Lynn Crawford has what might be considered a quirky, oddball approach, which makes it seem the author is swimming far from the mainstream. However, at second glance, it turns out this approach leads straight to an unsurpassed understanding of American reality.
How so? Most novelists focus on their main characters’ relationships to other people. Crawford does that. But she gives equal time to a sensitive depiction of her characters’ ties to objects. Such is the case in her new novel Shankus and Kitto where, for example, a lead character Meg Kitto is absorbed in making dioramas when she is young. She says, “Building dioramas absorbs me,” and explains, “The detailing stops time and movement and anchors me down.” The Shankus family – Meg gets involved in a love triangle with one member – has their own tight links to objects, less airy ones. George Shankus says,
My family is a family of eaters, and our favorite food group is meat. Not one member of the Shankus family can get away from it: chicken, veal, kidneys, sweetbreads, pork, liver, turkey, giblets, beef – but especially lamb. We go to church, all Greeks we know do, but when Dad talks about religion, he says, “Our God is the rice, vegetables, and meat that we are blessed to work with [they own a restaurant] every day.”
Perhaps I’m not making this clear enough, but this is where Crawford’s vision is most distinctive and memorable. She shows that each character’s relation to a preferred object set is as layered, nuanced and deeply personal as it would be to a friend or lover. Rather than showing people enthralled by objects, she depicts something like an intelligent consumer society.
Now, note, in the book, a keen-eyed connection to objects is by no means a universal quality. To develop a thoughtful relation to objects takes a degree of self knowledge, that is not widely possessed. Take as evidence of this the attitudes of most people in a gentrifying neighborhood where one of the characters has a restaurant. Crawford describes, “His neighborhood, filled with young adults, some starting families, boasts Zen meditation and massage centers, studios offering yoga, Pilates, Nia and organic clothing and body care stores. This focus on physical and spiritual well-being determines the kind of food the SHANKUS II serves. The neighborhood clientele is vegetarian or vegan and demands as much organic as possible.” This passage is part of an internal argument in the book that indicates people like the gentrifiers all follow established trends that guide their consumption and, as it were, remove it from individualized choice.
To delineate this further, it should be said Crawford is not describing an aristocracy of taste, a group that partly bases its social position on allegiance to elite taste markers, the type of thing Bourdieu describes in Distinction. In the Shankus and Kitto, characters work alone, finding that class of objects (from diverse categories, whether food, clothes, dioramas or other sets) that suits their deeper impulses.
It may seem I’m making a big point out of a small matter. Yet consider that we live in a consumption-driven society, yet the bulk of novelists only register this fact by populating their characters’ worlds with the appropriate goods. Crawford structures people’s relations to objects as central to her book’s unfolding.
Shankus and Kitto has two storylines. The central one concerns a love triangle. A marriage breaks up when the husband finds a more compatible woman. The second talks of how Meg Kitto, the first wife, tries to answer the (implicit) question her father asked her when she was kid. He is discussing her constructions and he says, “Your dioramas are cartoon-like, imaginative. I like that. School does not teach you the real connections between things.” … [She replies,] “Dad, what is that? What are those?” [He comes back,] “Meg, it is a process, figuring all that shit out.”
As the book explores this theme, it turns out “connections” refer to two things. It means both finding the people and the object set with which you are compatible. Both involve complex searches and research. In Crawford’s book there is something like love at first sight and also something like object love at first sight.
To look at the latter, here is how Meg finds her objects and vocation:
[First she explains this.] I hate shopping [for clothes] in stores. … I hate how sales people look at and talk to me. I hate how I appear in mirrors. I hate how I cannot ever stand up to a sales person. I hate being the center of his or her attention.
[She talks to her mother about this, who tells her she is wrong.] She says that I am making sales people out to be something they are not. They are just people doing their jobs, following their training. She then goes on to say I have special taste, good taste. Maybe I know more than the sales people. Maybe I could educate them.
She listens to her mother and ends up getting so involved in this clothing debate, she gets a job at a store. As she says, “So I, a lousy shopper … carve out a profession working in retail.”
The book is a rich one with a number of crossing and competing themes, but let me end this short consideration by simply separating out two other interesting aspects of Crawford’s approach.
One is that the book is composed of a polyphonically coordinated interweaving of five voices, and, on top of that, these speakers not only observe their own lives but make up stories – a particularly charming one is about a super small daughter who is carried around in a shoebox – and think about their ancestors, about whom they also make up stories.
Another is that in this labyrinth, there is a wealth of surprises and plot reversals. As one instance, let’s take the subsidiary detective plot in which the brother George is spying on his possibly meandering brother to see if he is really committing adultery. He follows his sibling from New York City upstate, parks unobtrusively near the place the brother went in, sneaks stealthily toward the house and … has a seizure on the sidewalk that makes him the center of attention and draws out the brother’s girlfriend.
All these features make Shankus and Kitto an amazing and pensive meditation on the dual linkages of people to people and people to things, and on how a central understanding of people depends on seeing how these two connection sets align.