Five by Five Books #8: “Smallcreep’s Day” (1965) by Peter Currell Brown

(Note: This is one of an occasional and ongoing series of reviews of my favorite novels, structured by covering five facets of my reading experiences, each in five sentences).

What’s it about? Pinquean Smallcreep is a machine worker who cuts slots into pulleys on an assembly line inside a vast factory. After many years at his task, he begins to grow curious about how his slotted pulleys are ultimately used, and once this curiosity reaches obsessive levels, he sets aside his assigned task and walks up the assembly line, hoping to find its end. The labyrinthine nature of the factory and its attendant offices and support spaces quickly render his quest more complicated than Smallcreep had anticipated, and he is forced to rely on the kindness (or, more often, lack thereof) of his fellow factory workers to find his way forward, or backward, or simply out. Smallcreep meets a veritable menagerie of machinists, laborers, managers, directors and other characters, who often seem evolutionarily designed to their tasks, and are almost always shocked by the audacity — and ever-increasing futility — of his odyssey. The book’s resolution is shocking on a variety of fronts, but at the risk of spoiling it, I won’t describe why.

Who wrote it? There’s not much information available in the public domain about Peter Currell Brown, and Smallcreep’s Day stands as his only published novel to date. I know that he is English, and that he was an anti-nuclear activist in the early 1960s, serving a six month prison sentence as a result of his actions. He worked in a factory as a young man, and his experiences there inspired and shaped the narrative of Smallcreep’s Day. In the late 1960s, he founded and worked at a small craft pottery factory, and seems to have abandoned professional literary pursuits. If he figured that he got novel-writing right the first time he tried it and didn’t need to do it again, I’d be inclined to agree with him.

When and where did I read it?  I first became aware of Smallcreep’s Day while living in Newport, Rhode Island during my junior year of high school, when Genesis bassist-guitarist Mike Rutherford titled his first solo album (1980) after the book, and included a side-long suite of songs loosely related to its story. Brown’s novel was long out of print at the time, and the album wasn’t a strong enough recommendation to make me go hunting it down. Fast forward to early 2015, when I read Rutherford’s excellent autobiography, The Living Years, which briefly touched on the musician’s experiences with reading the novel and composing songs around its key themes. I have always been a fan of Rutherford as a musician, but I found myself really liking him as a human being after reading his book, and that made me more interested in understanding what, exactly, had so moved him when he first read Smallcreep’s Day. Through the never-ceasing wonders of modern technology, I then discovered that a Kindle edition of Brown’s novel was available, so I clicked a couple of buttons, and, voila, let’s read this thing, finally.

Why do I like it? I had always assumed — from its seemingly playful title, from the nominally happy ending of Rutherford’s song cycle, and from the cover art I’d seen — that Smallcreep’s Day would be a family-friendly, light read that whimsically used a “journey of personal exploration and growth” narrative structure to casually explore some topical themes related to how people work, and what they get out of it. Once I got a couple of chapters into the book, however, I realized that I couldn’t have been wrong in this presumption: Smallcreep’s Day is a dark, hallucinatory, surrealist parable that injects a small, tragic figure into a sequence of large, very adult situations that grind like machinery toward an inexorable and unforgettable climax. While few characters are ever named (we only learn the protagonist’s full moniker toward the end of the book), the novel is filled with memorable Dickensian grotesques, their features and characters described in lurid, often horrible detail. The exploration of the relationships between labor and management are also surprisingly deep and insightful (a contract negotiation scene between the two parties is a satirical masterpiece), with the interesting twist that both are viewed as being victims of their situations, though one tends to live and work in much nicer surroundings. I thought about this novel and its message quite a bit after I finished it, and when all is said and done, that’s about the best recommendation I can offer for reading a particular book.

A five sentence sample text: “First thing of all I’m always conscious of a wheel — or perhaps before that I’m conscious of spinning, in the abstract as it were, but then there is always this huge wheel all shimmering with lights and divided into segments of light, and a loud singing or humming noise. The wheel is not turning fast, but not slowly either, and it doesn’t turn in one particular direction but both ways at once. After a time of spinning and shimmering and singing a kind of feeling of unease comes in. I can recollect all these things quite plainly, it’s always the same. The wheel get clearer, and there’s more uneasiness, until there’s suddenly fear, and a feeling of being stuck, or paralysed and pinned in, like waking up to find you’re inside a concrete block and you can’t breathe or move or see or shout or anything.”

ALL FIVE BY FIVE BOOK REVIEWS:

#1: Engine Summer by John Crowley (1979)

#2: Skin by Kathe Koja (1993)

#3: Nova by Samuel R. Delany (1968)

#4: Titus Groan/Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (1946/1950)

#5: The Islanders by Christopher Priest (2011)

#6: The Flounder by Günter Grass (1977)

#7: The Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton (1936 to 1974)

#8: Smallcreep’s Day by Peter Currell Brown (1965)

Click on this 1973 edition's cover to order your own digital or print edition.

Click on this 1973 edition’s cover to order your own digital or print copy.

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