Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son

I’m half-done with The Orphan Master’s Son, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It’s a wild ride, and for once the praise of a contemporary novel is on target. I’ve only read a bit about the author Johnson, and finding that some of his favorite books are Libra, The Mosquito Coast, and Blood Meridian was comforting; I too love all three of those, especially Libra, which is becoming the book that Blood Meridian used to be to me, a book I can discuss for hours without repeating myself.

There’s a lot of DeLillo in The Orphan Master’s Son, namely in the dialogue, which is modern and sharp and sharp-witted. A good chunk of the early book takes place on a fishing boat, and Johnson keys into the likely fact that fishermen are the same the world over, in the present and in the past (go back to Galilee if you want), and that North Korean fisherman might be like their fellow humans in free lands, filled with wit and swagger and hapless bravado. There’s a spookiness to Johnson’s prose added by the setting, and the roughhouse stuff when it happens–kidnappings both botched and successful, a brutal beating and interrogation that folds in on itself like an odd creation myth–gives a reader pause. Jun Do is a tough hero who lives by his wits, works, and deeds, and it is difficult to get a line on what he might become, if anything, in a free land. Johnson is not capable of easy or neat chapters, thank goodness, and calm is usually followed by unexpected fright.

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Reaching new lows

I neglected to mention last year that Janet Maslin yet again fawned over a dumb Lee Child novel. I know it is a dumb novel without reading it, because dumb novels are what Child does. I am certain the book is filled with big dumb Jack Reacher being big and dumb everywhere he goes.

Last year the movie “Jack Reacher” came out staring little Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher, and the movie is a hoot. It is too cute at times to be a noir, and it is not a procedural–call it a fun b-grade popcorn movie. Christopher McQuarrie wrote and directed the movie, and he is a talent, the writer of the great “The Usual Suspects” and the decent “Valkyrie,” which starred tiny Tom as a good little Nazi. The movie “Jack  Reacher” is full of wit and silliness and some rough stuff, and I was entertained. Lee Child has a cameo sitting down, tinier even than Tom.

King Solomon’s Mines

The old Puffin paperback of King Solomon’s Mines has sat on my bookshelves for thirty years. The shelves are newer, the book is the same but yellowed and worn, bought new in a London shop when I was a kid.

King Solomon’s Mines is funny and exciting and damn well written. Allan Quatermain narrates in a smart empire-loving tone, and it suits the tale of the adventures of Quartermain, Captain Good, and Sir Henry. The detail is startling and cool, whether describing landscapes or people. Here is his first impression of Captain Good:

He was so very neat and so very clean-shaved, and he always wore an eye-glass in his right eye. It seemed to grow there, for it had no string, and he never took it out except to wipe it. At first I thought he used to sleep in it, but afterwards I found that this was a mistake. He put it in his trousers pocket when he went to bed, together with his false teeth, of which he had two beautiful sets that, my own being none of the best, have often caused me to break the tenth commandment. 

The colonial posturing is amusing now, as is the degradation of natives. But the suspense and adventure holds up, whether our heroes are struggling to stave off dying from thirst, or stalking elephants for a hunt. Might have to read more Haggard.

Don DeLillo’s Libra turns Twenty-five

Why do we care about historic anniversaries? I think it’s the comfort they induce; instead of facing the fact that each day is unknowable, days have a history, 365 histories to provide us a weak sense of stability. November 22nd will always be a meaningless November 22nd to most people. 50 years ago, November 22nd changed America for the worse, and begat one of those “I remember where I was” days. Thankfully most of our memories are less succinct; first kiss or lay, monthly achievement or annual failure, rarely have the permanence of say, June 16, 1904.

Don DeLillo’s Libra is 25 years old this year. I maintain it is the best DeLillo, that my undergraduate admiration of White Noise was kind folly, and the recent praise of Underworld is misguided. Libra fulfills all our wishes, all our desires to know the unknowable, to see behind the curtain the men that shaped the world.

I have a fierce devotion to Libra without believing any of it. Conspiracy theorists, like homosexuals or Kubrick fans, are likely born rather than made. I can’t believe men in rooms plot in secret to carry out terror, even though it happens weekly, sometimes in Boston, more likely in Peshawar. But plots and plans don’t begin on cool weekends in April; they start well before one is aware of one’s capabilities. Perhaps they start with the sound of trains:

This was the year he rode the subway to the ends of the city, two hundred miles of track. He liked to stand at the front of the first car, hands flat against the glass. The train smashed through the dark. People stood on local platforms staring nowhere, a look they’d been practicing for years. He kind of wondered, speeding past, who they really were. His body fluttered in the fastest stretches. They went so fast sometimes he thought they were on the edge of no-control. The noise was pitched to a level of pain he absorbed as a personal test. Another crazy-ass curve. There was so much iron in the sound of those curves he could almost taste it, like a toy you put in your mouth when you are little.

DeLillo’s Lee Harvey Oswald is most often Lee–later, captured, he hears reporters mention Lee Harvey Oswald and the name sounds odd to him, foreign.  A child of a single flighty mother, in and out of the orphanage when she can’t afford to care for him, many different schools in many different early years. The motion puts his mind in motion: he starts to imagine himself as someone meaningful, historic. Others see a slighter figure:

They called him Ozzie the Rabbit for his pursed lips and dimples and for his swiftness afoot, as they saw it, when there was a scuffle in the barracks or one of the bars off-base. He was five feet nine, blue-eyed, weighed a hundred and thirty-five, would soon be eighteen years old, had conduct and proficiency ratings that climbed for a while, then fell, then climbed and fell again, and his scores on the rifle range were inconsistent.

