Log of the S.S. Venus Drive Discovering Home: Airborne Juxtaposition of S. Crawford, S. Lipsyte & B. Wainaina

NYC to Zurich. 23.03.09 (Log of the S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine)

Log of the S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine

Stayed up all night on the plane reading Log of the S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine. It became my flight plan.

More than anything I like the idea of it: A couple is at sea on a garbage barge. But it’s more than a barge. It’s Noah’s Ark or the Garden of Eden, or the Garden of Eden on Noah's Ark (or vice-versa) in that there are animals (a goat even) and they have a garden on this boat. It’s a surreally self-sustaining belief-suspending barge, more like an island than a boat. A floating island, or a Biosphere II.

Speaking of garbage and floating islands, last week a climate change friend of ours told us about this Pacific Trash Vortex, which I was otherwise blissfully oblivious to.

Take this trash vortex I captured on video in the Tiber and integrate it over twice the area of the Continental U.S. This is an all too real accumulation of the cumulative dreams of our collective unconscious. This is why I prefer fiction to reality.

The body of water they're on in the book is more than a sea or a trash vortex. It is a porous sea that becomes a marsh, and then land. Mrs. Unguentine sees one of her husbands hand-drawn maps and realizes "there was something different about this map, something missing: it was land. There was not a scrap of land anywhere on it."

It’s a strange dystopia in which Mr. and Mrs. Unguentine are the only inhabitants. Or rather, Mrs. Unguentine is the only inhabitant and she is reflecting back on a time when her husband was in the picture. But for all we know he is in her head, all of this is in her head, within Stanley Crawford (the author's) head.

The Log of the S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine is a ship's log with no coordinates or dates. And if they are riding on Noah's Ark, we are not told the events that led up to it, the flood that sweeps them into this seemingless (and seamless) expanse. All we know is that Unguentine, her alcoholic husband, killed himself. Something I might have rather been blissfully oblivious too.

Considering my mother is in this same boat, this might be something she might write. Back in December she sent me an email out of the blue that said:


The Log of the S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine could be this very same dream told in a different way. Joseph Campbell would have a field day with all this.

I hope my mother doesn't mind that I said that. I kept seeing the email in my inbox and didn't know what to do with it or why she was telling me this. I'm sure she was trying to tell me something, but I couldn't answer it and I couldn't delete it. Now it lives in my own private Pacific Trash Vortex.

My mother tries to read this blog sometimes, or so I am told. I am also told she doesn't understand most of it. A lot of people tell me that actually. Some people also ask why I bother to go on like this. Sometimes I ask myself that question. Why do we write? Why do we tweet? The best answer I can come up with is, "look ma, no hands."

Not that I have my mother in mind when I write, but you get what I mean. More of a collective mother maybe. We're staving off mortality with words. We're translating our genetic code into something tangible, leaving a jet trail of our existence: "SURRENDER DOROTHY!"

Surrender is a good word. Almost as good as render by itself. Sur means south in Spanish. South of Render.

If I die, will someone keep paying my hosting bill? It's not a lot to ask, some $50 a year or so. If I had a will, I'd put this clause in there. That, and that I prefer to be eaten by wild animals rather than buried or cremated. Would this hold up in a court of law?

Not to sound grim or anything. I'm doing fine, mom, and anyone else that reads this to find out how we are carrying on. And to answer your question, I'm not sure where cattails grow in northeast Africa, but I think I've seen something resembling them around here.

What happens to our twitter or facebook accounts when we die? I've heard of mydeathspace, but is there a facebook cemetery? Looks like deadfacebook exists though my connection sucks too bad to peruse. It's pretty much sucked ever since we got back. It sucks across all of Kenya. I'm at the UN now and it sucks even though "the internet" thinks I'm in Italy. I'm picturing a man behind a curtain cranking on something when I think of "the internet." It appears that www.shotinthefacebook.com is available, but it's hard for me to tell. Someone could probably make a killing if they registered it with the wizard. Put profiles up of people that were shot in the face like Kurt Cobain and Ernest Heminway.

