The quality of John Crowley’s short stories is inversely proportional to their quantity. His two brief collections, Novelty and Antiquities, were combined and expanded into Novelties & Souvenirs in 2004; one collection, not unduly thick, collected thirty years of short fiction. The publication of a new collection by John Crowley is a rare occasion; I’m happy to report that his new one, And Go Like This, was worth the fifteen-year wait.
In his note “To the Prospective Reader,” Crowley delineates his writerly ideal, to be among “the chameleons of fiction writing, whose verbal and story-telling styles change with the subjects they alight on.” To the consternation of some readers, Crowley changed his colors in the early 2000s. Though he concluded his Ægypt cycle with Endless Things in 2007, realistic novels like The Translator and Four Freedoms predominated during this period. When Saga Press published Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr in 2017, Crowley admitted he hoped to win back readers who didn’t like the chameleon’s new colors. Such readers should know that roughly two hundred of this new book’s three-hundred-odd pages are “mainstream” fiction.
The thirteen stories of And Go Like This range in length from a single page to upwards of sixty; two of the stories, “The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines” and “Conversation Hearts,” were previously published in hardback standalones by Subterranean Press. “Girlhood” is the first story in the collection and a clear highlight: It crosses coming-of-age reminiscence with coming-of-middle-age epiphanies. Crowley sympathizes with his characters, a “Free Spirit” bohemian girl and an introverted young man who meet at a Shakespeare camp in 1950s Indiana, but this story of a golden summer never lapses into nostalgia. It’s a strong start to a strong collection.
The “Mount Auburn Street” suite of the stories comprises the center, and perhaps the heart, of And Go Like This. The three linked pieces, “Littles Yeses, Little Nos,” “Glow Little Glow-Worm,” and “Mount Auburn Street” concern men of Crowley’s generation growing older and confronting the future in New England towns not far removed from the one where Crowley lives. They fret about home insurance, they worry about their children, they reflect on their mistakes and seek counseling, they ask their doctor about Viagra. Some genre readers won’t have patience for these quiet slice-of-life stories. That is their loss: These stories, particularly the second two, are accomplished, moving, and wise.
I wasn’t much taken with “Conversation Hearts” the first time I read it a few years ago; I was inclined to agree with readers who characterized it as better intended than executed. I’m afraid my opinion remains unchanged. The story, which alternates between the snowbound family of young Lily Nutting and a children’s story written by her mother, has a wholesome message about difference, but little energy. Lily is a happy child who was born with a disability and therefore needs some additional care; her mother’s story relocates her family’s challenges to an alien planet. It’s an unusually straightforward story from a writer who usually approaches important subjects obliquely. The portions about the Nutting family work, but the interpolation of the children’s story damages it, rendering the whole nearly as saccharine as the candies that provide the title. If the story doesn’t entirely succeed, the prose rarely flags, in this story or any others in the collection. Here is a lonely night drive in the snow from “Conversation Hearts”:
It was a long time, but she was now in sight of what she thought of as the half way mark, the stacks of a chemical plant of some kind, lit luridly, hard to apprehend from a distance, its floodlit smoke rising into the blowing snow, like a Turner storm done in black and white.
The collected “Mount Auburn Street” pieces, “The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines,” and “Conversation Hearts” account for nearly two-hundred pages; by contrast, three of the thirteen stories here run under ten. “In the Tom Mix Museum” is flash fiction likely to bewilder anyone unfamiliar with old time movie cowboys, while “The Million Monkeys of M. Borel” appears to be a Borges homage. “And Go Like This” is a magic realist thought experiment that derives beauty from its absurdity. Different in form and style as these three short pieces are, I found myself wishing for more, not because Crowley’s longer shorts don’t engage, but because these experiments in concision work so well. Perhaps we shall see more in an eventual Collected Fiction?
“Spring Break,” the first outright genre story in And Go Like This and an Edgar Award winner, left me with thoroughly mixed feelings. The story is an updated “Cask of Amontillado” set in a nearish-future Yale and written in the slangy textspeak of a few decades from now. It’s a thematically interesting story about nostalgia, old ways, and what might be lost in our digital future, but the future world of online “collabs,” “emojoes,” and empty quads never acquires the solidity of the Sterling Library that its hapless narrator enters. Perhaps that’s part of Crowley’s point — the narrator doesn’t have the proper language for his perceptions — but I’m not sure “Spring Break” entirely succeeds.
The last two stories in the collection, “Flint and Mirror” and “Anosognosia,” end the book with a return to the fantastic. “Flint and Mirror,” which debuted in Gardner Dozois’s The Book of Magic last year, is an addendum to Ægypt, introduced as an excised chapter from a novel by Fellowes Kraft, a writer who features in those books. It’s a historical fantasy about Ireland and England in the reign of Elizabeth I; the Virgin Queen appears, as does her astrologer and magician John Dee. It’s a very good story that requires no prior knowledge of the Ægypt sequence.
“Anosognosia,” which makes its first appearance in this volume, bears a dedication to Paul Park. Crowley is a friend of Park’s and the author of a fine consideration of Park’s increasingly autobiographical work. A characteristic late Park story might feature a protagonist, Paul Park, a writer living, as the real author does, in Williamstown, Massachusetts, while also navigating (say) the complexities of life in a fractured, post-plague U.S. As Crowley describes the effect, “It is fiction become autobiography even as the autobiography becomes fiction.” “Anosognosia” applies the same technique to Crowley’s own life. It’s appropriate that this story comes last, because greater context gives greater effect. Even if a reader knew nothing about John Crowley, person, enough apparently autobiographical motifs and themes recur in And Go Like This — the childhood Catholicism, the move from Indiana and the Midwest, the interest in theater, the settled family life in New England — that they would have a sense of the real Crowley’s life.
I’ve seen John Crowley at a few conventions over the years, and I’ve stood in line to have my books signed in his famous calligraphic hand. Almost invariably, people bring several of his books to be signed; often, they explain that they would have brought more, but all the other books received signatures on another occasion. Crowley readers often become Crowley completists. And Go Like This will satisfy the high expectations of Crowley’s devoted readers; though it may not be the ideal place to start reading him, nonetheless I believe it will win his work some new converts.
And Go Like This is available from Small Beer Press.
Matt Keeley reads too much and watches too many movies. You can find him on Twitter at @mattkeeley.