Sunday, October 17, 2004


"Snow" from John Crowley's collection Novelties & Souvenirs is a miracle of memory, nostalgia, loss, and rather amazing writing. The story is so fragile, mimicking its subject matter, that when I first read it I thought for sure I would not be thinking about it weeks later, and yet I am. It's true that the story exists only because of a SF gimmick, but the more I remembered the beautiful little moments in "Snow" the less I cared.

Basically, in Crowley's imagined near-future the rich can buy a kind of "wasp"--a flying electronic recording device that follows a person throughout their entire life. The recording is then downloaded to a monitor and the "videotape" displayed at the person's gravesite/mausoleum. Mourners can access the images, but due to the way the information is collected, there are certain limitations, certain ways in which the images decay.

The narrator of "Snow" is the now slightly aging ex-lover of Georgie, a rich woman who sponsore his writing attempts but who more or less kept him as her own personal gigolo. Passages like these reveal so much character-wise, while seeming casual, effortless.

Now that [my] looks are all but gone, I can look back on myself as a young hunk and see that I was in a way a rarity, a type that you also run into more often among women than men, the beauty unaware of his beauty, aware that he affects women profoundly and more or less instantly but doesn't know why; thinks he is being listened to and understood, that his soul is being seen,when all that's being seen is long-lashed eyes and a strong, square tanned wrist turning in a lovely gesture, stubbing out a cigarette.

I love the end of that section, the "strong, square tanned wrist turning in a lovely gesture, stubbing out a cigarette." Somehow, even without it being said, you can see an expensive watch on that wrist. You can see the callowness of the character as well.

Now searching for more meaning in his life, the narrator accesses the memories of Georgie, who has since died. He does so in a place deader than a graveyard:

Now, after some hundreds of hours spent there underground, now when I have long ceased to go through those doors...I know that the solitude I felt myself to be in was real. The watchers around me, the listeners I sensed in other chambers, were mostly my imagination. There was rarely anyone there. These tombs were as neglected as any tombs anywhere usually are. Either the living did not care to attend much on the dead--when have they ever?--or the hopeful buyers of the contracts had come to discover the flaw in the access concept: as I discovered it, in the end.

The best parts of the story are the accessed memories--the minimalistic way in which Crowley writes those sections just underscores the fleeting nature of our memories. One of the most telling details comes when the narrator writes that he can no longer distinguish between his own memories and the ones imposed on him by what he has viewed. It's at this level, among others, that we identify with the story--how many times have images, videotaped or still, replaced our own memories. Until finally we are living someone else's version of events, in a sense.

I'd love to quote more from this story, but I really think anyone who hasn't read it should pick up this collection and read it immediately, so I'm in no hurry to spoil "Snow" for anyone.

(Evil Monkey: "So...yesterday I'm told you thought a guy trimming grass with a weedwacker was actually a guy walking his squirrel on a leash." Jeff: "It was early. I was tired. The handle on the weedwacker was pretty thin, looked like a leash." Evil Monkey: "Hmmm. Okay. So--holding up okay? Any word from...certain quarters?" Jeff: "No, of course not. It's Sunday. Geez." Evil Monkey: "Dude. I've never mistaken a weedwacker for a squirrel on a leash." Jeff: "You have no limbs. Shut up.")


At 6:00 PM, Blogger Robert said...

Hi Jeff

I read 'Snow' two nights ago, and again I couldn't agree more with your description of Crowley's writing. I'm not so sure that the Wasp is just a gimmick, though. The way Crowley has it getting locked in wardrobes, being afraid of the dark almost, following its mistress around like a nervous puppy and an irritating, buzzing omen of death at the same time - it's a minor character in its own right. And its leavings, its residue, the uncorrelated screen memories of the dead person (and of the live one) are really no better than the actual memories in Charlie's head. Any new technology is only going to work as well as it was designed to, or only as well as the humans who designed it... So, okay, maybe the Wasp and the access program are just gimmicks, but maybe that's kind of the point.

Crowley's writing really is amazing. It's all subtlety. Snowflake writing - fragile and complex and beautiful, and just when you think you've got hold of it it melts away.


At 7:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


You make a really good point. Crowley does, in fact, invest the "wasp" with a kind of personality. I didn't really mean to make it sound like this was a bad thing in the story. I think in the hands of most writers the wasp *would* be a gimmick. It would be the MacGuffin, in a sense. But Crowley escapes this trap. It's true the story couldn't exist without the wasp, but so what? I like your description of Crowley's writing.

It's funny--I've had so much trouble getting into Crowley's novels, but I'm enjoying his short fiction so much. I really hope that when I return to his novels I'll have found the key to them.


At 10:04 PM, Blogger Robert said...

Hi again Jeff

I'm also very much enjoying reading N&S, but from the point of view of never having read any Crowley before whatsoever (I know, I'm a Philistine). The idea was, as you suggest, to use the stories as a key into the novels, which for various reasons I had always thought of as daunting. But about halfway through Antiquities I realised I was going to be reading these stories absolutely for themselves.

Besides which, I just ain't gonna be reading too many big fat novels in the near future (new baby due... ooh, any day now). That's the one good thing about short fiction (amongst all the other good things about it) that often gets overlooked - you can pack a lot more short stories into the gaps and cracks of a busy modern life than you can novels, and still come out the other end as a very well read individual.

I hope.



At 5:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This story sounds very much like the new Robin Williams movie(I don't remember the title). Do you know if that movie is based on Crowley's story? If he is not credited, it sounds like he should be.


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