By Jim Feast
While in writing Lynn Crawford has veered between realism (as in Shankus & Kitto) and near sci fi (as in Fortification Resort), her new book, Paula Regossy, combines elements of both by mixing contemporary reportage into an imaginative novel of spies and fairy tales.
The founding premise is one familiar from espionage fiction. The lead characters all work for an unnamed NGO, which is discreetly commissioned to bust crime. “We are contacted and hired by the few in the know. Our fees are high.” The operatives primarily investigate people who work for companies that balance on the knife edge between philanthropy and skullduggery. “Our marks are wealthy companies that wreak wide-scale damage yet contribute. For example, they authorize toxic dumps in waterways and launch and fund charitable and arts foundations.” Most of the chapters describe the experiences of Regossy and agents she has trained.
(Let me mention that in an email exchange with the author, Crawford said she sees these trained agents as aspects of the main character. She writes, “The book is titled Paula Regossy and is, in fact, a portrait of her. … No piece is ALL of her. Each one is PART of her. What we end with (in my head) is a picture of SOME of her but, of course, not ALL of her.)
Unlikely as this may seem, what is fundamentally a crime story is structured so as to allow Crawford a chance to display her knowledge of the Detroit arts scene. The title character has broken a rule of the agency by getting emotionally involved with a suspect and so has been reassigned to Detroit where, while getting her priorities back on track, she takes as her cover identity that of a Bohemian art maven, who supplies the reader with descriptions of the budding, bubbling creative community. A note at the back of the book tells us that Crawford was inspired to compose this book by her viewing of a number of gallery shows, including some described by Regossy. She tells us, “Each chapter in this book is my personal (but faithful) response to works by various Detroit-based artists and spaces.”
In this way, the author grounds the cloak and dagger narrative in a world she knows well. However, if she gives it a realistic edge here, in other sections, she lets the story lift off into wild reaches of the imagination. For instance, in a story that explains how Joan became an individual whose skills proved very useful in sleuthing, we learn of Joan’s devastation when her brother dies tragically in his youth. After this trauma, she develops odd physical symptoms. “For a while, I stopped growing. Then I shrank.” Next, her changes get even less explicable. “Another thing happened: my new body stopped respecting gravity. I was permanently airborne, hovering or flying. And I emitted a sound, a buzz.”
So far, I have dwelt on the novel’s extremes, from the most matter-of-fact depiction of art openings to the most fantastic, an agent moving from one species to another; but this might provide a slightly distorted picture as most of the book centers on more novelistic stories of the genesis and activities of agents. Most of these crime-busters have been touched early on by violent deaths, which oriented them to pursuing law enforcement careers. A few of these stories are almost procedurals where the detective explains how she or he nabbed a criminal, usually by employing unorthodox methods.
Another attribute of these agents touches on themes found earlier in Crawford’s Fortification Resort. There (with some tongue in cheek moments) she describes the activities of personal assistants, gym trainers, party curators, travel guides and others who work directly with a refined upper class clientele. This is a world slightly in the future where the hyper-sensitive services carried out for the elite have been enhanced. As I wrote, reviewing this book in Rain Taxi in 2005, Crawford’s “language is modeled on—and quietly spoofs—upscale New Age promotional writing, fluff that would extol a spa, new skin enhancer, Pilates program or other psychic or physical rehabilitation. Crawford never voices open criticism of the group, but offhandedly skewers the pretensions, muffled cruelty, and sometimes downright wackiness of her characters.”
The link to the present book is that this type of hyper-sensitive modulations of the self are not carried out for the elite but have become regimens used to attune agents to their jobs. Paula’s morning routine, for instance, is made up of “EXERCISE, BATHE, MEDITATE, EAT, DRESS, SOUL BUILD.” Each of these routines is precisely and subtly geared to her professional duties. As to her breakfast, “Morning meals vary, depending on what lies ahead. Desk days it is quinoa with butter and syrup. Push days usually mean a circle of nuts around something vegetarian.” She adds, “TANGENT: I do sometimes use nuts, usually almonds, to kill.”
While this theme links this book to the former novel, there is a perspectival shift. While Resort is a cutting, low-key satire on the New Age-y fads of the upper crust, in this book the trendy treatments are used to sustain and strengthen the principled fighters against abuse and corporate malfeasance. On this note, it might be suggested the novel is partly science fiction because at this point it nearly takes an alternate reality viewpoint to imagine an NGO facing off so resolutely (and effectively) against the corporate/governmental machine that is polluting the waters and air while killing off irreplaceable animals and plants. Paula Regossy is one of those creative works that reimagine social justice and ecological thinking. It is a vision within a forward movement, a forward movement that takes us backward to the world of indigenous, ecologically oriented civilizations, where people were more in touch with Nature and willing (through prayer and ritual) to right the wrongs done to her.
You can find the book here: https://mocad.myshopify.com/collections/all/products/paula-regossy-by-lynn-crawford
Jim Feast is the author of the just published (August 2020) and long-titled poetry book A Strange Awakening of Light that Takes the Place of Dawn: Poems for Lady Bunny, Chicago: 1972-1975.