NOVELTIES & SOUVENIRS: Day 3
I’ve re-established my dialog with John Crowley’s Novelties & Souvenirs after a prolonged absence. I find the book pulling me in despite my objections now, either because the material is becoming richer or because the stories have softened my resistance.
The Green Child
“The Green Child,” first published back in 1981, is a relatively straightforward story about two strange children discovered in an area called the Wolf-pits in West Suffolk in the twelfth century:
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.
The pleasures of this story lie not in the plot, which is simply the tale of the strange children being integrated into the village, but in the process of that integration, including the brother’s death, and in the quality of the prose. There’s a haunting beauty in the dissolution of their strangeness into the mundane. We never learn where they came from (they tell a tale of underground lands, but we hear this at best third hand, diluted by centuries)—whether aliens or faeries or Other—but it doesn’t matter much. We are meant to linger on the details, on the sadness of the sister’s transformation:
She came to eat human food without difficulty, and in time lost most of her green color, though her eyes remained large and strangely golden, like a cat’s, and she never grew to proper size, but remained always tiny, thin, and somewhat insubstantial.
And to linger on the uncertainty of their origins, the sheer unknowable quality of the story itself:
Eventually, it is recorded, the green child married a man in Lenna, and there “survived many years.” It’s not recorded what sort of man he was, or what sort of wife she made; nor if there were children of this union, and, if so, whether the blood in them of the land their mother called St. Martin’s Land made them different from other children. If there were children, and children of those children, so that in some way that green land elsewhere and also the distant bright country glimpsed across the wide river entered our plain human race, it must surely be so diluted now, so bound up and drowned in daylight and red blood, as not to be present in us at all.
This story sneaks up on you. It gathers its strength toward the end, where the sense of something lost—an opportunity, a time—becomes so strong that “The Green Child” stirs up deep emotion based solely on what it cannot tell the reader. That it is based on folklore and may be familiar enough as a tale doesn’t take away from that perfect sense of loss.
To me, “Novelty” is a stunning piece of fiction—moving and spiritual and having that sense of transcending to the universal that I also felt on first reading Joyce’s “The Dead.” It is my favorite story thus far in Crowley’s collection. Like some of my favorite stories—many of them by Nabokov, with which Crowley’s story shares clear affinities and parallels—“Novelty” is both metafiction and not metafiction.
On the face of it, it’s not much of a story: A writer sits in a bar interacting with both the barkeep and a woman while working out a novel idea in his head, an idea that brings back to him childhood memories and his own internal discussion of Catholicism. Again, little details make the story work, like “[The theme] had ‘fallen into place,’ as it’s put, like the tumblers of a lock that a safecracker listens to, and—so he experienced it—with the same small, smooth sound.”
That’s an apt description of the story itself, in which the writerly contemplation, the childhood memories, the interactions in the bar, all fit and work together to create a beautiful story.
In [the bar], 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…Waiting like a neglected ghost, the vast notion would beat its wings into the void.
Reading “Novelty,” I began to see other stories superimposed over it—Nabokovian mostly, and then my own story “Experiment #25 in the Book of Winter: The Croc and You” from Secret Life, which is also influenced by Nabokov and also concerns a writer in the act of formulating creation. It struck me, while reading, that even if Nabokov in part invented the model, the model works wonderfully well for a multitude of writers because every writer has a different approach to the same issues and problems in fiction. We each have our own entry point into the world of our fiction—or our own entry point into the world through our fiction.
I don’t know if a story like this is as of much interest to non-writers. I do know that for me, the reaching out for a kind of spirituality, as well as a kind of spirituality in the mundane, that can be found in the writing of a story or its finished execution on the printed page, has a great appeal. It’s not so much that writing can be considered a belief system per se, but that it can be the entry point to a belief system. I’m not trying to make the point that our writing reflects what we believe, but that we often are trying to capture some quality of the real world that shows us a glimpse of the other, of something transcendent…and that this can often be expressed in the way we’re able to describe or catalogue the minute details of the world, no matter how mundane.
In discussing his nascent novel with his editor, the writer says
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.
Isn’t that an apt description of certain types of fiction writers and what they aspire to write? I think it is.
There’s also a wonderful section in the story where the writer is running with the idea for his novel and poses a series of what if’s.
What if…Jesus had in the end refused to die on the cross? Had run away…out of a desire to share our human life completely, even our common unheroic fate. Because the true novelty, for God, would lie not in the redemption of men—an act he could perform with a millionth part of the creative effort he had expended in creating the world—but in being a human being entire, growing [too] old and impotent to redeem anybody, including himself.
Which again, to me, comes back to an idea of true heroism consisting of facing the mundane, and, perhaps, of seeing the other in the mundane. One value of fantasy, then, is in allowing us to see this more clearly through the use of fantastical elements. That fantastical elements can, by heightening our perception, heightening our experience of the world—sometimes through stylization, sometimes through other means—reveal the mystery in the mundane. Fantasy doesn’t do this better than “realistic” fiction, but it provides a different entry point and different perspective.
But I’m getting off-topic, because it’s not entirely clear that Crowley’s meaning in the story is the same as the meaning I’ve taken from it. Again, all writers use different delivery systems, and sometimes those delivery systems also take them to different places rather than the same place.
Still, there’s so much to identify with in this story if you’re a writer—moments of recognition that are good for a writer to experience in another writer’s work; something more specialized and focused than the universality—the recognition of one’s own life—that a writer strives for in his or her relationship with the reader. For example, the writer facing his lack of nerve (and if there isn't a bit of humor in this, there should be):
Oh God how subtle he would have to be, how cunning…No paragraph, no phrase even of the thousands the book must contain could strike a discordant note, be less than fully imagined, an entire novel’s worth of thought would have to be expended on each one. His attention had only to lapse for a moment, between preposition and object, colophon and chapter heading, for dead spots to appear like gangrene that would rot the whole….
Not to mention the ending of the story, in which the pen on paper in the writer’s mind becomes “in shape more like a bullet or a bomb.” And not to mention the interaction in the bar, which serves to ground the story in the present, while allowing the writer to explore his memories.
Like my own “Experiment #25,” “Novelty” ends with snow, a snow that infiltrates the imagined novel as well:
and at evening, the old man in his daughter’s house would sit looking out over the silent calm alone at the kitchen table, a congruence of star, cradle, season, sacrament, etc., end of chapter thirty-five, the next page a flyleaf blank as snow.
“Novelty” should be as blank as snow, given its metafictional content [I’m tempted to write, as if ending a review], but is alive with life and the luminous details of the mundane. (It is also, I should note, full of a gracious good humor and some wicked satire of the publishing industry and the ways in which writers interact with readers.)
I think Nabokov would have liked this story very much. I think he would have recognized his (conscious or subconscious) role in its creation, but would also recognize how Crowley has put his own individual fingerprint on the idea, the thought, the detail, the story, the world.