One of America’s best kept literary secrets (Little, Big may just be the great American novel), John Crowley returns to the printed page in 2017 with what is truly a fan’s collection in Totalitopia. Reprinting a few shorts stories, two-and-a-half essays (I don’t know whether to call the review of Paul Park’s oeuvre an essay, paper, article, etc.), as well as a new, in-depth author interview, it makes for an excellent sampler platter that includes fiction but likewise goes beyond to offer a behind the scenes look at some of the realities behind said fiction—a fan’s collection.
Looking at the fiction in Totalitopia, “This Is Our Town” is a nostalgic piece, and opens the collection with one man’s reminiscences of his upbringing during America’s Golden Age, particularly his relationship with the Catholic church and how it relates to his present day life. An open-ended story rather than a definitive view on religion, Crowley uses his subtle powers of prose to ask personal questions that touch upon the larger, social realm. “Gone” is one Crowley’s most well known and reprinted stories. A moody, minimalist piece, it is about a woman whose partner has run away with their children on an Earth where a space ship orbits, sending peace-loving Elmer robots do housework and common chores. A bizarre story for the robot premise, it nevertheless manages to draw strong yet mysterious emotional resonance through the portrayal of the woman’s life. Proving flash fiction is also in Crowley’s bag of tricks, “In the Tom Mix Museum” is shows the power of excellent writing technique in the process of relaying a vignette of a person’s visit to the museum. More happening in its three pages than some writers can pack into a story ten times as long, the “story” is interesting as a specimen and as fiction. What I would call a one-off conceit, “And Go Like This” takes a Buckminster Fuller quote and runs with it. The entire population of the world migrates to New York City, and answers the question, once there, what to do?
Among the essays in Totalitopia, the title essay works with the idea that all sf ideas of the future will someday come true, just a matter of when. In doing so, Crowley ruminates on the nature of science fiction’s lack of ability to predilect, yet its strong potential when said futuristic ideas are made relevant to the era. In “Everything That Rises”, an essay that at once feels both curious yet skeptical, it looks at the absurdity yet importance of futurism—the study, hyperbole, and often irrelevance associated with decrying the future. Though including some womferful examples (e.g. Mormon transhumanism), Crowley keeps his distance from assaying a truth on the sbject, which, when it comes right down to it, is a nice metaphor for his approach to fiction.
Not quite an essay rather like a book introduction (the collection’s bibliography states it is reprinted from the Boston Review, a ‘political and literary forum’), “Paul Park’s Hidden Worlds” provides a high-level overview of Park’s novels, particularly what makes Paul Park so unique, as well as an elegant admonishment for readers who have not partaken of the author’s books, to go do so. Crowley praises Park’s willingness to eschew formula and write stories which are unpredictably human despite the non-mimetic settings. In what I believe is the longest piece in the collection, “I Did Crash a Few Parties”, the interview with Crowley performed by the collection’s editor Terry Bisson, is chock full of intelligent questions that are much more than “What are your inspirations?”, How do you write so well?”, and most other common inquiries. Bisson pushing Crowley in atypical directions, the result is a candid Crowley with views on literature as a whole, careers in writing, his own path into literature and teaching, and a variety of other topics.
In the end, Totalitopia is a Crowley sampler platter that amounts to a meal. Presenting the author from a variety of perspectives, fiction to non-fiction, it should be of primary interest to readers who are familiar with Crowley’s work but want the opportunity to have a deeper look at the author. Alongside a handful of quality short stories and three essays, a personal interview rounds out the collection. Though brief, it is still one of the best single-author collections of 2017.
The following are the four stories (one previously unpublished), three essays, and one interview collected in Totalitopia:
This Is Our Town
Everything That Rises
In the Tom Mix Museum
And Go Like This
Paul Park’s Hidden Worlds
“I Did Crash a Few Parties” (interview)