Through the Looking-Glass

On the trail of the crippled detectives

"Fire shadows" refer to traces that flames can leave on pottery. Suddenly the start of Crippled Detectives seems chillingly apt. It's firewood that Lee and Sylvia—the author and her other self—set out to find. (Oh now I remember, Lee says.) The real-life Lee no longer writes creatively, according to her parents. But peace, after such glowing promise and nightmare suffering, is gift enough. Head's book closes: "It was to make fire shadows/I laid down my writer's brush and took up clay."


image
A Schwartzman drawing from Crippled Detectives
If ever a book deserved to be published in a facsimile autograph edition, Crippled Detectives is it. Reading Schwartzman's manuscript is like walking into a sheet of sheer concrete poetry. Punctuation has gone AWOL, and the lettering generally leaves as much breathing room as a sequence of DNA. "This has got to be great," William Rubel, Stone Soup's other founding editor, recalled thinking, upon seeing the MS. "You can't even read it!"

Rubel and Mandel started Stone Soup in 1973. The idea was to encourage young writers to find inspiration in the work of their peers, but in explaining the magazine's mission, Rubel invoked the interwar novels of Joyce and Faulkner. Radical new ways of writing (Benjy's section in The Sound and the Fury, Molly's torrent at the close of Ulysses) jibed with the public's taste for books by children, such as Daisy Ashford's The Young Visiters. These were examples of "direct, pure, untrained artistic expression, where somehow the soul is speaking with minimal technical artifice."

Thus in editing a work like Crippled Detectives, Rubel said, it's crucial to ask: "Are you furthering the story through correcting, or not correcting? If the person doesn't know how to spell, so what?" Schwartzman's unpublished "The Dogs of Ireland," which Mandel recently unearthed for me from the Stone Soup vaults, hardly reads like a Crippled sequel, alas. Aside from a baffling mention of The Lord of the Rings, it's an epic avant-garde account of canine husbandry (in the extant six chapters, at least), with various pooches wandering about, carrying food. It's a challenging read, but by the end I felt like I had experienced, for about the right amount of time, the way a dog thinks. It ends:

the ivory spine finly [sic] carved ribs the fine hard skull the joints rippled the legs daintily took fine tiptoed strides the joy of ireland pride of the irish the monarch of Red and Irish Star with a light spring and

That solipsistic rhythm, that last word in haunting free fall, the Emerald Isle setting: Isn't it a bit like Finnegans Wake?


At one point in Crippled Detectives, Sylvia—the fictional Lee's twin—reads Naked Is the Best Disguise. The book, subtitled The Death and Resurrection of Sherlock Holmes, is real. In Naked, published in 1974, Samuel Rosenberg asserted that in his famous tales, Arthur Conan Doyle "left clues to his personal allegory for some Sherlockian reader to find and interpret sympathetically."

Could Schwartzman have read this learned (if giddy) volume at such a tender age? I've adopted its spirit in an attempt to flesh out the author, one of the more bewitching phantoms in my book-lined mind. But at a certain point, Lee Tandy Schwartzman eludes us all over again. Startlingly, the final drawing in the MS (not included in the magazine) is of a girl, winking at us.

We find her and lose her in the all-dialogue chapters (18 through 21), those dangerously funny echo chambers. The girls' speech regresses to nonsense repetitions ("Dumb dumb") and repeated phrases ("She's young you know"), and the threat of infinite regress looms ("Aren't we saying the same things over again?" Lee wonders). In chapter 20, "A Funny Conversation," the book attains its woozy apotheosis. "No don't," uttered in turn by Lisette, Anne, and Lee two chapters earlier, becomes totally unmoored here—a daffy non sequitur response ("Aren't they funny?" "No don't") to be flung about until Lee (perhaps privileged as the "real" author) wrests the correct conversational trigger from the ether.

Lee: No don't.

Sylvia: Don't what?

Lee: Stupid Sylvia, I'm supposed to say you want me to put corn up your nose and . . .

Sylvia: No don't.

Lee: Now you're getting it.

The script-like quality of the proceedings has led to the derailment of time itself. Language is next. Quite out of nowhere, Anne boasts that she knows her ABC's. Challenged, she issues a circle, square, triangle, and hexagon—reproduced on the page as such. Lisette, thinking she can do better, produces the numbers 1 through 24. Next Anne, claiming to know her colors, instead recites the alphabet. Lisette tries—but then it's back to shapes. It's an extraordinary, gasp-inducing linguistic free-for-all, in which our bedrock symbols lose all meaning, the whole world a synonym. ("It's all one word," as Rubel wryly noted of Schwartzman's scrawl.) We barely es-cape the chapter's playful destructions intact.

Or we can read it as an act of creation—the ultimate synesthesia, an apt metaphor for Schwartzman's prodigious tale-telling powers. As Lisette demands earlier in the book: "Storytime. Tell us some of those mystery ones."


Ed Park is the editor of the VLS.

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