Sunday, October 30, 2005

Novelties and Souvenirs: Collected Short Fiction by John Crowley

John Crowley has had one of those hellacious careers that no writer, much less one as furiously talented as Crowley is, deserves. In the late 70s, Crowely wrote odd, lyrical science fiction that defied the genre's best attempts at categorization. In the early 80s, he switched to fantasy, but again so far out of the mainstream that even within the genre he was barely successful. His books went out of print, and it is only in the last few years, with Crowley having made a second genre switch to literary fiction and taken The Translator to the New York Times Bestseller List, that they've been reissued. Novelties and Souvenirs collects Crowley's short fiction--15 stories published over a period of 15 years (missing from the collection is the much-lauded "The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines", which first appeared in the Peter Straub-edited anthology Conjunctions 39: The New Wave Fabulists, and is now available as a chapbook).

It's possible to roughly divide Novelties and Souvenirs into thirds. The first, which contains Crowley's earliest short fiction, rather obviously follows the writer as he tests his skill with words (and passes with flying colors). As exercises in style, the pieces collected here are as stunning as anything Crowley has written, but none of them amount to an actual story. In "The Reason for the Visit", the narrator describes an afternoon spent with the ghost of Virginia Woolf, who has appeared in his apartment for no discernible reason.
I explained about iced tea. I couldn't tell if the expression of fascinated surprise she wore was assumed, to fend off genuine shock, or was genuine shock. I saw her surprise when the little light went on in the refrigerator, and when I squeezed lemon juice into the tea from a plastic lemon. The plastic lemon she found enormously witty. For a moment I felt a profound and inappropriate pity for her. I made mayonnaise sandwiches with Pepperidge Farm bread. "What an extraordinary number of things you take out of jars and bottles," she said.
We can see here Crowley's facility with mood and atmosphere, and his ability to capture tiny details that tell us everything about the characters. It seems right, somehow, that Virginia Woolf should be entertained by a plastic lemon. And yet there's no narrative to "The Reason for the Visit"--Woolf drinks her tea, talks to the narrator about modern existence, and leaves. Most of the early stories in Novelties and Souvenirs follow the same approach--vignettes and mood pieces rather than stories--and it is a testament to Crowley's skill as a writer that they are nevertheless compelling.

Novelties and Souvenirs starts coming alive with "Novelty", originally published in Interzone magazine in 1983. Its narrator, a middle aged author of moderately successful populist fare and decidedly unsuccessful literary fiction, is sitting in a bar when the theme of his next novel pops into his head--"the contrary pull men feel between Novelty and Security. Between boredom and adventure, between safety and dislocation, between the snug and the wild." Before long, the author himself is embodying this dilemma as he struggles with the possibility of actually putting pen to paper.
In the Seventh Saint, many years later, it had struck him that the difference between himself and Shakespeare wasn't talent--not especially--but nerve. The capacity not to be frightened by his largest and most potent conceptions, to simply (simply!) sit down and execute them. The dreadful lassitude he felt when something really large and multifarious came suddenly clear to him, something Lear-sized yet sonnet-precise. If only they didn't rush on him whole, all at once, massive and perfect, leaving him frightened and nerveless at the prospect of articulating them word by scene by page. He would try to believe they were of the kind told in bars, not the kind to be written, though there was no way to be sure of this except to attempt the writing; he would raise a finger (the novelist in the bar mirror raising the obverse finger) and push forward his change. Wailing like a neglected ghost, the vast notion would beat its wings into the void.
The question, in other words, is the question of change, without which no accomplishment would be possible, but which carries with it the possibility of failure and the certainty of death. In 1989, Crowley published "Novelty" in a collection of the same name, adding to it three other pieces. Between them, they form a panoramic exploration of the question of Novelty and Security. From the deep past to the stormy present to the far future, in various styles, genres, and voices, they examine it from every possible direction, and if the result isn't quite a novel in stories, it is certainly a thesis in stories.

Crowley goes back to the origin of the question of novelty with "The Nightingale Sings at Night", a retelling of the myth of the fall of Adam and Eve. In Crowley's version of this myth, the original sin doesn't lie in the discovery of carnal knowledge but in the discovery of the possibility of death. Man and Woman live an eternal existence in Dame Kind's forest, until the moon introduces them to the concept of change. From change, the two begin to understand time, and time leads them to conclude the existence of death. Having thought of these concepts, Man and Woman bring them into being, and end their idyllic and timeless existence.

The novella "Great Work of Time" is the finest piece in Novelties and Souvenirs, and probably one of the best time travel stories ever written. It's a deliciously circular story, a clever reworking of that hoary cliché of time travel fiction, the grandfather paradox. In 1983, Caspar Last invents time travel, and promptly sells his invention to The Otherhood, a secret society established in 1893 by the will of the infamous imperialist Cecil Rhodes, with the purpose of acting to preserve the Empire and to keep peace in the world. The Otherhood's members set out to remake the 20th century, smoothing out its rough edges: all those terrible events that have transformed the world and carried away the Empire in their wake. With each successive change, they come closer to their ideal of a genteel, comfortable, changeless existence--a quieter world, but also one that is less advanced and perhaps, less egalitarian.

