John Crowley’s eleven novels have survived limited sales and questionable publishing tactics; all are now in print. Crowley is categorized as a fantasy writer, but he supersedes that limited distinction by writing about men and women in search of fulfilling relationships. He has evolved from his first three sci-fi efforts to compose of late three historic novels. His latest book Four Freedoms might be his purest example of historical entertainment, while Little, Big and his Aegypt cycle remains a unique gift to readers who care to be surprised and enthralled by the mystery of life and vagaries of memory.
Four Freedoms (2009) is set in the US during WWII; war effort factories are staffed by women, minorities, and hobbled men, and the government issued sacrifices are dictated in ration books for food, gasoline, and other amenities. In Ponca City, OK, the biggest warplane yet is under construction, and into Ponca come all comers; Prosper Olander, a cripple with lubricious luck, Violet Harbison, a gangly specimen and a wizard on the softball field, Connie Wrobleski, a passive mother seeking her husband (and a nice nod to Faulkner’s Lena Grove), and Diane Nunez, a cipher intent on bettering herself.
Crowley peppers the back story of the main characters with glimpses and then full bodied histories, some of which are fleeting, but some that are wondrous examples of personal awakenings: When Prosper recalls the school bus moving him and his fellow damaged types around his native city, he looks out onto ball playing kids and feels no loss; they are who they are, he is who he is. Funny scenes involving a former hospital mate break in to something more than that, an odd act of mercy performed on a mangled boy who seeks a release only another can resolve.
Violet’s past is nondescript at first, but later in the book a movie theater romance unfolds that scars her, and it surprises a reader. She is a hardened woman, made so by being the girl among brothers, but she’s also perhaps a budding Liz (as the parlance of the time dictates) and it’s not a cheap switch that takes moves her from a romance with Prosper to a trucker named Shirley.
Connie and Diane are worker women while their mates toil abroad, and their stories ring true and corny at times, especially some of Diane’s old world worrying about her hasty marriage and pending, then not so pending, pregnancy.
The heart of the book is Prosper, and Crowley gives him the most attention. His scenes of hospitalization and then in the care and employ of aunts and uncles are melodramatic highpoints of the book. A section of his hospital childhood hospital stay rings true:
Then he was taken, more wonderful still, to have an X-ray, the nurse telling him it wouldn’t hurt and would show what the inside of his body and his bones looked like, but Prosper knew all that, and stepped up bared to the waist smartly and efficiently, put his breast and then each side and his back against the glass as the doctor showed him; it didn’t hurt, though he was sure he felt pass through him coldly the rays without a name. (Four Freedoms, 117)
Prosper’s loving the antiseptic environment that will rid him of his girdle and debilitating spinal condition, and yet his feelings of awe are countered with the horror his mother is experiencing, and that Crowley rightly shows us he doesn’t see or comprehend.
Crowley has a dozen of supporting characters coming and going, both in the main characters’ childhoods and their present lives. These include a rambunctious pair of midget aircraft assemblers, a leftist sidekick for Prosper’s venture to OK named Pancho, and Martha Goldensohn, a Jewish pilot who prefers stick and rudder to schoolwork.
Crowley’s best known novel Little, Big (1981) posits a world alongside our own inhabited by fairies. Throughout that book, generations of the Drinkwater family encounter and question the other world, and throughout their lives ask over and over variations of do you believe? and do you remember?, and, heartbreakingly, why can’t I remember? Time and space in Little, Big expands and contracts and men and women grow and shrink depending on their state of introspection or supplication to their environment. A nitpicker could describe some of Crowley’s repetitive emotion as a hindrance, but to do so in total, in the entirety of the novel, would not be fair. That repetition is life for many of us is not fantastic; Crowley’s trick is to treat the reader to his own life and mix it with his tale. At one point in Little, Big a character describes a sphere as perpetual motion; the book itself strives to be endless and heeds its own circumference.
Little, Big is a family saga; Smoky Barnable is introduced hoofing it from the big city to the sylvan Edgewood, where he is to meet his bride to be Daily Alice Drinkwater. The Drinkwaters are religious, a Drinkwater cousin informs Smoky, but their faith is in fairies, which one may witness when young and idealistic, and that a Drinkwater once accidentally photographed. Smoky and Daily Alice’s son Auberon travels back to the city some 25 years later to make his fortune, and he moves in with his great uncle George Mouse in the Mouse townhouse, a derelict block long structure which harbors livestock and odd members of a Puerto Rican clan. Young Auberon’s relationship with Sylvie starts the second part of the book, and their misadventures are intertwined with a third story within the book, concerning a possible second-coming of dubious intent.
