Review of Novelties & Souvenirs, Collected Short Fiction, by John Crowley
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 8/31/06
I had never heard of John Crowley before I stumbled upon a copy of his Novelties & Souvenirs, Collected Short Fiction, a HarperCollins Perennial book from 2004, at a discount bookseller. The subtitle of the book sums up his work- Collected Short Fiction. This is because the tales, fifteen in all, are not really short stories in the classical sense, but more like the bland Ficciones of a Jorge Luis Borges, in that they are scenes, presented usually from a detached, or odd, perspective, with almost no character development nor plot. They are almost like moving paintings of automata- sort of gutless words simply laying there, blandly describing….and describing what they cannot penetrate with character development nor plot.
In looking up some biographical information on Crowley, for this review, I was surprised to learn that he is listed as a fantasist writer, mostly. Why this is odd is because few writers in his style- call it ‘magical realism’ for lack of a true name, writers like Borges, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, are considered fantasists. Perhaps this demarcation is because Crowley is an American, albeit with a penchant for all things British. There is a strong bias in Academia against fantasy writing as a serious subject for literary fiction, at least by Americans. However, when foreigners like the above mentioned, or even a Franz Kafka, do it then the Academics drool.
That said, like most magical realism, Crowley’s writing fails. It is too dull, too trite, too familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of sci fi or fantasy, tries to be broad, but often refers to things and books that few people can relate to, thus, without the background knowledge those referents contain, the stories have gaping holes that Crowley’s meager prose cannot cement together.
The stories in this collection seem to be in rough chronological order, yet this is a dubious approach to such a collection, for it can reveal, as in this case, a lack of artistic growth. From the earliest tales to the last, Crowley seems to be stuck in one mode- borrow, borrow, borrow. To say he has never had an original thought would be too easy. A thematic grouping may have been better, although, in reality, the tales, themselves, would not have been improved.
The first tale, Antiquities, is set in an old line men’s-only club with old leather chairs- think of a turn of the Twentieth Century Explorer’s Club. It’s a wholly generic story, filled with feline mummies and mesmerism. Think of Aleister Crowley meets a dumbed down Jules Verne. In Her Bounty To The Dead, a woman named Phillippa Derwent tracks down a long lost nephew to tell him he’s inherited property. Together, they drive out to inspect it. Here they meet:
…..She felt embarrassed; she must appear a ghastly crone in comparison
to his mental image. Yet he took her hand warmly, and after a moment’s
hesitation, kissed her cheek, tenderly almost. His large eyes were as she
remembered them. For a moment a hard thickness started in her throat, and she
looked at the sky as an excuse to turn away.
‘I should warn you,’ she said. ‘I’m a weather jinx. I can go anywhere and a blue sky will turn black." And in fact, in the west, hard, white clouds were moving over, preceded by wind-twisted pale mare’s tails-stormbringers, her mother always called them.
Not exactly evocative, unless diluted Edgar Rice Burroughs is your cup of tea. The tale ends oddly, but in a deliberate attempt to play proto-PoMo games on the page. Another early tale, The Green Child, is a totally narratively inert fictive rendering of the real life legend of two green children, a brother and sister, who were found outside a cave, in several places in several versions, claimed to be from a netherworld, the brother soon died, and the girl married. That’s the legend, as can be found in many real life supernatural encyclopediae. What does Crowley do with the tale? Does he make it an allegory? Does he flesh out the motives of the kids? No, he just tells the exact same tale as can be found in legendry, save for opening and closing the story in an affected manner of a scribe declaiming the tale. Here is banal description at its height, or depth:
The two children stood blinking in the sunlight, their pale eyes blank as though they had just opened them on this world. They were quite small for what seemed their age, and their skin was green, the pale, luminous green of the verges of a twilight sky in summer.
Yet, like many of the other tales, this adaptation of myth is merely a pallid echo of similar tales and themes far better writers have tackled, and is only one of a handful of the tales based on others’ works, or on folk tales. The novella Great Work Of Time asks what if memory was an illusion, and history was a fluid? It follows, via barely connected scenes, an Otherhood of mystics inspired by Cecil Rhodes, who try to- of course, change history, but the tale bogs down in 1940s style talk of orthogonal logic, and the like. In Snow, somehow nominated for a Hugo Award, he deals with aging and memories, as a bug-sized device called a wasp records a woman’s life, for over eight thousand hours. Its title puts one in mind of the snow on a tv that’s not receiving right. In Missolonghi 1824, an English lord and poet- Byron, anyone?- recalls a meeting with a wild man, who is sort of a missing link. In The Reason For The Visit, the ghost of Virginia Woolf haunts the speaker for no real reason. Here is what passes for depth between the living and dead in Crowley’s universe:
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.
Yes, this is the level of his prose. It gets no better nor wittier than this. Then Woolf leaves, and the story ends, without a point. Ain’t PoMo wonderful? Tales such as this are not even annoying the way the horrid little fictions of a Donald Barthelme were. In In Blue, such dubious terms as act-field theory and social calculus are leading a post-Apocalyptic society, guided by seemingly beneficent tyrants, toward a renaissance, and toward a Zen-like Nirvana- think The Matrix meets peyote? In The Nightingale Sings At Night, Crowley deals with an Edenic creation myth, larded with saccharine, in which the Nightingale sings to the Moon, which knows the truths of humanity and mortality. It is mortality, not sex, which is the bane of man’s existence, and expulsion from the Garden. Um, hasn’t this all been done before, starting with that well known fantasist Sigmund Freud? Tales like this, where generic things are made personal with capital letters, is also so warmed over tenth rate wannabe aboriginal mythology that it makes a reader roll their eyes, just as when fat, middle aged whitebread men get drunk and tell you how much they love ‘Trane. Novelty is merely a story within a story trope, pale meta-fiction: a wannabe novelist tries to plot out his next book as he talks with a woman and bartender at a tavern, and relives childhood memories and Catholic guilt. Here’s a classic trope that is as generic as they come:
In my religion, God and all the rituals and sacraments would stand for the real world. The religion would be a means of perceiving the real world in a sacramental way. A Gnostic ascension. A secret at the heart of it. And the secret is- everything. Common reality. The day outside the church window.
I swear, I don’t know what annoys me more, the big presses, like this, that deem it fit to publish such uninspired and refried writing, or the small presses who bitch and moan about how corporate giants like HarperCollins are the death of literature, claim that it is their duty to fill in the gaps left by the behemoths, and then merely churn out pointless crap that is just as bad, or worse, as if the solution to the big presses printing garbage is for the little presses to just add to the pile of bad books and writers out there, so that it is next to impossible for readers to find the few writers whose work is of worth to read. That is not the solution, of course, but it does make it necessary for critics to do their job well, and guide the reader. That so few take this role seriously is just another reason for the sad state of contemporary publishing. Not willing to ever let things alone, I state, avoid this book, and this utterly unoriginal writer. He may not kill you with clichés and foul language, the way most PoMo writers do, but he will bore you silly, and only put one thought in your head: I swear I’ve read a story like that before, but where, and by who? ‘Tain’t good folks. Nope. Put the knick-knacks back where they came from.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Yet Another Book Review website.]
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