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Novelties and Souvenirs: collected short fiction

by John Crowley

(Perennial, May 2004, 384pp, $13.95 paperback, ISBN 0380731061.)

Review by Graham Sleight

John Crowley may be the finest living American cover scanfantasy writer, but he has never been prolific -- he's produced just four novels since the World Fantasy Award-winning Little, Big (1981) -- and so his work hasn't been nearly as visible as it deserves to be. (This is particularly the case in the UK, where none of his novels since Ægypt (1987) have been published.) Nonetheless, the grace of his prose and his grasp of the possibilities of fantasy and sf have made him widely admired. In particular, Little, Big has become both influential and well-loved, a centrepiece of the American canon of the fantastic in the same way that Lord of the Rings or Gormenghast are for the English tradition. So it's genuinely good news that Perennial have published this collection of Crowley's short fiction -- collections being risky ventures for publishers at the best of times -- even if I'm going to grumble about it on a couple of scores.

The first grumble is that, although the blurb says that Novelties and Souvenirs "is a complete collection of Crowley's short fiction", it's not. It omits his superb novella "The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines" (published in 2002 in Conjunctions 39, ed. Peter Straub), an account of two teenagers meeting at a summer Shakespeare festival. It's the most poignant and tragic story which Crowley has yet written, and by common consent was a standout in the "New Wave Fabulists" issue of Conjunctions which it appeared in along with exceptional work by Andy Duncan, Neil Gaiman, M. John Harrison, Kelly Link, and China Miéville among others. The second grumble is that Perennial have equipped Novelties and Souvenirs with a cover so nondescript -- a black and white photo of a city street with an airship above it -- that it's hard to remember or fix in the mind. It's certainly hard to imagine any casual reader in a bookstore being struck by it. Grumbles over, mostly.

Of the fifteen stories here, four were in Crowley's earlier collection Novelty (1989), seven were in Antiquities (1993), and the remainder have been published since. The centrepiece is clearly the novella "Great Work of Time" (1989), which depicts the work of a secret "Otherhood" to safeguard the British Empire in accordance with the last wishes of its vainglorious evangelist Cecil Rhodes. The Otherhood has access to a kind of time-travel using "orthogonal logic", which enables them to tweak events to preserve peace and the Empire -- the two goals amount to the same thing. So, when we first meet one of the protagonists, Denys Winterset, he is a civil servant travelling home in 1956 from an African posting on Rhodes's long-planned Cape-to-Cairo railway, which was never completed in our world. Denys is approached in a restaurant and recruited for the Otherhood, which has as its headquarters (naturally) a London club. As Denys is drawn into its circle, he comes to see the rationale for the Otherhood's work: it has created a more benign Empire stripped of the racism it engendered in our world while averting the worst of the twentieth century's holocausts. He agrees to go back in time to meet Rhodes and steer events to ensure the survival of the Otherhood. But every action has unintended consequences, and in another strand of the narrative, we follow the Otherhood's President as he ventures into a future world inhabited by angels, "draconics" and other inhuman but sentient races. Meeting a lizard-like "Magus", he is told that this world is a consequence of the Otherhood's tinkering, but that its inhabitants know they are illusory. The Magus's request is "that you put this world out like a light" (155). "Great Work of Time" is told as a series of seemingly unconnected fragmentary tales, and two-thirds of the way through one begins to wonder how Crowley will be able to knit these strands together. Slowly, however, the story's true structural ingenuity becomes apparent, and we're given an ending which makes very clear what the Otherhood has done. To say exactly how Crowley achieves this would be to give spoilers of the worst kind, but I can't think of another story in the genre which shuts itself down so comprehensively or which so tellingly examines the costs of the genre's time-travel japes. To put it another way: "Great Work of Time" is the least sequellable story I've ever read.

"Great Work of Time" shares with a few other stories here a distinct trait in Crowley's writing: Anglophilia. (One remembers that Pierce Moffett, in Crowley's Ægypt, had wished "that the British had won the War of Independence (he had been profoundly Anglophile as a child)".) "Antiquities" (1977), for instance, is a Club Story recounting an epidemic of inconstant wives in Cheshire. "The Green Child" (1980) re-tells a Suffolk folk-tale, and "The Reason for the Visit" (1981) resurrects Virginia Woolf.

These three early tales are each relatively slight, vignettes or experiments in form. But Crowley at shorter length can be devastatingly effective. "Exogamy" (1993) is barely five pages long, but manages to be a quest story, a love story, and a reworking of myth both unsentimental and moving. "The War Between the Objects and the Subjects" (2002) is even shorter but effortlessly suggestive.

"Exogamy" falls into another group of stories here, the reworkings of fairy-tale or myth. "Lost and Abandoned" (1995) casts the Hansel and Gretel story in a contemporary setting, while "An Earthly Mother Sits and Sings" (2000) re-tells a Scottish folk tale. "Missolonghi 1824" (1990) is also a kind of myth-tale, a story told by Lord Byron at the end of his life to a boy he has just failed to seduce. While walking in the woods of Arcadia years ago, Byron says, he came across a creature of myth captured by villagers. He alone was able to communicate with it, using the classical Greek he learned decades ago at school, and a bargain was struck -- or so it seems to Byron. As in many of Crowley's stories, the fantastic exists here on the margins of our world, a possibility which can be seen or imagined but never entirely grasped.

One set of stories that Crowley seems to enjoy reworking is the Bible, and in particular the Catholic interpretation of it. "Her Bounty to the Dead" (1978) is the most substantial of the early stories here, a shard of family history structured around a priest's heretical thoughts. "The Nightingale Sings At Night" (1989) is a sweet revisionist fable of Eden, sitting just this side of sentimentality. In "Novelty" (1983), a writer who may or may not be Crowley sits in a bar and ponders ideas for his next novel. He imagines an alternate story of Christianity, where Christ refused to take up his cross, and instead lived on -- making, in a sense, a fuller commitment to humanity that way. On one level, "Novelty" is nothing more than another mood-piece, but charmingly done, and a wonderful answer to people who ask writers So, where do you get your ideas? But it also tables some ideas at the heart of Crowley's work, especially the Ægypt sequence. Here the writer is explaining to his editor about the alternate religion his novel would depict. The editor misunderstands it as a kind of pantheism, and the writer responds:

"No. No. The opposite. In that kind of religion the trees and the sky and the weather stand for God or some kind of supernatural unity. 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." (46)

There are also a couple of stories here which are readable as science fiction. "Snow" (1985) takes on a simple sf notion: the rich pay to be followed by a tiny wasp-like recording camera, so that after their deaths their relatives can watch recordings of their loved ones. But the system has problems: access is random only, and the recordings seem to degrade as time goes on so that every vista seems filled with snow. "Gone" (1996) is a somewhat unorthodox alien invasion story, told from the viewpoint of a fragmenting marriage. "In Blue" (1989) is the most difficult story in the collection, an sf dystopia founded on a cognitive revolution so total that explaining it takes up most of the story. The nearest comparison I know is Ted Chiang's extraordinary "Story of Your Life" (1998): there, too, the reader's work at understanding the central mystery becomes a kind of secular epiphany, an attempt to see clearly and truly the day outside the church window.

So Novelties and Souvenirs is an immensely rewarding book, and surely the most wide-ranging collection of short fiction to be published this year. The stories here are ingenious, challenging, and beautifully written. Crowley says at the end of Little, Big that we know the world is as it is and not otherwise, that if there was ever a time when magic worked, it's not now. Each of these stories is a stab at describing what otherwise might be like.

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