Crowley infuses honest talk and intimate relations into Little,Big and this keeps the book from becoming hackneyed fantasy. One is invested in the story because the belief of the characters runs smack into reality, and because other characters simply doubt or disbelieve the goings on in Edgewood. When Auberon returns from the city and confronts the older Smoky about the existence of the fairies, their talk (or non talk) about the subject could be about any of the difficult things a distant father and son might discuss:
Smoky looked up at his tall son. Through the whole of their lives together, it had been as though he and Auberon had been back to back, fixed that way and unable to turn. They had had to communicate by indirection, through others, or by craning their necks and talking out the sides of their mouths; they had to guess at each other’s faces and actions. (Little, Big, 469)
The surprises in the book are many and some are downright frightening. When Alice’s sister Sophie has her baby taken from her and replaced with a fake, Crowley lets the reader linger before revealing the outcome, an infanticide of sorts that involves George Mouse, hot coals, and fireworks, all of which shocks a reader but then somehow rings authentic, true to life and magic.
Crowley’s recently completed Aegypt cycle widens the scope of Little, Big and makes it more personal, human, and rewarding. The four books, 1,750 pages, and twelve Zodiacal sections of the cycle published over twenty years tell one main and many tributary stories relating to the big introspective questions of modern existence. In the first book The Solitudes (1987—originally titled Aegypt) Pierce Moffett is introduced as a flighty history professor on the outs, bitter at his stalled career and careening with the likes of a cocaine-loving nymph. En route to a job interview far from New York City, Pierce is stalled and encounters former student Brent Spofford, now a shepherd in the Faraway Hills. Pierce stays with Spofford, encounters other town-folk at a Full Moon party, and eventually decides to leave the city for the Faraways to work on a book, one that will show that long ago the beliefs of thinkers and philosophers now thought to be out-dated and flat wrong were indeed once right and true. The world, Pierce hopes to explain, was once a different place where laws of physics behaved different, and what the old eclectics wrote was true, and so might be again. The wobble of our Earth, turning us toward the Aquarian age, is summoning another new world, where modern physical ways and means will no longer work. So Pierce thinks, and at times, doubts.
The Solitudes is an introduction to characters and a hint to plot; the modern residents of the Faraways are Rosie Rasmussen, mother to daughter Sam, Rose Ryder, an ingénue tied up with Rosie’s divorce-papers-served husband Mike Mucho, Boney Rasmussen, a caretaker of vast properties and the estate of late historical novelist Fellowes Kraft (whose books make up the story within Crowley’s story), Beau Brachman, a mystic in the making or perhaps already complete, and town astrologer Val, keeper of the cards. The thesis sparking Pierce’s quest of is oft repeated in narration and conversation:
Once, the world was not as it has since become. It once worked in a different way than it does now; it had a different history and a different future. Its very flesh and bones, the physical laws that governed it, were other than the ones we know. (The Solitudes, 343)
The modern story is juxtaposed with an unfinished Fellowes Kraft novel that takes place in the late 16th century; one Kraft narrative line concerns Doctor John Dee and his quest for otherworldly communication, fostered by his introduction to Edward Kelley. The second story line follows the eclectic exiled memory artist Giordano Bruno. Bruno’s quest for knowledge and its application mirrors the modern Pierce’s quest:
They were returning, as he had seen them returning: they were returning now. The new sun of Copernicus was the sign of it; Copernicus might not know it, but Giordano Bruno knew it, and would cry it now like a bantam cock through the world. Sunrise. (The Solitudes, 402)
Love & Sleep (1994) begins with a Kentucky gothic section telling of Pierce’s youth and introduction to magical thought, and continues the Dee/Kelley/Bruno line to their respective settlement in Prague, where the practice of alchemy is bearing fruit, as is Dee and Kelley’s ongoing communication with angels in the other world. Pierce finds new variations on his oft-repeated quest/question:
It was not a dumb idea, not just food for the gullible, though it was maybe not a history: it was something both more and less, a critique, an essay, it was perhaps not even actually a book at all, it was a compound monster, a mammal, a person even, himself or someone like him. Whatever it was its central trope was one rooted deeply (he thought) in the human heart, one of the unremovable ones: An old world dying, and new world being born; both able just for a moment to be seen at once, like the new moon seen held in the old moon’s arms. (Love & Sleep, 181)
Also in this second book, Mike Mucho, with the help of Rose Ryder, outlines his theory of Climacterics, whereby life is divisible by up and down periods corresponding to seven year cycles. Mucho is a psychotherapist at The Woods, a facility that has taken a recent shine to a modern prophet within a quasi-Christian movement called The Powerhouse; Mucho’s revelation couples with his daughter Sam’s recent bout of seizures.
