February 02, 2017
by Stanley Crawford
University of Alabama, 2016
Stanley Crawford’s Intimacy
by Austin Price
A Slow and Easeful Thing
The unnamed narrator of Stanley Crawford’s Intimacy may dither for pages on end about his plan to kill himself, but the reader realizes early on that this is only a ritual, a game he plays with himself from time to time. That he has no intention of killing himself. That he cannot kill himself. His attachment to life is too readily apparent: his thoughts are an endless catalog describing every single one of his insignificant possessions and guessing at the origin of even his most obscure action. With every reminder that he has been here before and every insistence that this, this time will be different, with every forecast of a future beset by daily chores and annoyances, he betrays a constitutional inability to commit to his suicidal program. Yet you wish he would. It would be an act of mercy.
That might sound flippant, a jab at the subject matter or the novel’s voice, but it is not intended to. Crawford is a remarkable stylist, with a bent that somehow combines the lyrical and clinical seamlessly. And he possesses an eye for the particular that endows even trivial possessions and the million-and-one sensations a body undergoes in the course of any day with poetic heft. Those strange spasms that fascinate our unnamed protagonist and which we all feel across our bodies from time to time, unbidden, become, at the other end of his pen, a “tickling worm of sensation,” a “restlessness of flesh;” chest hair is “as if drawn or sketched with a fine pen...animal like...[like] those of some breed of domestic animals.” The simple removal of a shirt becomes “an admission of fatigue,” an empty pair of jeans takes on sad significance as a kind of ghost still carrying the shape and wear of an owner who wishes to end his life forever.
This kind of fine-sketched approach might grate as a writerly indulgence if it wasn’t so beautifully handled, or if it were not so essential to understanding his subject’s psyche. Following him, one is put of Dostoevsky’s underground man, or Dazai’s Ōba Yōzō and the tangled loop of illogic their minds have become. Only where the former was frantic, full of life and furies, and the latter was deeply self-loathing, almost scornful of his own existence, Intimacy’s narrator is entirely unsure of his. He is constantly receding, life passes by at a distance forever beyond his reach. Those bodily sensations Crawford portrays so beautifully are for the narrator a source of deep existential dread, each one standing as “a reminder that (his) body...[was] like a tool (that] had once been owned by somebody else, whose actions and habits had worn it in this way.” Recurrent motifs have it that he sees his own body just as he sees the clothes that “press and bind (him) into a certain form, to ends nobody could guess” and which he discards at the end of each day in a fetishistic ritual, just as he hopes to discard his body. Intimacy is for him impossible; if he spends his days sunbathing naked in quiet contemplation it is in hopes only of forgetting “where the edge is of what (he) is.” And if he contemplates suicide by drowning it is only so that he will be “embraced, fondled...taken for what (he) is...by the infinity of [the ocean],” the edge between him and all else finally dissolved.
A soul so wracked by doubt about his own identity and overburdened with an hourly need to reaffirm his own existence is destined to spend his every remaining second trying to justify even the most minor of actions. Not to stave off the oblivion that would open up beneath his feet if he could not, necessarily; no one so uncertain of even the most basic elements of a self is capable of killing themselves. How could they, if they are not certain even such a self exist, when they cannot be sure their action would accomplish anything? Suicide would be for it an affirmation, as the narrator notes, is in fact the only means left for such a one to become “a normal person,” but their mindset dooms them so that they can affirm nothing. How could anyone not wish such a soul the release of suicide? It is a deeply disturbing world view; it should repulse, not attract. Yet in it Crawford finds a fragile, unsettling beauty and a rare voice that begs – in haunting, plaintive tones – attention.