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Conversation Hearts
John Crowley
Subterranean Press, 64 pages

Conversation Hearts
John Crowley
John Crowley was born December 1, 1942 in Presque Isle, Maine. This American author of science fiction, fantasy, and mainstream fiction, studied at Indiana University. He is best known as the author of the fantasy book Little, Big (1981), which won the World Fantasy Award. His shorter Great Work of Time, which was originally included in the story collection Novelty, was later reprinted as a separate paperback after it won the 1990 World Fantasy Award. He has had a second career as a documentary film writer. In 1993, Crowley took up a post at Yale University where he began teaching courses in Utopian fiction, fiction writing, and screenplay writing.

John Crowley Tribute Site
SF Site Review: In Other Words
SF Site Review: The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines
Bio/Bibliography: ISFDB, 1, 2, 3, 4
Filmography: 1
Commentary/reviews of Crowley's works: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
Interviews: 1, 2
E-TEXTS: "The Happy Place"
Subterranean Press
Excerpt from The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

On the planet Brxx, a little girl called Trxx is born with no fur. At first her mother and father, Qxx and Fxx, and her older brother, Pxx, don't know what to make of this strange, disturbing disability. But gradually they learn that Trxx's difference does not affect her ability to enjoy life.

We have a distant planet, upon which the summers are snowy and the winters warm. We have aliens with furry bodies. The fur might be red or blue or green, but it is thick enough to ensure that they do not need clothes, or even bedclothes, though their world is well enough equipped with doctors and schools and playgrounds and other things we might recognise. Yet despite its alien setting, its alien beings, this slim novella is not science fiction.

The uniformity of the names tells us, even if nothing else does, that this is not an exercise in world building. We are not meant to see, to explore, to come to understand otherness in this story. Quite the opposite, it is all about sameness, the identities between Brxx and our world are made patently obvious, because this is an allegory.

It is, moreover, an allegory written by one of the characters in the story that enfolds it.

In the north east of America, within easy driving distance of Boston, a little girl called Lily Nutting has a deformed spine which means she has to walk with the aid of crutches. At first her mother and father, Meg and John, and her older brother, Perry, don't really know what to make of it. But they learn that Lily's difference does not affect her ability to enjoy life.

Meg Nutting is an author, and one snowy Valentine's Day she is in Boston, seeing her agent about a new book she has written for children, a book set on the planet Brxx about a girl with no fur. Though the agent really wants to talk about the next in the series of novels about a female detective that Meg usually writes. Meanwhile, the children have been sent home from school early because of the snow, and they and John are making a Valentine's Day present for Meg while John tells them the story of Mummy's new book.

In a symbol-rich story (it is by John Crowley, after all) the snow serves to press home the message of disablement. Not only does it snarl up traffic, but we are twice told of the weight of snow bending the limbs of trees until they break, and of John's distress at the heedless cruelty of nature. At the same time the snow adds a suggestion of narrative unease into the tale: will Meg be able to make it home safely through this dreadful weather? Though this is never fully developed.

Meanwhile, the meeting with the agent does not go well. The agent concludes that Meg's story is "too short for a chapter book but the words and sentences are too hard for an I-can-read-it-myself book, and the subject matter is too hard for a picture book" (p28). Really, perhaps it shouldn't be a children's book after all, perhaps it should be wrapped into something bigger. It is impossible to read this recursive moment without wondering whether it echoes a meeting Crowley had with his own agent, whether he hadn't decided his own slight allegorical tale needed to be wrapped within something else, something more explicit and yet more subtle.

Crowley has touched upon disability before in his fiction. His superb and allusive story, The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines, turns upon and indeed acquires its emotional punch from the polio suffered by the leading characters. But where disability was implicitly at the heart of that story, here it is explicit. The story within the story is an extended metaphor about disability. The snow turns our minds to disability. Even the title of Meg's next crime novel, Delphic Oracle, is explained as being "a little like Lily" (p30). '"You get a diagnosis, and a prognosis. A prediction. A prophecy. Anyway an oracle… The oracle isn't wrong," Meg said. "It just isn't determining. What you hope is that you'll learn better as you go, learn that the possibilities are greater than they seemed."' (pp30-31).

And therein lies the message of The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines, of the tale of Trxx, and of Conversation Hearts that encloses it: society sees disability as a closing down of possibilities. In fact, says Crowley, it opens up as many possibilities as any other experience of life. Crowley is too good a writer to allow sugary sentimentality to creep into this perception, even in the plain and simple allegory of Trxx; but it is a close run thing at times. Conversation Hearts is a story ruled by its (undeniably worthwhile) message, which means we lose much of the subtlety we normally associate with Crowley, and there isn't much in the way of plot to propel us along. Nevertheless, the prose is as glorious as ever, and the writing is tight enough, the novella short enough, to ensure it could never come close to outstaying its welcome. This is not John Crowley at his best, but it shows where his heart is and it offers enough delights for any reader.

Copyright © 2008 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.

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