Throughout his career, John Crowley has been among the most painstaking and fastidious of major American novelists. His magnum opus, the Aegypt tetralogy, took more than two decades to complete, and his readers, a patient and faithful bunch, have become grudgingly accustomed to the long intervals between books. Lately, though, Crowley has been on a creative binge, and the results have been impressive. Recent publications include his rendering of “The Chemical Wedding,” a 17th-century prototype of the science fiction novel; “Ka,” a major fantasy novel; “Totalitopia,” a slender compendium of fiction and nonfiction; and the newly published “Reading Backwards,” a generous collection of essays on subjects both literary and non. Now, we have one more major addition to the list: “And Go Like This,” Crowley’s first collection of short fiction since 2004’s “Novelties & Souvenirs.”

The intervening years have yielded 13 new stories ranging in length from a one-page vignette — a child’s impressions of a visit to the Tom Mix Museum — to full-scale novellas. Given Crowley’s reputation as a literary fantasist, surprisingly few of these stories contain overtly fantastic material. “Flint and Mirror” is a tale of war and magic set in the 17th-century Ireland of Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, but is presented as an unpublished work by the fictional historical novelist Fellowes Kraft, a familiar figure to readers of the Aegypt sequence. The Edgar Award winner “Spring Break” takes place in a future Yale and uses an experimental style to tell a surprising story of mass murder in an Ivy League setting. In “Anosognosia,” a high school student named John C. suffers a serious head injury and awakens from a three-day coma into a world — and a life — now subtly different. He will come to believe that he has the power to return to a point in his past life and redirect his future along a different path. Is he supernaturally gifted or merely trapped in a complex personal mythology? That is the story’s central question. Anosognosia (and no, I didn’t know what it meant either) refers to a condition in which the sufferer is “incapable of recognizing an illness,” no matter how obvious or life-altering. Thus, the title itself suggests an alternative to John C.’s vision of his peculiar history. The result is a witty, nicely ambiguous variation on one of Crowley’s central fictional notions: There is more than one history of the world.

Several of the stories gathered here read like thought experiments given fictional form. “The Million Monkeys of M. Borel” takes the familiar, untestable hypothesis — that X number of monkeys typing for X number of years would eventually produce the works of Shakespeare — and gives it an unexpected spin. “And Go Like This” takes a premise posited by Buckminster Fuller — that there is enough indoor space in New York City to absorb the world’s population — and examines some of the existential questions that would inevitably arise from such a concept.

The remaining stories are largely free of genre trappings, and these are among the most resonant in the book. The triptych Mount Auburn Street consists of three stories connected by characters and locale. In “Little Yeses, Little Nos,” the hapless Harry Watroba struggles to learn a fundamental lesson: How to pay attention to the life and world around him. In “Glow Little Glow-Worm,” Harry’s neighbor Stan, an aging real estate agent, struggles to navigate the complexities of sex in the age of Viagra. And in “Mount Auburn Street,” Harry returns to center stage to confront a succession of issues now dominating his life, such as aging, illness, divorce, mortality and the vagaries of modern technology.

Among my personal favorites is an altogether unique Valentine’s Day story. “Conversation Hearts” recounts a day in the life of a mostly “normal” American family with two young children, one of whom is physically disabled. Nested within the story is the fable-like account of life on the planet Brxx, and of another family with a child who is demonstrably different. Rather than turn this dual narrative into a predictable, anodyne plea for tolerance, Crowley uses it to make a different point, one made with equal force in his 2009 novel, “Four Freedoms”: The world and its structures are not arranged to accommodate the needs of the disabled minority.

The oldest and longest story, “The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines,” is one of Crowley’s most accomplished fictions. Beginning at an imagined Shakespeare festival in Indiana in the 1950s, the story moves forward across decades, encompassing a variety of themes and subjects: love of theater, the Francis Bacon controversy, adolescent sexuality and the unexpected durability of young love. Like Philip Roth’s 2010 novel “Nemesis,” it also encompasses the polio epidemic that raged through the country in those days, an epidemic that will have a profound effect on Crowley’s central characters. “The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines” is not quite like anything you have ever read, a sentiment that applies to so much of Crowley’s work. “And Go Like This” is a distinguished, eclectic collection that deserves a large, appreciative audience. I hope it finds one.


By John Crowley

Small Beer. 300 pp. $25