I would never use the word facebook or twitter or famous people's names in a literary work or work of art. And I would never say, "pretty much sucked."

I don't consider this a work of art. There is nothing sacred about this. "The internet" as a whole is sacred, but no single page on the internet is. This page is merely an ant. Or a bee. A drop in the bucket. A web for spiders to crawl on.

Mrs. Unguentine isn't much of a mother. Somewhere along the way she demands a child. This is the account of how she gets pregnant, in my eyes:

"With tears streaming from my eyes and the wind whipping them away, I slung my brown thighs over the rail and dropped my feet to a ledge and groped along to the anchor as the bow pumped up and down over the high waves and into the valleys between, my body utterly naked to the hot wind and cooling spray. At last I was gripping the rusty studs which had held at the figurehead and by which, in an instant of calm, I swung myself down to her pedestal where I soon stood facing out to sea, my arms stretched wide to welcome the ceaseless waters, scraps of seaweed, fish, anything."

I mean, they eventually get it on, like for real, after a bizarre courtship. If you believe anything she says, she's obviously not very reliable. The way she describes her pregnancy, she makes herself get fatter and fatter by eating more and more, afraid Unguentine would discover she wasn't pregnant. And then it just ended up this nameless child appeared, handed to her by Unguentine, already 9 months old.

Hysterical if you ask me. With a role reversal thrown in for good measure. When the kid was five, he swam away and that was that.

To say The Log of the S.S. The Mrs Unguentine is an allegory for a couple's marriage gone bad is stating the obvious. I like to think of it more as a narrative about a bag lady that lives on a garbage barge. Maybe she had a husband or even a kid, but that's irrelevant. It's a logbook, a record, about the goings on on this boat. Or in her mind on the boat. Or the boat on her mind.

I was listening to Red House Painters while I was reading it, which seemed appropriate enough. In particular, his cover of "Silly Love Songs," which otherwise qualifies as the gayest song on this planet, the vortex of the Pacific Trash Vortex that is killing sea turtles and albatross worldwide. Thanks to Kozelek, for rescuing us from 1976.

The novel is nothing new, it was written back in 1972 by Stanley Crawford. Published by Alfred A. Knopf under the guidance of Gordon Lish. That was a good year for Knopf, the same year they unleashed Ohle's Motorman on the world.

I was a wee lad in Oregon in 1972 and was not aware of the existence of either of these books until a long time after. Mostly what I was doing was catching crawdads and waiting 'til I could swim well enough to jump ship.

I imagine a lot of books born in 1972 died and no one has heard from them since. Not these ones. Dalkey Archive rescued The Log of The S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine from extinction. 3rd bed rescued Motorman (before the torch was passed on to me). Really, these books saved themselves by their own virtue.

The pilot just came over the PA to tell us that we are over Paris. This plane is far from the S.S. The Mrs Unguentine. That's an awkward name for a boat, and an even more cumbersome title for a book.

I used to be afraid of boats. Every time I would set foot on one I would get sea sick and suffer an anxiety similar, but at the same time opposite, to claustrophobia. Thalassophobia? Though I wouldn't go so far as to say I was afraid of the sea so much as being stuck on a vessel out on it. But I liked the idea of boats and envied people who sailed on them.

One day I was wandering around a yacht harbor on the island of Fiji and decided to conquer this fear. Against inner logic, I took a job working on a 110-foot ship called The Adelaar. It was a river barge that was converted into a triple mast schooner. The captain was some Dutch guy who burned his face off welding a railing on the ship. His hot Scandinavian wife was also on board, as were their two kids, all with different passports from being born in different places. A half dozen other back-packing vagabonds were also hitching a ride, "crewing" for passage and board. We sailed from Fiji to New Zealand through stormy waters. I was sick half the time and the other half I was generally miserable. I discovered that a sailor's life is not for me. But maybe a book will come of it one day.

