From the very first page his descriptions are wild and almost overwrought as he details “sides of meat with their keyboard of ribs swollen with energy and strength, and seaweeds of vegetables like dead octopuses and squids.” By describing these foods (and everything else) in these vivid and fresh ways, Schulz invites the reader to see mundane objects and activities anew. In this first encounter with the contents of Adela’s picnic basket I felt like I was encountering the rich texture and abstraction of a Klimt painting where I could see the cherries and morellos and apricots for what they were, but I was also seeing them as though for the very first time.
Because each story is written with the same rich tapestry of description throughout, Schulz’s hyper real worlds feel dreamlike. Contributing to this feeling is Schulz’s willingness to bend reality with streets that shift and disappear in “Cinnamon Shops” and a thirteenth month in “The Night of the Great Season.” But these impossibilities show a greater truth in our more concrete world. I can’t imagine a better way to describe the feeling of a child being lost than Schulz’s “street of houses with no doors.” And the intensity of “an autumn wind…a devastating wind which would blow through the cupboards; that they would give way; that nothing would check the flood, and that the streams of color would engulf the whole city” speaks to how one night could feel like an extra month to a shopkeeper.
I watched a short film by the Brothers Quay based on “The Street of Crocodiles” done in stop-motion animation without any dialogue. The film was so strange and beautiful and I couldn’t wrap my head around what was happening, but in reading the story I see the same elements. I am better able to relate to them on the page but they are no less fantastic. As Schulz describes the “paper imitation” of modernity as a “montage of illustrations cut out from last year’s moldering newspapers,” I feel the intangibility, the datedness, and the fragility of this street and of the life that surrounds it.
Making the Mundane Monstrous
Sometimes Schulz will describe something mundane fully before ever naming it as in “Nimrod.” Schulz describes in every creepy detail the cockroach and the reader knows that it is an insect and it is creepy but the description of “a black monster, a scarecrow moving quickly on the rods of many entangled legs” almost makes any earthly creature a disappointment.
It is impossible not to quote Schulz just for the pleasure of running my fingers over his words. I love using rich descriptions like Schulz does but mine are often less fresh and more intermittently interspersed with other descriptions. Schulz showed me that to use these descriptions to create the type of world I’d like to, the level of detail and freshness has to be sustained and has to be always fresh. I’m not sure it could even be done in long fiction without being fully exhausting, but the intensity works for short fiction and of course Schulz does it exceedingly well. “Cinnamon Shops” greatly influenced the way I wrote about Magda being lost in Warsaw, and though (unless they read it here) I don’t think most people would get the reference, I feel enriched simply by having touched his world.
If this review made you want to read the book, pick up a copy of The Street of Crocodiles from Powell’s Books. Your purchase keeps indie booksellers in business and I receive a commission.
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