“Sometimes when I am weary of seeing things in that flat, three-dimensional manner once so much boasted of, two plus two, and all the rest, there seems to be no longer any precise moment when old Unguentine vanished from my life, it seems rather an almost gradual process that went on over many years and as part of a great rhythm, as if, through some gentle law of nature, his disappearance would be followed by his gradual reemergence, that he would come back, so on, so forth.”—Stanley Crawford, Log of the S.S. the Mrs Unguentine
Here we find ourselves all at sea just eight pages into Stanley Crawford’s 1972 novella, this long sentence playing out across the water to give an early inkling of the lulling bewilderment we’ll grow accustomed to in the voyage ahead. It’s narrated by Mrs Unguentine (always Mrs, just like the eponymous ship), who relates a few pages prior that her husband, man overboard Unguentine (never Mr) “had been steering all those years with no idea of what he was steering towards” and whose legacy of aimlessness she’s doing her part to maintain.
The plot of Unguentine is as deceptively simple as a myth: it is an account of the seafaring adventures—which double as the domestic adventures—of Mrs Unguentine and her husband, a man who “grew nauseous upon land” and so took his wife to sea, fitting out a barge with increasingly elaborate gardens and mechanical contrivances. In time, the pair become famous (and infamous) in port cities across the world, their home in turn a curiosity, a resort of ill-repute plowing international waters, a smuggler’s ship. The notoriety eventually dissipates, leaving their self-contained ecosystem a floating world unto itself; all the better as far as Mrs Unguentine is concerned—even if her good riddance has something wistful about it.
The deeper and lonelier waters the Unguentines then sail into are chronologically behind us when we arrive at this sentence, though they are ahead of us in our reading. Already seeping into her wistfulness is a weariness, an impatience to be done with it all, captured in Mrs Unguentine’s final, wrist-flicking clause: “so on, so forth.”
The beauty of this sentence rests in its rhythmic swaying along a wave destined for that final clause; its undulations, so like the billowing sea, rolling toward a dismissive wave of the hand. Read—or better, hum—it aloud to feel yourself sliding along its crests and troughs. Notice the sentence’s velocity: we are on the back of long swells, the great rhythm of the sea mirrored in the great rhythm Mrs Unguentine imagines her husband’s become a part of. Later, when trouble comes, the sentences grow shorter, sharper, and more precise. But now, we’re drifting along waters subsiding from a great tempest.
It’s pleasurable to drift on these languid swells knowing the storm has passed, but how long can we, just embarked on this voyage, tolerate this aimlessness? We need to get somewhere and so are justified in asking: where is this sentence taking us?
Into the unfathomable mind of Mrs Unguentine, who from the start reveals herself to be capable of growing tired of the “flat, three-dimensional manner once so much boasted of”—of course, that manner, dismal reality—and who seems possibly at sea in both literal and figurative senses. But not entirely: that “sometimes” at the start opens the hatch to a narrative lucidity that will ebb and flow through the course of the book.
There’s another layer, too, of Mrs Unguentine’s remark: the ancient mariner Unguentine, who flaunted his seamanship with bottle in hand, whose charts are later revealed to have been blank, and whose renowned garden grew to such prodigious heights as to make navigation impossible anyway, has by dint of long exposure assumed the character of the sea, going and coming, slipping into the depths only to reemerge at some unexpected point in the sea beyond. By a “gentle law of nature,” the Mrs says, and what choice do we have but to believe her, finding ourselves in a region landlubbers like us know so little about? By some gentle law he’s disappeared. (The irony of this gentleness is revealed later.) And we wait. Adrift in a sea unbounded by coastlines, we can do little else but wait. By some gentle law, he’ll reappear. Gradually, like a point on the horizon, the way things appear at sea, first spotted a long way off and approached slowly.
Crawford, on the contrary, doesn’t give his readers the benefit of that slow approach. Instead, already by this languorous sentence we’re sailing over murky depths that contain the canon of Western nautical literature: Adam and Eve are aboard The Mrs Unguentine; as are Noah, Ulysses, Ahab and Ishmael (the first line of the book is “The name is Mrs Unguentine.”), and as the book was written in the 70s, Gaia is a passenger as well.
Which must mean that our entire planet is contained in these eighty-eight words.
Stephen Sparks (@rs_sparks) is a buyer at Green Apple Books in San Francisco. He blogs at Invisible Stories and is an editor at Writers No One Reads.