of contingency that lie out there, ahead. A futile hope? If any hope is, if all hope is.


But is this really Starr's project, (or Crawford's, a kind of literary rehash of the turf covered in W. David Hancock's Race of the Ark Tattoo)? If so, he gives scant material for those narratives, sometimes just handing the thing off without any explanation at all to the stunned and disappointed relatives. Or in the case of the "holy cigarette lighter" Starr foists it upon a Latter Day Saint proselytizer as recompense for having told him to "go forth and screw yourself...with the spurting blessings of your magnificent hot god-created organ..."

Crawford revealed at the recent Moby Dickens bookshop reading in Taos, that Starr's unstated objective in dispossessing himself so improvisationally (he matches the object with his experience of the encounter in some internal logic or intuition in the moment) is to find a "spiritual heir." For Starr that means discovering a strong shared aesthetic.

In truth they are all his spiritual heirs, every single one who shows up, the callow and the crude perhaps most especially. He outright rejects his stepson Terrance as a legitimate spiritual heir for having the "brain of an auctioneer" who "works every crowd to find the highest bidder." But isn't that arguably a survival adaptation in the face of worldwide consolidation of wealth and power?  Surely he doesn't expect Terrance to "give up his tickets" or not earn the money to pay for them with ease in the first place?

And too, Starr is often blind to his own boorishness. For instance, he occasionally kids his housekeeper Ramona about her illegal status:
Somebody coming to see you. This afternoon.
Who?
No understand name.
When this afternoon?
He talk funny.
Oh, la migra guy, I know the one.
She steps back, wipes her hands on her apron. Senor Es-tarr, please do not make me fright.
Just yoking, I say, just yoking.
 "Yokes" as welcome I imagine as those told by Clarence Thomas to Anita Hill around the water cooler back at the EEOC. Like some aging hipster, he playfully commands Ramona not to come back until she has "read the entire works of Winston Churchill."  In this teasing way he can acknowledge their neo-Colonial power relation without feeling he personally has to do a damn thing to remediate it.

One of the subjects of Starr's joshing is prepositions, the 150 words or so in the English language that show the relations between words. Starr urges her to use them, but Ramona preserves for herself a kind of freedom in their absence.
I interrupt what she is going to say: Si, no, le, lo, la, y, que, qui, to name just a few of your crumb words, Ramona.
Not crumbs, they are clothespins, hold things on line, so handy.
Quite the linguistic theorist, my Ramona.
 For her there are other compensations that perhaps offset his condescension, frills beyond her servant's wages. She's in the will--she'll get the silver service (which she already polishes) and his dead wife's jewelry, and he tells us that he's taken care of her nieces and nephews and grandkids "lavishly," whatever that might mean. He doesn't specify but it's understood by all parties that these promises are meant to secure Ramona's loyalty until his last breath, and preserve his dignity beyond it. She will in all likelihood be the one to find him when he does finally expire; hers may be the last pair of eyes he looks into as death comes. Will he find some measure of kindness there?

As time goes by, Ramona ups the ante. In this exchange, one that exemplifies their wary trust, he agrees to hire her nephew for day work as a handyman.
You told me, Ramona, about a nephew way back when. Carjacking, arson, grand larceny, assault and battery, something like that, some or all of the above.
Was mistake.
He was innocent?
Silence.
Little innocent, little guilty.
A fine fellow, I'm sure. I resume tending the remains of my sandwich.
I give you word. How do you say?
Million dollar bond, for example?
Her chin swaying, she turns, stabs at her chest with a soapy finger, No, mi palabra, my word. I give.
Is he legal?
Nobody legal any more. They let him go.They make mistake.
I tell her I'll find something for him to do in a week or two or a similar eternity. Maybe that's the solution. Hire a known pilferer and sit back and watch the place get cleaned out. feign absentmindedness. Or feign more absentmindedness. Flaw: Ramona would keep an eagle eye out, pat him down at the end of the work day.
Starr indulges in making more "yokes" about the criminal aspect. He doesn't consider that but for the accident of his having won the birth lottery, it could have been him cooling his heels for two weeks waiting and hoping for a day's wages which his aunt had to dramatically arrange with her employer, striking just the right operatic notes, pointing soapy fingers, and so forth. And that the ease with which Starr pigeonholes and slurs Victor --"In his twenties or early thirties, silky dark skin, close cropped hair."--who he sizes up as a junkie and a thief and a ne'er-do-well, is as infuriating and enraging as any petty property theft crime Victor might ever perpetrate against him.

One has the feeling that Starr's racism will outlive him, that its ugly residue will be lacquered on his  stiffening corpse when it's picked up by the local medical university for scientific research. And whether the smoke from the crematorium where his body will ultimately be burned reaches their nostrils or not, Starr's undying contempt is part of the air Victor and Ramona must breathe every single day as they serve their white masters.