I'd like to cover The Log of the S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine or see someone else cover it. Not that it's necessarily poorly written, but it would be interesting to see it done differently. Has a book ever been covered? Not "covered" as in made into a movie, or a song (like Venus Bogardus doing Motorman), but re-written? There's some books like Ulysses that are based on the Odyssey, but is it really a cover or is it loosely based on it? I'm thinking of the literary equivalent of Red House Painters redoing "Silly Love Songs" or "All Mixed Up," or Michael Andrews & Gary Jules re-duxing "Mad, Mad World." Where the words are the same, but sung to a different tune. Or "Beautiful World," as redone by Rage, or "Present Tense" (by Romeo Void) which I swear I heard The Rapture cover once even though now I find no record of it on the internet. What does the internet know?

I have to admit, it took me a bit to get into The Log. If I was the editor, Captain Lish, I would've nixed the first five chapters completely. This is where she tells you what's going on, like that Unguentine was an alcoholic that killed himself. I would have rather been blissfully oblivious of this, or rendered this conclusion in my own head. Maybe it was Lish that put him up to adding this expository material, but I doubt it. My guess is there was even more superfluous material at the beginning that Lish cut, and what's left was for consolation. Lish the sculptor.

Weird, I just googled Blake Butler and The Log of the S.S. as I remember him saying some stuff about the book, and in the comments is where I stated I would get a SSES tattoo. Which is for Ulysses, not that I'm a fan or anything. I'm thinking now, that in this tattoo that I'm crafting for our NEX⊥ ∃XIT, which I describe in the previous dispatch, I need to add a "S.S." in there somewhere. But first we need to figure out our next move. I just twittered or tweeted or whatever it is they call it. "Keep your eye on the ball, sure, but know what sport you're playing," is what I said.

Zurich to Nairobi reading Venus Drive

After I finished Log of the S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine, I embarked on Venus Drive by Sam Lipsyte.

I was reading it in Zurich, when he said, “All I can tell you is about Zurich.”

Being here, I can’t tell you anything about Zurich except what it look likes from the air. And what the airport looks like but that could be anywhere. I took a photo of it going the other direction. For all I know it was the same gate.

London and Cairo and Manila are the same for me. All I know is what the airport looks like or what it looks like from the air. I’ve been to Houston probably a dozen times but don’t KNOW anything about Houston. I think I’ve even driven through Houston once or twice.

Sam Lipsyte: Venus Drive

One day I want to fly around the world and never get off the plane, ending up where I began. Or take the Tran-Siberia railroad across all of Asia with the windows boarded up and never get off. Or sail around the world and never anchor in a port or see land.

Venus Drive has nothing to do with Venus or traveling around the world without getting off. But there’s a street name Venus Drive that appears in a few of the stories.

I tried to read another book of Lipsyte's, Homeland, before in Zipolite, Mexico, but didn't take to it much. I compared him to Mark Leyner and said he was trying too hard. Maybe it was ME trying too hard to read it. Or me being boring, so I perceived it as boring. Or maybe Lipsyte is just not meant to be read in Zipolite. The only other thing I remember about Zipolite is that it was infested with flies and hippies.

I also talked a bit of trash about Lish that trip to Guatemala. So sue me. I warmed up later to his Peru.

Lish doesn't talk trash about Lipsyte in his blurb for the book. He tells us to wise up and try Lipsyte. Though the way he says it sounds full of himself. But he's like Bono in that he can gets away with this. Lord knows he's earned it.

Maybe I'll go back and edit that "review" to say something else, to revisit the review. I can do that. Then my pulled punches would only appear in the cache for a while and people's memories. People think writing is permanent, but it's not. This is not a book, nor is it "published" in any sense of the word. Publishing to me implies permanence, like being shot in the face. If you were ever to come back to this, it might say something different. Opinions should be allowed to evolve.

I repeat, this is not art.