Daemonomania (2000) is the longest book of the cycle and the most interesting. Dee and Kelley flee sanctimonious forces seeking to end the Bohemian rhapsody, and Bruno concludes his journey on the back of an ass that brings him to his public auto-da-fé in 1600. Pierce takes his relationship with Rose Ryder to physical and psychological realms, and then he loses her and his semblance of purpose rather carelessly. Mike Mucho, prodded by the charismatic head of The Powerhouse, fights for and wins custody of Sam, and starts her on a dangerous path of faith healing over prescribed medicine. Rosie becomes distraught with her loss of child, and her relationship with Spofford splinters. Amidst a group of shepherds, Pierce contemplates the meaning of his work and quest:
Going down the long passes through the forested hills the kept together, and were careful not to let their lambs stray: they never saw any of the packs that went the same way they did, but they were there. They could be heard sometimes at night, not a howling but a faint yipping, like puppies: the dogs heard, and pricked up their ears. Pierce took his turn walking the perimeter of the flock, sleepy but not weary; no not weary, glad. Glad that he happened to be wearing good strong boots when he left home; glad, too, to be no longer among those condemned to pursue. What he had once so much wanted or sought, whatever it had been, he would learn to do without. He could remember, now, why he had come out from the City to these solitudes in the first place, and why he had left behind all that he had left behind. He walked on behind the flocks toward the valleys and the west. (Daemonomania, 464)
Endless Things (2007) is less a conclusion to the story (Daemonomania satisfies the requirement of an ending if you’re the sort that needs full stops) than a rewarding epilogue. Bruno is reintroduced in the animalage of the ass that led him to his death, and Pierce journeys to Prague to explore some of Fellowes Kraft’s enthusiasms relating to his work, but Pierce is grounded by other responsibilities, namely that of family. He has married, adopted children, and begun, as it were, a humble existence with the present—hard for a historian. Pierce’s happiness coincides with an acceptance of not knowing: instead of work as a calling, he views it as a trade and plies it a community college. It is a sacrifice the younger Pierce could not have fathomed. The book concludes with the wedding of Spofford and Rosie, and we are left with the wedding party atop a mountain listening to the music of a gigantic harp played out by the wind, music that signals perhaps the age once sought and now humbly accepted with grace:
How did it make such a perfect concord? They talked about it. The steel strings were tuned with turnbuckles to those intervals Pythagoras had discovered, sacred numbers of which the universe is made; chosen somehow so that any of them sounded together would agree, aleatory harmonies of the wind’s wanderings, for the wind bloweth where it listeth. You knew what harmonies were possible because of how you strung the instrument, but not what harmonies you’d get. (Endless Things, 340)
Crowley’s use of repetition in the Aegypt cycle at bothered me through much of The Solitudes, but then I began to see something that might be called the necessity of rote as I read on. Repetition—the sameness of seeing the same friends, peers, or tradesmen throughout a day or a life, and perhaps also the same movement within our minds of thoughts and wants, needs and fears—became the key part of understanding Aegypt the further into it I read. Crowley isn’t repeating Pierce’s or any other character’s explanations, encounters (historical, familiar or sexual), flights or fights because he wants the reader to simply remember the plots, he’s doing so to reinforce the story’s own mythology, its unique construct and un-fantastic properties.
The more a Crowley character repeats him or herself, the more they talk themselves out of what they think they need: Brent Spofford doesn’t build his house, Rosie isn’t the independent never-looking-back woman she perhaps once desired, Pierce violates his own mantra (never complain, never explain) constantly when alone or after a few drinks, and poor Mike Mucho is the worst sort of disciple, easily swayed to the new religion.
Crowley’s wonder is the showing of how his characters fall and reclaim themselves. They do so not by will (a few exceptions) but the way most of us do, through the passage of time and people, namely the men and women who reverberate throughout our lives. In the limits of fictional narrative it takes a cycle of Aegypt’s stature to illustrate the totality of vital human occurrences.