When it comes time to pay Victor for repairing the gutters along the back porch and carriage house extension, Ramona serves as a buffer.
 Dice cien, she says, hundred.
Take it out of my wallet.
She opens the screen door and passes him the money. Her long warbling cajoling harangue in Spanish is punctuated by his monosyllabic grunts of Si, No, Bueno, Claro, OK, Si, Si, Si.
She closes the door.
He say thank you.
Me say De Nada.
Did he put all the tools away? I ask.
He put tools all nice.
Minus, I think, the ones now bouncing around in the back of his Ford pickup on his way to the next fix. But maybe I'm being unfair. Maybe he didn't take anything this time, not a thing, because maybe there will be a second time or a third time.
Starr most certainly is being unfair; he cedes nothing to Victor. Not a jot. It's the kind of intransigence that invites the guillotine. And though this may seem over-the-top, I keep thinking of an alternative ending for SEED, instead of the clean getaway Crawford's arranged for Bill Starr. One in which Starr is savagely raped and beaten in his own home, like Lucy in Coetzee's Disgrace. One in which he's splayed across his chaise longue and sodomized with all the castoff crap (see items 2, 4, 9 and 12 below) or mounted via his anal cavity on the hood ornament of his precious Pierce-Arrow. One in which the chickens of inherited privilege and hurting innocent others through empire expansion and neo-colonial conquest have come home to roost and rage. Close-up on the rapists' seedy spunk sliding out of Starr's ruptured asshole rendered exquisitely in Crawford's often perfect prose as the novel's ultimate image--Bill Starr's bloodied brown eye winking at the future.

Maybe next book.
 

