On the surface, Travel Notes by Stanley Crawford is glib satire, in line with Catch-22 or Vonnegut’s Slapstick. The novel is episodic, owing to the tradition of the farcical travelogue. Promotional materials compare the story to a “fever dream”. I’m not sure what that means, fortunate as I’ve been never to have had a fever dream, but I’m glad these blurbers survived their ailments to give us that metaphor. The way I see it, the narrative moves Robbe-Grillet style according to proximity and juxtaposition, the underlying logic of the story being that of repulsion and attraction rather than psychological motive and resultant action.
I’m saying there’s not much plot.
But actually—there’s a ton of plot. An un-summarizable amount of stuff happens in this book, the eponymous notes themselves being a series of summaries.
My best attempt at jacket copy synopsis: A wealthy man travels through undeveloped countries, resorts and ruins, while wearing a white linen suit. He meets characters and has adventures. One involves an elephant, another a cabinet minister. There’s a weird romance and toward the end, there’s a murder mystery. The narrator chronicles these happenings via tape recorder and jots down his notes during periods of rest, often from bed.
Like Robbe-Grillet, Crawford seems interested in how spatial relationships create tension—repulsion and attraction—and how tension cannot help but precipitate narrative. Both writers find character problematic. For both, character is an artifice, an unreliable doohickey mucking up the fun of naturally occurring conflict. But where Robbe-Grillet opts to efface character and posit the conscious eye at the center of the story, Crawford makes a joke of the whole setup. For Crawford, the story isn’t important as a thing in and of itself. For him, the story is the byproduct of an occasion, the curious aftermath of stuff going on.
At one point while following someone through a strange city, our narrator muses:
… were we to meet in the future, in another place, I am sure we would talk over the whole episode and laugh and laugh at the time and expense one of us went to to follow the other who in fact was only wandering through the city to wear away a boredom, a desperation with a fatiguing variety of sensations.
And later, after reuniting with The Painted Woman, the novel’s love interest, our narrator explains his rationale for travel:
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.
And that’s where Travel Notes takes its big risk. Nothing in this book is fixed or certain. It’s unclear as to whether The Painted Woman is one character or a series of different characters who’ve been given that title. This uncertainty results in the novel’s lack of an emotional center. There’s no relief, save for the realization that all relief is false. This paradoxical thinking is in keeping with the book’s big ideas about movement and conscience, but only during moments of confession, when the narrator articulates his motivations and anxieties, is there any sense of understanding.
And maybe that’s the point, that the satisfaction we derive from travel and its reciprocal storytelling isn’t the thrill of adventure but the validation of our shared vulnerability.
Few writers concern themselves with literature’s abiding question: Why should I read a book when I could watch ESPN on my computer-phone?
And for all the gestures and performances we contrive to console ourselves (and make no mistake, we’re consoling ourselves—everyone else is watching ESPN) the reality remains that literature will not influence world markets. It will not feed malnourished children or cure diseases. Ulysses never gave anyone the Heimlich maneuver, and the case for literature building character (contributing to the formation of the well-rounded, Heimlich-maneuvering sophisticates we so desperately need for our democracy to thrive) is, at best, specious, wishful thinking.
And besides, why does reading books have to be good for us?
Travel Notes reminds me this is a great time to be a reader, a time when strong-limbed presses like Calamari are taking matters into their own hands. Travel Notes was originally published in 1967 and brought back to us by Calamari, placing Crawford in the company of Calamari reprint allstars Gary Lutz and Scott Bradfield. But, more importantly, Crawford affirms a suspicion for me that what makes writing necessary is its ability to dwell. That’s a dramatic word, dwell, but it’s apt. Literature is the art that takes attendance, attracting and repelling, constantly reminding us of our accountability to it.
A last bit from Crawford. The narrator is driving a car:
Bushes grow into focus, now slip out the sides of the windshield, and one compares them in size with each other, with perhaps an idealized bush; and the same for boulders, for the width of the twisting road, the rocks that have fallen into it, the tones of the blue sky which are deepest straight up and fade towards the horizons: all an exercise of the faculties of perception for the pure pleasure of it and without nagging utility, for I had nothing to do with this landscape but to cross it, and in so doing look at it, since, with the first feeling of confidence, I was now able to exclude from my mind the possibility of the machine breaking down. It would not happen. A greater possibility was the landscape itself breaking down, so to speak—turning suddenly into mud, powder, or paper.
Friends, keep moving.
Travel Notes, by Stanley Crawford. Washington, DC: Calamari Archive, March 2014. 136 pages. $14.00, paper.
Dan Townsend lives in Birmingham, Alabama. His fiction appears in Barrelhouse, NANO Fiction, and Drunken Boat, among others.