Monday, August 30, 2004

NOVELTIES & SOUVENIRS by John Crowley: Day 1

I thought it would be interesting to throw John Crowley's "definitive" collection of short stories into the mix along with Flights and The Circus in Winter. Any comparisons and contrasts will be, in a sense, completely arbitrary, but in another sense may be of interest.

I have to confess something--I've read enough of Little, Big to include it on some of my lists of important fantasy of the last century, but I've also skimmed long parts of it that did not interest me. It seems to be the kind of book that, like Gravity's Rainbow, requires you to have "loaded" other books into your system first. I don't think I've loaded the requisite books.

So I was interested to sample Crowley's work on a smaller stage--that of the short story and novella (I will be reading Crowley's novella from Conjunctions and commenting on it here as part of my discussion of his collection because it feels like a major, major omission--one that I don't have to accept.)

Crowley has decided to present his stories in rough chronological order--from first written to last written. I'm glad he's chosen to do this. For a retrospective, I think it's an exceedingly valuable approach. The best example of this approach would be Vladimir Nabokov's collected short stories, a book which is not just brilliant but also instructive. We see the general steady progression of talent tied to a greater understanding of craft--the development of a young writer into a mature writer. We also see the occasional stutter-step sideways and the inevitable fall off in skill toward the end of his career. I don't think Crowley has written enough short fiction for the effect to be as dramatic in his collection, but it should still be instructive to read the stories in the order in which he created them.

"Antiquities," the first story in Novelties & Souvenirs, first appeared in the anthology Whispers and is a pastiche of the traditional old-British-veterans-of-Empire harrumphing and tall-tale-ing it in some smoky men's-only club with rosewood furniture and old leather chairs. It's a generic story, in that anyone could have written it, and it certainly suggests Crowley could have remained a generic writer, one who only trawled the surface of his stories. Cat mummies and Cheshire infidelities highlight this tale, with its "crepuscular haze of the smoking room" and its mesmerism.

The second story, "Her Bounty to the Dead," provides the first hint of Crowley's special talent. Phillippa Derwent contacts a long-lost nephew, John Knowe, to tell him her mother has died and left him some property. Together, they drive out to inspect it. These three paragraphs on the third page of the story, describing her first meeting with John, brought me up short, made me appreciate Crowley's work as both a stylist and as someone who sees in the world a sense of underlying mystery:

He was astonished as she was not. She felt embarrassed; she must appear a ghastly crone in comparison to his mental image [from 20 years before]. 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.

Parkways north: already along these most civilized of turnpikes the ivy had turned, burdening the still-green trees with garments of many colors. Since the twenties, when her father had bought the farm for their summers, she had made this journey many times, at first on dirt roads, through then-rural Connecticut, later traveling under these arching bridges each one different, and now skating along superhighways that reached--as had once seemed impossible to her that they ever would--deeply into Vermont itself. At this season, she and Amy and their parents would have been traveling the other way, not toward but away from the farm, where they lived from May to October, going home, they always said, but to Phillippa at least it had always seemed the reverse: leaving the true home for the other, the workaday place, the exile.

I can't tell you exactly why I find this passage in some way conveying the mysteriousness of the world, but that's the sense I get from it. There's a certain mystery in the interaction between John and Phillippa. There's a certain mystery to the world described by the drive.

There are a few specific things I really like in the style of that passage. Firstly, the simple but effective inversion of "almost tenderly" as "tenderly almost," the "almost" surprising the reader, but also effectively conveying the distance between two people who have not seen each other in decades. I also like "the ivy had turned, burdening the still-green trees" because "turned" anticipates and supports "burdening," the long "u" sound doubling, separated by a comma that also slows and burdens the sentence--only to open up into the shorter sounds of "still-green trees" which is more lithe and conveys, to me at least, a bit of the height of the trees, the "still" poking up out of the sentence above the "turned" and "burdening." Did Crowley intend this effect? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Sometimes these things just happen naturally. But it is certainly the kind of thing a stylist thinks of during the revision phase. (The sentence also has a nice convoluted yet streamlined feel to it, echoing its subject matter.)

Also effective is the way in which Crowley sets up, in this passage, the tension between the present and the past. In the rest of the story, Crowley smoothly slides between Phillippa's conversation in the car with John and her memories...all of which merges together in present-day catastrophe and past regret in the story's enigmatic but powerful conclusion. I am not entirely sure I understand the conclusion of the story, but I like that it is mysterious. I will return to this story, and its conclusion, after reading more of the collection. I will worry the ending of "Her Bounty to the Dead" until I have a better sense of it. Or until all the meat is off the bone...