The Otherhood's members are that cliché of conspiracy theories--a group of middle aged men meeting in smoke-filled, wood-paneled rooms to decide the fate of the world--but the secret to "Great Work of Time"'s success is that Crowley paints them as sympathetic, intelligent, and well-meaning.
At the First Battle of the Somme wave after wave of British soldiers were sent against German machine guns, to be mown down like grain. There were a quarter of a million casualties in that battle. And yet the generals went on ordering massed attacks against machine guns for the four long years of the war.

"But they knew," Denys could not help saying. "They did know. Machine guns had been used against massed native armies for years, all over the Empire. In Afghanistan. In the Sudan. Africa. They knew."

"Yes," Huntington said. "They knew. And yet, in the Original Situation, they paid no attention. They went blindly on and made their dreadful mistakes. Why? How could they be so stupid, those generals and statesmen who in the world you knew behaved so wisely and so well? For one reason only: they lacked the help and knowledge of a group of men and women who had seen all those mistakes made, who could act in secret on what they knew, and who had the ear and the confidence of one of the governments--not the least stupid of them, either, mind you. And with all our help it was still a close-run thing."
With their knowledge of the 20th century's horrors to galvanize them, The Otherhood's members poke and prod the fabric of time, unraveling and re-knitting it to suit their purposes. But when one of their members travels into the 21st century, he discovers that he and fellows have made the classic error of the 19th century imperialist--they have assumed, in their pride, that they could see the ends of all their actions. They acted forcefully and with hubris, failing to recognize that time is a chaotic system, and that grand gestures will have unforeseeable consequences. In remaking the world, The Otherhood's members have contributed to its unmaking, and eventually to the cessation of all life and all change.

"In Blue", the final and least successful story in the quartet, takes place in the far future. In a world that is probably post-apocalyptic and possibly post-industrial, a new kind of people's revolution is taking place. Guided by 'act-field theory' and 'social calculus', this revolution seeks not to force society into new forms but to follow the nearly undetectable currents of existence in such a way as to minimize pain and suffering. In other words, instead of imperialist forcefulness, changing the world through decisive action, the guiding conspiracy takes an almost zen approach, moving with change instead of acting against it. The conspiracy itself, the 'cadre' who wear blue to distinguish themselves, see themselves as servants to the people, and may actually be capable of making good on this platitude.

"In Blue" fails firstly because its premise too benign to be believable and secondly because the story through which we glimpse this new shape of society--the life of a lonely Blue operative who begins to doubt himself--fails to spark interest. Nevertheless, it offers a thought-provoking conclusion to the arc begun in "Novelty", and a welcome balm after "Great Work of Time"'s tragic ending.

The remaining stories in Novelties and Souvenirs show us Crowley as he begins to approach mainstream notions of genre shorts. "Lost and Abandoned" is a curious retelling of the tale of Hansel and Grettel, with a distinctive Crowley twist ("My own son, at the point in the story when the two lost children understood that the new protector they had found intended them not good but mortal harm, had cried out It's their mother! Which seemed to me to be an act of literary criticism of the highest order"). In "Gone", the earth is visited by an alien vessel, whose inhabitants knock on doors and offer to mow the lawn or clean the windows. "Missolonghi 1824" is a peek into the life of Lord Byron, probably a precursor to Crowley's longer entanglement with the poet, his most recent novel, Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land. Although none of them approach the heights of "Great Work of Time" or even the other Novelty stories, they remain a satisfying combination of beautiful writing, keen intelligence, and (finally) good plots.

Novelties and Souvenirs is probably not a good place to start reading Crowley (although some of the better stories in the collection might prove effective in tempting readers reluctant to give his super-sized masterpiece, Little, Big, a try), but it does offer a tantalizing peek into his mind and the themes that have informed his entire career. The question of novelty and security has permeated, in one form or another, all of Crowley's fiction, as does a fascination with all things English, and with the long-lost empire. The Crowley that emerges from this collection is a dreamer, but a realistic one. He knows how cruel and disappointing the world can be, and yet he can't help but believe that in the end, through hard work and careful thought and a great deal of love, we can bring it to a happy ending.

9 comments:

Niall Harrison said...

As it happens, this books is where I started with Crowley, a couple of months ago (almost; I had read 'The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines' beforehand, but none of the novels). Like you (and surely everyone else with sense) I thought 'Great Work of Time' was the best story in the book, and one of the best novellas I've read, period. There's a wonderful sense of--here's this terrible, stupid, damaging thing, and here's how it came out of the very best of intentions.

None of the others really struck me as special, although I liked 'The Reason For The Visit' (surely that's time-travel and not a ghost, though?), and 'In Blue' (Graham Sleight makes an interesting comparison with Chiang's 'Story of Your Life' in this review), and one that you didn't mention--'Snow'. Nobody has successfully pitched Little, Big to me, yet; I'm aware this makes me an ignoramus. In my defence, I do have and want to read Real Soon Now Engine Summer.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

None of the others really struck me as special, although I liked 'The Reason For The Visit' (surely that's time-travel and not a ghost, though?)