I didn't feel this way about Venus Drive. It was shot in the face in 2000 (by Open City).

Zurich is a better place than Zipolite, even though I'm not really here. Especially now.

One of the reasons I picked up Venus Drive while I was stateside was because of the things Gary Lutz said about it in a talk he gave at Columbia. For example, Lutz goes on at length about sentences like: “Everybody wanted everything to be gleaming again, or maybe they just wanted their evening back.” Does it matter what such a sentence means as long as it rolls off the tongue the way it does? This sentence could be about being on a barge at sea. It could be about traveling around the world (east to west) and never getting off.

Not all Lipsyte's sentences are necessarily like that. Sometimes they are more about substance than sound. Like this sentence that appears later in the story: “It’s harder than the Skee-Ball they used to have at the Plaza arcade, all that agony over a fuzzy prize.”

Talk about being at an airport and never getting off.

These sentences say far more than what’s on the surface. Just like those fuzzy dice hanging from the rear view mirror are really testicles. They make you want to stay on the plane. For example, if you read the sentence: “I once caught him with his finger in my sister under the Ping-Pong table,” Wouldn’t you want to keep reading?



If you kept reading, this is what you’d get: “When he saw me he pulled his finger out. Don’t be a schmuck, I told him, finish up.”

He then goes on to describe his sister, saying “She was still pretty, if you like girls who are skulls with a little skin on them, a few strands of cotton for hair. It was hard to believe she was going to live another minute.”

You get the idea. If you dig this, then I suggest you get the book. It kept me more than entertained flying from New York to Nairobi. Definitely more so than the in-flight movies.


After reading Venus Drive, I chewed some more on some novellas that David Ohle sent me and I think I'm going to publish two of them: Boons & Billy's Nose. Though that's not necessarily what they will be called. Stay tuned for more on that.

Nairobi.24.03.09—Discovering Home

Landed in Nairobi in the dark. Added another Kenyan stamp to my passport, that makes a dozen or more by now. I know better than to stand in the long tourist line, but does that make me Kenyan? I think not.

It was hot and dry, compared to New York anyway. The rains hadn’t come yet. It didn’t take long for the sweat and diesel smell of Nairobi to infiltrate our being. We merged onto the highway chocked full of matatus, NGO SUVs and cargo trucks passing through to Uganda.

It seems every time we step out of Kenya, something bad happens. Fortunate for us, you might say, but sometimes you belong more to a place when you're there during hard times. Like living in NYC on 9.11.01. We were in Tanzania and Malawi when the Nakumatt burned down and then the gas tanked that exploded as people were siphoning gas from it. While we were gone this month, two human right activists investigating police corruption were shot in a traffic jam in broad daylight, followed by student protests and general unrest. Our driver told things were relatively “quiet” now. And it seemed so. But sometimes quiet is more unnerving than chaos.

Binyavanga Wainaina: Discovering Home

Got “home” to our dark bungalow and unpacked. Forced ourselves to go to sleep at 11 even though we weren't tired. Of course we were both wide awake again at 3 a.m. So I read Binyavanga Wainaina's Discovering Home.

Not that I’m one of these mzungus with romantic notions of calling the plains of Africa home. I have simply returned to live out my sabbatical here. To extend my permanent vacation. The credible musings on Kenya as home are best left to Binyavanga. He does it well. After being in South Africa for a spell, he returns to Kenya for a year. And at the end of that, he goes to Uganda, where his mother is from. This little chapbook (a Kwanini) contain his musing from these times.

It starts on the ride back from the airport, though this was before 2002 (this is the story that won him the 2002 Caine prize, deservedly so). Nairobi was a different world back then. He writes, “Around us: Matatus, those brash, garish public transport vehicles, so irritating to every Kenyan except those who own one, or work for one; I can see them as the best example of contemporary Kenyan art.” He goes on to describe their paint jobs and sound systems and how they navigate the obstacle course of Nairobi with manambas (the sidekick conductors) hanging out the windows. Not much has changed, except the paint jobs and sound systems are now illegal. So what does that mean for Kenya? Pre-2002, Binyavanga writes, “Our worse recession ever has just produced brighter, more creative matatus.”

