Written in 1968 and rereleased by the Dalkey Archive Press in 2009, Stanley Crawford’s The Log of the S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine is a strange trip on a strange vessel, a novella that is, in turns, dreamlike and numbingly sad. Chronicling the lives of a post-modern Adam and Eve, Mr. and Mrs. Unguentine (though Mr. is referred to as simply Unguentine, thank you), Crawford explores domesticity, marriage, and what it means to be without a country. Crawford’s gifts are on full display here: the writing is vivid and, at times, inspiring. Interestingly, some of the strongest prose here is the fantastic litany of greenery, agriculture, and farming, but the weakness of the book lies in the marriage of the Unguentines.
In interviews Crawford claims that these characters are outsiders, and technically that’s true: they live on the ocean, outside of borders cultural and national. But their marriage, to each other and to the barge on which they listlessly tour unnamed coasts and unknown seas, is strikingly traditional. The mysterious Unguentine is a patriarch of the first order. On one hand, he works with his hands to create their floating Eden, an unmoored island, complete with farm animals, crops, and discrete weather patterns. One the other, Unguentine beats the Mrs., drinks, never speaks, and, therefore, never explains himself. Mrs. Unguentine cleans, cooks, and cleans some more. She longs for children, a brood of them, and her greatest failure is her inability to conceive a child (the infertility problem strikes deep: the most intriguing part of the novella the loving detail given to her fraudulent pregnancy). Much of her time is spent in search of her elusive husband. They speak more in notes than in person. Often she lists her quotidian existence in clipped declaratives: “Years passed. Eons.” and “I sat in my chair, finished my tea secure in the knowledge that there was no place to go. This was it.”
Unfortunately, as a narrator Mrs. Unguentine never quite feels true—she’s an impossible creation. She speaks like an art-damaged scholar, yet has lived her whole meager existence on the barge. Crawford defines her femininity by her inability to birth children (and at the novella’s close, her metaphorical birth of a dead Unguentine). She’s an abstraction of a woman, interesting, but bloodless, used mostly to detail the incredible inventions of her husband, a chronicler of a genius inventor and his mad decline. It’s not that her story doesn’t draw one in, it’s that never for a second does it ever ring true. Indeed, the narrative is performance from the beginning to the end, Crawford as the real voice speaking here, not the poor Mrs. Unguentine, and because of this the work feels like an exercise rather than a character study.
Crawford states that “…the novel is still considered dangerous in totalitarian and fundamentalist societies. As a rule the novel criticizes or even denigrates the collectivity from which, ironically, it emerges; by definition its protagonists are outsiders, misfits, criminals.” Not to burst Crawford’s bubble, but I don’t think Unguentine is on Kim Jong-Il’s bedside table. Crawford’s book is exquisite and unique, but underneath the layers of novelty lie the same hoary domestic troubles that authors have been writing about for years in every kind of society, totalitarian, free, or floating.