For those who wish to meditate on the gifts Bill Starr attempts to bestow qua objects before seeing how they're worked into the novel's composition, I have excerpted the relevant passages for your contemplation. Quite a collection!
  1. The Flamboyant Ring
    There's this ring...bought from a tourist stall in Mexico City in the year, well you won't remember the year, being so very long ago, so forget the year. Silver, a large solid silver ring in the general form of a class ring and set with a faceted synthetic stone, alexandrite, chrysoberyl, berryllium aluminum oxide, not that you'll be much interested in that—more so, perhaps, in the faintly intriguing fact that the stone changes color in different lights, from pink to green to amethyst to blue. I bought it for its very flamboyance. Me, flamboyant? Well, my puppy, I will confess while handing it over to you, the deep dark secret that I too was once your very age—imagine that!--but will not allude to the paired thought that stands upright beside us like a mirror and suggests, glares, even shouts, that someday you will reach—attain--crawl to----be wheeled into my exact age, the gods of time willing. Here, it's yours, I wore it for ten, fifteen, twenty years, a mere blink of any eye, its changing color reflecting my youthful ambiguities: was I weird, different, exceptional, straight, bi, gay, poly, or just normally overheatedly sexual, happy to hump anything soft that moved and smiled and laughed?
  2. The Train With No Engine
    ...for whom I had boxed and wrapped up in tissue paper the complete but incomplete (no engine) electric train set, used, very used, given to me by my father before the war, a war, some war, any war, doesn't matter which, as a Christmas present, an engineless used electric train set with two turquoise (badly chipped) passenger cars with roofs that came off to give access to the small electric light bulbs within, an orange box car, a flatbed car, which in fact were from another set another brand, and didn't fit or hitch to the passenger cars, and a few lengths of O-gauge three-rail track, my first train set, engineless.
  3. A Sharp Buffalo Gun
    Our grandfather's or great grandfather's buffalo gun, a Sharp, would not go down well in the overhead bin of business class, would it now?
  4. Two Alaskan Totem Poles
    I point over to the west windowsill at either end of which are two totem poles brought back from Alaska by the common ancestor during the gold rush where he hoped to recoup the family fortune much diminished by a market crash.
  5. Starr's Own Corpse
    Did you get the forms from the university medical school? I ask. Oh, she says, those. She takes the clipboard back and thumbs through to the last sheets. Here they are. Are you sure about this? Of course, I should get a good tax credit for donating my body to medical science. She stares, then laughs. But tell them before you send them in or deliver them that I want to meet someone, I want to meet whoever is going to come and get me. You do? Make it a condition, even, I say, and scribble my signature on the highlighted lines of several release forms. Soon. Tell them my shelf life is running out.
  6. Fake Rolex
    The Rolex, I point out, is fake. Canal Street back in the last century, grasping for status, the chunky stainless weight of the thing, knowing that I alone could see the sliver of a fraction of an inch the jerking second half was off by in relation to the raised metal minute and second markers, wore it through countless marketing meetings until I could afford the real thing, oddly a letdown, and also a worry, I preferred the counterfeit, still wore it until it finally quit.
  7. Elgin Pocket Watch
    And this one? He holds up a gold Elgin pocket watch from an even earlier century on a leather strap. Genuine, not working, my great-grandfather's, the one who married a Gromley second or was it third time around, your great grandmother's sister, if I have that right. Take both.
  8. French Pocket Dictionary
    Hartzweil, I gave the little dictionary to a Harzweil, mother's side, the German side, Gem Pocket French, pages of bible paper, bound and rebound by a friend decades ago, containing in the flyleaf the four Paris addresses of my youth, rue de Four, rue des Saints-Peres, rue Grueze, rue de Cherche-Midi, over which he made a great show of a great fuss, or feigned, confused, who knows. Keith, I seem to remember. Post doc in some obscure field. Lichens? Mosses? Then tried to hand it back to me not having understood the first time, Here, take it, it's yours. Mine, to keep, you mean? Yours, keep, yes, good basic Anglo-Saxon words, n'est-ce-pas? What? He said. Yes, of course. Keep. Keep. You got it. Well yes I do. Thank you. Pas de quoi. He waved it up in the air as if to toss it over his shoulder, brought it back down, looked down at it with a possible show of veneration, shoved it into his corduroy sports coat pocket, in the course of which the fragile front cover was quite ripped off. Thinking I was of an age to no longer notice such details, he fingered the dangling cover over the lip of the pocket and stuffed it inside. Thinking, no doubt, that it might fetch twelve cents on eBay. Or even less now, with its detached front cover. We stood frozen into the attitudes of benefactor and beneficiary. Thank you, he said again. He did not say, I will treasure it, having already trashed it.
  9. Stone House Key
    From a hook there hangs an ancient key that weighs a good pound and is of the approximate dimensions, lengthwise at least, of a fully inflated male member of generous or mildly legendary proportions, as was pointed out in the Greek island village once its home. It once opened the thick wooden gate to the courtyard of a two-story stone house I spent a licentious summer in, when licentiousness was still possible, much drinking, occasional coupling on dry land and in shallow water, with both sexes, names written down somewhere, I'm certain.
  10. Cigarette Lighter to the LDS Solicitor
    But wait. Your reward. I look around the room and wonder what can I give him. There is on the mantelpiece a tall tinplate cigarette lighter of vaguely Victorian inspiration from a Piraeus brothel I once whiled away a few of my salad days within, amazing offers in all sexes, ouzo, retsina exquisite calamari and octopodi, the only problem being the round trip distance between the front door where I'm still standing and the fireplace about thirty-five feet distant, for a total of seventy-five feet, impossible this early in the morning. Could you bring me, I ask him, that odd cylindrical metal appliance on the mantelpiece. What? But he understands and, swift-footed Mercury, strides across the room, though unlike Mercury, trips on a Berber throw rug, rights himself, continues to destination, picks up the object, which no one yet has described as phallic, and he and his people certainly won't, and brings it back, hands it to me. I look down on it fondly, then hand it back to him. It's yours. Your reward. But what is it? A holy cigarette lighter. Though be careful not to fill it more than half full of lighter fluid. Otherwise it could explode.
  11. Desdemona, the Pierce-Arrow
    Stu, tap one-two-three-enter on to the keypad there. He does. The garage door stutters upward, halts momentarily at half mast, clears its throat, continues. She stares out at us, grand headlights emerging from the tops of the tall dark blue fenders, tall verticle chrome grill, windshield squinting from the depths, Desdemona by name. Pull out keys, paper, shove them at him. Here, she's yours.
  12. Two Ugly Vases
    Those. I point across the room at another side table west of the far sofa. They turn. Toward two tall Victorian ormolu vases with tarnished gilt fretwork,a pastiche of Troisieme Empire motifs, with no practical use: where one might think to insert flower, liquid, ambrosia, there is no orifice, only a spherical plug of pot metal, an extension of the fretwork. Kevin Blue stands, crosses the room, picks up both of them, carries them back. God, they weigh a ton. Solid gold. I'll bet. Or some metal or other. He drops one onto Kevin Red's lap. Catch. Red gasps. There follow profuse hypocritical thanks, so nice to see you after all these years, take care of yourself, yourselves, and I watch them shoulder their way out the door and swagger down the walk, looters of the temple, looking right to left, the incredibly ugly vases swinging from arms, somebody's wedding gift, sitting around family houses for a hundred and fifty years because nobody dared throw them out, an ancestral hosanna booming down from the clouds, Thank god he got rid of them at last. Though through a child's eyes they were mysterious and stately, endlessly stared at, fondled, speculated about: why did they have no vase hole when everything else had a hole of some kind?
  13. Three Photo Albums
    She's standing. I really must go, she says. I've overstayed.
    Not at all. Overstayed? I'm the one who's overstayed. Years over. Decades over. Now see that bookshelf over there.
    She swivels around.
    Behind the glass doors there are three photo albums, far right, upper shelf?
    Yes?
    Take them. All three.
    What?
    Take them away. They're yours.
    She walks over to the bookcase, opens the doors, reaches up, takes them down.

  14. Tibetan Brass Bowl
    He reaches up and picks it up by the rim, a small Tibetan brass begging bowl, turns it around in his hands, blows the dust out of it, studies the markings on the side.
    It's yours, I say. Every financial advisor ought to have one.

  15. Two Boxes of Letters
    Your mother's letters, I explain. He looks at his watch. A large gold watch, which conveys the message that this is a large expensive heavy gold watch worn by important men it is safe to invest with, ha ha.
  16. White Dress Shirt
    Jonathan stands paralyzed. Max leans in the back and puts down both rear-facing jump seats. Ramona eventually returns, limping, shaking out one of my white dress shirts from my button-down French-cuff silk-tie days of yore. He slips it on, misbuttons two buttons, hops on to a car seat.


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