Maybe. Very possibly, in fact. The story is deliberately close-lipped about the nature of the visit (there's even a suggestion that it's all taking place in the narrator's mind) but there's something about Woolf's behavior that strikes me as ghost-like even if she isn't meant as a ghost.

I'm probably the only person on the planet who wasn't blown away by Engine Summer. Of Crowley's early novels, I prefer Beasts, which most people consider to be the weakest of the three. Oh, well.

I always describe Little, Big as being a book as intimate as a marriage and as grand as a plot to change the world, both of which it encompasses. I realize that's not much of an inducement. It's a difficult book to describe, and therefore almost impossible to pitch to people - it's very much of a single piece. Beyond 'it's really, really, unbelievably good,' I can't think of any way to induce someone to read it.

Graham Sleight said...

Hi - very cool blog. (I was pointed here by Niall using his awesome persuasive powers.)

I'm a big fan of Beasts, which seems to me extremely structurally adventurous and interesting. But it is kind of uneven, with one thread (the solitary hawk-wrangling guy whose name I forget) having so much more emotional intensity attached than the others. Engine Summer I had problems with for my first couple of readings, partly because of the tone, partly because I found I had to take the last few pages really slowly to get the full impact of what he's doing.

And re 'The Reason for the Visit': Crowley has a habit of being what I can only describe as flirtatious about certain details. (As witness the first line of Little, Big and the fact that the city therein is never named. Or, indeed, the exact nature of Caspar Last's time machine. Or the title of Pierce Moffet's proposed novel. Or...)

Re Little, Big: What Abigail Said. It kind of sits in my mind with Dhalgren as feeling like a country all to itself, like summer or childhood. Except that Dhalgren doesn't really resolve; and anyone who can get through the last 30 pages of L,B without weeping buckets is Just Plain Wrong.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Hi, Graham. It's neat that I have you here, because there's something I've been wondering about since I read your Novelties and Souvenirs review: do you really think "In Blue" is a dystopia? I read it as an intentional confounding of our expectations from such a story - we expect to discover that the Blue cadre are malevolent and power-hungry, that they micro-manage their subjects' souls - but what we discover is that they actually are what they say they are - a benevolent people's conspiracy (or at least that's what I took them to be). The fact that even in this future, with this genuinely just form of government, it is possible to feel lost, alienated, and unhappy, strikes me as both an affirmation of the conspiracy's benevolence and a heartbreakingly human truth.

Glad you're enjoying the blog.

Graham Sleight said...

Hi Abigail - I'm in the middle of rereading it, and will have a cogent and thoughtful response soon. I hope...

Graham Sleight said...

OK, finished rereading it. You're right that it has a lot of the trappings of dystopia (grim trudging in overalls, all-seeing government), but that when you look closer some of that melts away. My problem with the story, though, is that I can't believe in Act_Field theory, and therefore I can only read the society depicted as being founded on a huge con. Crowley does (has to do) a huge amount of handwaving to set up the theory, but wearing my hat as a lapsed mathematician, I'm just not convinced. Specifically, we're told that A-FT can account for any paradoxes that arise out of its own working. But Godel's theorem tells us that any strong-enough formal system will give rise to self-referential paradoxes whose truth cannot be established within the system ("This sentence is false" and its cousins). So I read "In Blue"'s society as founded on a lie - admittedly because of some obscure mathematical axe-grinding of my own - and so its society is a dystopia. Sez me.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Interesting, although Crowley does hedge his bets by introducing the cadre member who believes that AFT is a big crock. Still, I'm not sure I would define a society as a dystopia simply because it was based on a lie - not if that lie allowed people to live freely and still maintain a just and egalitarian society. Or maybe I would - I suspect that this is one of those philosophical questions that one can puzzle over for years without coming to a conclusion.

I made a brief effort to follow the cod-mathematics in the story, but very quickly gave up. It's one of the reasons I think "In Blue" is the weakest of the Novelty stories - before he can get around to telling his story, Crowley needs to expend a great deal of time and effort explaining the MacGuffin to his readers.

Graham Sleight said...

Still, I'm not sure I would define a society as a dystopia simply because it was based on a lie - not if that lie allowed people to live freely and still maintain a just and egalitarian society. Or maybe I would - I suspect that this is one of those philosophical questions that one can puzzle over for years without coming to a conclusion.

What about, instead of a lie, a single instance of cruelty? "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" and all that....

Abigail Nussbaum said...

OK, this is clearly going to mark me out as a philistine, but I've never actually read "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas". In fact, I don't seem to have the Ursula K. Le Guin gene - I've tried to read several of her books and only managed to finish one, A Wizard of Earthsea, which left me thoroughly unimpressed.

As for the question... I don't know. Most modern societies were conceived in sin and we tolerate and even defend them for all their many imperfections. Doesn't it follow that we should do the same, or even more, for a truly just society?

I guess I would be able to tolerate one or the other - the lie or the sin. But if the society was based in sin and then went around lying about it, that would probably be too much.

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