Stonecoasting: John Crowley’s Novelties & Souvenirs

It’s Stonecoast week–which is the MFA program I’m currently in–so in honor of the residency in Maine I’m at right now, this week’s Short Story Review is an annotation I wrote for my second semester. The book? John Crowley’s Novelties & Souvenirs.

I’ll admit I have yet to read John Crowley’s masterpiece Little, Big. It’s on my list, but I always prefer reading a writer’s short stories before delving into their novels. Novelties & Souvenirs therefore served as my introduction to Crowley, and I was in no way disappointed.

There are fifteen stories in this collection written over twenty-five years–one, “Great Work of Time,” is a novella–and the stories are presented in the order they were written. Looking for a general progression of Crowley’s storytelling ability, I could find none; the stories in the front of the book seem just as well written as those at the back, written further along in Crowley’s career. The only trend I noticed was that the stories at the end of the collection seemed to deal more with abstractions. In his earlier short stories, there seems to be little in the way of abstract concepts. In his later work, such as “In Blue,” “Lost and Abandoned,” and “The War between the Objects and the Subjects,” there is more to puzzle over in terms of plot and deeper meaning, though as in all the Crowley stories here, there is certainly a great deal of depth.

My favorite in this collection would have to be the novella “Great Work of Time,” in which Crowley proves that the time travel story has certainly not overstayed its welcome. The story, which begins with the origin story for the time machine itself, soon moves to bigger and more complicated matters, such as a secret society of time travelers who work to maintain the British Empire and the values that their benefactor, Cecil Rhodes, held dear and a man, our protagonist, chosen to complete a task he has, in a time travel world, already completed. Complications, of course, arise.

“Great Work of Time” is partly so interesting because of the structure, being broken up into different sections and told out of sequence. It’s not the only story where Crowley plays with structure. Two stories, “Antiquities” and “Missolonghi 1824,” are told almost entirely in dialogue format, set up beforehand as a meeting between two individuals. In “Antiquities,” those two people are friends meeting in a club; one relates the story of the possible supernatural reason behind a plague of inconstancy in a nearby town. In “Missolonghi 1824” the dialogue is between Lord Byron and a young Greek boy. Both are intriguing in both the present of the story and the story being told.

The other stories to keep an eye out for in this collection: “The Nightingale Sings at Night,” a creation myth in which the nightingale and the moon are central characters, and though it shares similarities with the story of Adam and Eve, it makes those similarities its own. “Snow” explores a new technology that allows loved ones to record 8,000 hours of one’s life in case of death, to remember them. “Gone” is an original first contact story in which people are more than willing to let the aliens into their lives. “Exogamy” is Crowley’s take on the fairy tale.

I wasn’t crazy about every story here. “Novelty,” while beautifully written – Crowley’s prose is often goosebump-inducing in its splendor – didn’t engage as much in the middle. Told from the perspective of a writer who is so concerned with the ideas of his stories that he finds himself thinking on them more than writing them, the story dwells too long on the idea he’s stuck on. Though incredibly poignant in places, especially the end, this story isn’t one of my favorites. “The Reason for the Visit,” Crowley’s homage to Virginia Woolf, interested me in its conclusion, with the question of how far in the past each individual can truly imagine how life was lived, as the quickly accelerating rate of technological makes such imagining more difficult. However, by the end I still wasn’t sure what the reason was for the visit.

Woolf’s influence in Crowley’s work is evident and would be even without the inclusion of aforementioned story. His prose style has a very classic style to it, which makes me feel as if I am reading a modern classic. Crowley can certainly be considered as much.

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