The chaos remains, minus the color.

I’m waiting for the same post-recession creative burst in the U.S. This is what made the 80s so great. How long will it take to kick in? When can I return home? For now, this is where I am.

“This is Nairobi,” Binyavanga says. “This is what you do to get ahead: make yourself boneless, and treat your straitjacket as if it were a game, a challenge.”

Sometimes it takes people to leave and come back to see beyond the surface.

“Why, when all odds are against our thriving, do we move with so much resolution? Kenyan’s economy is on the brink of collapse, but we march on like safari ants, waving our pincers as if we will win. Maybe motion is necessary even when it produces nothing.”

Maybe motion is necessary even when it produces nothing. He said a cotton-pickin' mouthful. This is basically what I was trying to say by "travelling around the world without getting off."

I'm not sure what the origin of that cotton-pickin' saying is, but I'm sure somebody will tell me it's racist. I probably picked it up from the likes of Johnny Cash. I doubt Binyavanga has ever picked cotton before in his life. I had drinks with him once and he complained about his tea not being prepared properly. He's picky but not cotton-picky. In the book, though, he gets a job driving around Eastern Kenya encouraging farmer's to grow cotton.

Binyavanga is admittedly of the elite class. He defines it as people on either side of a timeline. Two groups that are: “fascinated by one another. We, the modern ones, are fascinated by the completeness of the old ones. To us, it seems that everything is mapped out and defined for them, and everybody is fluent in those definitions. The old ones are not much impressed in our society, our manners—what catches their attention is our tools: the cars and medicines and telephones and wind-up dolls and guns.”

Somebody told me recently that what Africa needs are elitists. I'd agree with that. Obama is an elitist. He was almost too smart for America. Obama is not of the same tribe as Binyavanga, but since they are both elitists, it doesn't matter. Elitists are for the most part above tribal lines. We undoubtedly talked about Obama with Binyavanga, but I can't remember what in particular he said about him. All I know is Binyavanga is picky about his tea, fond of eating goat and appreciates a good beer or two. Or three.

Debauchery is the unifying force of humanity. From Binya's mouth:

“More hours later, I am standing in a line of people outside the club, a chorus of liquid glitter arching high out, then down to the ground, then zips close. The pliant nothingness of the huge night above us goads us to movement.”

And his thoughts on dancing:

“We affirm a common purpose, any doubts about others’ motives must fade if we are all pieces of one movement. We forget, don’t we, that there is another time, apart from the hour and the minute? A human measurement, ticking away in our bodies, behind our facades.”

His thoughts on the difference between black and white and how they write:

“The story would be about the wide, empty spaces people from Europe yearn to get lost in, rather than the cosy surround of kin we Africans generally seek."

My last name is White and I indeed would take wide, empty spaces over crowds. And I get geeked out over virtually any living animal. So sue me.

Binya's thoughts on escapism and literature:

“I want to go back to my cheap motel-room, and read a book full of realism and stingy prose.”

The last thing I want to read at the end of the day is something "real." Apparently most Kenyans can't get enough of reality. Then again, worldwide, the trend seems to be leaning towards reality shows, so I'm probably in the minority no matter where I am.

Binya's thoughts on contradictions, and this is the kicker that negates all else:

“If there is a courtesy every Kenyan practices, it is that none of us ever question each other’s contradictions; we all have them, and destroying someone’s face is sacrilege.”

Amen to contradictions. Though my www.shotinthefacebook.com probably wouldn't be a hit in Kenya. He goes on to say:

“There is nothing wrong with being what you are not in Kenya, just be it successfully. Almost every Kenyan joke is about somebody who thought they had mastered a new persona and ended up ridiculous.”

The joke's on me.



(c) 2009 Derek White