Lynn Crawford’s playful, genre-crossing spy novel Paula Regossy is a wide-ranging work that showcases the author’s ability to wear many stylistic hats, while directing a rich and varied narrative with control. She achieves these successes while rapidly changing the work’s points of view, genre, narrative format, and pacing. The novel is a world of its very own, and we readers get to share in Crawford’s unique vision. The novel’s chapters, as the author explains in the acknowledgements, were inspired by visiting various art spaces in Detroit, and provide a key for those who want to explore the deep background of Crawford’s work. But even without this knowledge, the novel stands on its own, allowing our interpretation to roam freely.
Crawford’s novel incorporates traditional elements of the spy genre, while also departing from them. The Paula Regossy of the title is an agent of an unnamed security organization, and is supervised by a man named Hoss. The novel starts as a testimony of Regossy’s work, a record “of some of what we do, or at least I do, in case something destroys me. This document is on multiple hard drives and two printed-out copies.” We learn that the characters in the organization are preparing for a “post-collapse world.” Regossy trains for clandestine work, while stowing away materials for a later date “inside wooden coffins we build ourselves and bury several feet underground.” Regossy plays any role she must in this world: “Some days I must appear formidable, others, I must fade to the point of invisibility.”
By contrast, Agent Jennifer is a discordant ingredient in Crawford’s spy world, an element of science fiction that exists at the margins of a greater world she does not understand because, as we gradually learn, she is not human. She is introduced to people who ask her questions beyond her ability to answer, and begins to feel “a glow and want to say yes to everything but cannot ignore the chest disturbances. Fear I may malfunction …” Likewise, with the character Effie, who appears to be totally human but is suffering from a profound trauma, Crawford indulges in elements of fantasy, unrolling a superhero story where characters fight vague, unnamed, yet dangerous criminals.
When Regossy is ordered to lay low and rest in Detroit, the city becomes an intersection of investigation into the world as criminal enterprise, and the examination of the world through art. Through the exploration of the Detroit art scene, Crawford suggests that certain areas of reality hold more meaning than others, particularly places where art is displayed and performed.
In the process, Regossy sees beyond her own training and self-image. She visits the “Youngworld” exhibition space, which is “off the beaten track, in Detroit but near the edge of Hamtrack . . . .” Nothing about the Youngworld says art “unless you happen to catch the once-a-month openings.” It is in this space that she reviews Jeremy Couillard’s Believes in Reincarnation and Hates Hugs. Regossy’s agency focuses on the “post-collapse future: the darkness, the end points, all that will be no longer.” Couillard’s work “blows past that” to portray a “future future of what occupies post post-collapse,” which includes “morphed, functioning beings bumping close enough to . . . one another to generate erotic currency.” Their “life quality and lifespan are up in the air, but one thing is solidly constant in this world: pleasure, various forms, non-idealized, unrelated to reproduction.” This kind of reimagined world moves beyond collapse. In fact, collapse is simply a stage on the way to birth and renewal.
Following this thread, the detective elements of the novel come into focus. Regossy explains that sometimes “late at night, I walk neighborhoods and sense stories.” The detective investigates crimes, which are untold stories, waiting for a narrator to investigate and write them. In much the same way, the writer is a detective, exploring reality for its stories, and finding in its depths the narratives that an artist can bring into form.
This is one of the keys to Crawford’s novel. Art provides us the possible freedom and release from a post-collapse world, for if art is anything, it is less about collapse than construction. Both Paula Regossy the character, and the novel as a whole, shift quickly between different genres, delving into crime and spy fiction, fantasy, fairy tales, science fiction, and meta-fiction, to make sense of the world we experience, less according to human sensation and perception, than through forms of art.
The characters in this novel try on guises that help them make sense of the apparent senselessness of their predicaments. This too is a nod to the creative process. Agent Jos realizes that “limitations can structure rather than squash the rise to power,” which is a strong metaphor for the creative enterprise. In order to create, we must limit the scope of reality to some manageable form. Yet on the other hand, we must not suppress our desire to create with too many limiting structures. Agent Elizabeth explains that she spends “a lot of time considering what to hone, direct, release, being careful not to aggressively purge.” Art can be vibrant and wild, but must also have a sense of control, a human element of compassion and approachability.
Lynn Crawford has created a shrewd and accomplished novel in Paula Regossy. Crawford, like her characters, is not fearful, but bold and courageous in molding a novel that is unafraid to push the envelope of both our own expectations of genre and narrative, and how it should be deployed to expand a writer’s creative range. For readers, she tells a story that uncannily reflects the conditions of our collapsing world. Like her artist-detectives, we can investigate the terrible decay at the center of human experience, yet with hope and effort, we can also rebuild.
About the Reviewer
Eric Maroney has published two books of nonfiction and numerous short stories. He has an MA in philosophy from Boston University. He lives in Trumansburg, New York with his wife and two children. His book of nonfiction prose, fiction, and poetry, The Torah Sutras, was published by Albion-Andalus Books in 2019.