Out of the military (dishonorably) he seeks out days in the Soviet Union, new days unlike the twenty-years past of days. He wants to study economics and politics, but he prefers believing he wants to study than do the actual work. The Soviets don’t know what to do with him:

The guard showed up. He showed up every evening before Alek left. Alek never introduced him, didn’t seem to notice he was in the flat. The guard usually sat by the washbasin in the hall, his hat balanced on his knee. There were things Oswald didn’t tell Alek, like details of the MPS-16 radar system, just integrated into the network. He wanted to see how their friendship progressed. It occurred to him that the U.S. military might have to spend jillions to change the system anyhow, now that he’d crossed to the other side. How strangely easy to have a say over men and events.

He meets a girl and marries her, has a family, and makes his way back to the states, to give the familiar days another chance. Still the urge to move events persists. But now others are aware of him; a man can move from NY to CA unnoticed, but not between Cold War foes.

Libra is a dual narration, one part Lee and the other part a hodge-podge of men who make the dark world go, men of influence and means and guns, men upset with Castro and failures and the state of the nation, guardians like Lee who believe in events and man’s ability to shape the world. But these men are old hands, practiced hands that know the tools and time required of the job:

It was Everett who’d made the leap. Everett took the once-bold idea of assassinating Castro and turned it over in his mind, finding it unworkable and crude. He struck a countermeasure that made better sense on every level. It was original, spare and clean. The man we really want is JFK. Mackey gave him every credit. Everett was a complex and passionate man who could think economically. All over Langley and Miami they were still formulating plans to hit Fidel. It was an industry like wood pulp or shoes. Everett had seen the logic in staying home. The idea had power and second sight. Of course Everett did not plan to shoot Kennedy in the strict sense. Only to lay down fire in the street. He wanted a surgical miss.

The men bent on destruction are frightening. It’s to DeLillo’s credit that he depicts them as mostly aimless charmers in their social lives. One can picture these men as friends and neighbors. Then the chills set in:

Plots carry their own logic. There is a tendency of plots to move toward death. He believed that the idea of death is woven into the nature of every plot. A narrative plot no less than a conspiracy of armed men. The tighter the plot of a story, the more likely it will come to death. A plot in fiction, he believed, is the way we localize the force of the death outside the book, play it off, contain it. The ancients staged mock battles to parallel the tempests in nature and reduce their fear of gods who warred across the sky. He worried about the deathward logic of his plot. He’d already made it clear that he wanted the shooters to hit a Secret Service man, wound him superficially. But it wasn’t a misdirected round, an accidental killing, that made him afraid. There was something more insidious. He had a foreboding that the plot would move to a limit, develop a logical end.

I don’t know what “deathward logic” means outside of the context of plot, but it’s a great phrase of contemplation. DeLillo’s smart characters are wise from practice, not philosophy, though a selfish philosophy streams beneath their activities. Then they all meet up on that day in Dallas. Lee sees his counterpart’s shot through a rifle scope:

Lee was about to squeeze off the third round, he was in the act, he was actually pressing the trigger.
The light was so clear it was heartbreaking.
There was a white burst in the middle of the frame. A terrible splash, a burst. Something came blazing off the President’s head. He was slammed back, surrounded all in dust and haze. Then suddenly clear again, down and still in the seat. Oh he’s dead he’s dead.
Lee raised his head from the scope, looking right. There was a white concrete wall extending from the columned structure, then a wooden fence behind it. A man on the wall with a camera. The fence deep in shadow. Freight cars sitting on the tracks above the underpass.
He got to his feet, moving away from the window. He knew he’d missed with the third shot. Went wild. Missed everything. Maggie’s drawers. He turned up the bolt handle.
Put me on. Put me on. Put me on. 
He was already talking to someone about this. He had a picture, he saw himself telling the whole story to someone, a man with a rugged Texas face, but friendly, but understanding. Pointing out the contradictions. Telling how he was tricked into the plot. What is it called, a patsy? He saw a picture of an office with a tasseled flag, dignitaries in photos on the wall.
He drew the bolt back, then drove it forward, jerking the handle down. He walked diagonally across the floor to the northwest end, where the staircase was located. Books stacked ten cartons high. That fragrance of paper and binding.

DeLillo turns the last chapter of Libra over to Lee’s mother. She makes the case for Lee in a trickle of consciousness that would please both Joyce and Molly Bloom:

They’d taken her youngest son and now they were taking the daughter-in-law and the two little girls. Marguerite felt a weakness in her legs. The wind made the canopy snap. She felt hollow in her body and heart. But even as they led her from the grave she heard the name Lee Harvey Oswald spoken by two boys standing fifty feet away, here to grab some clods of souvenir earth. Lee Harvey Oswald. Saying it like a secret they’d keep forever. She saw the first dusty car drive off, just silhouetted heads in windows. She walked with the policemen up to the second car, where the funeral director stood under a black umbrella, holding open the door. Lee Harvey Oswald. No matter what happened, how hard they schemed against her, this was the one thing they could not take away—the true and lasting power of his name. It belonged to her now, and to history.

I’ve read Libra three times and the first two times I preferred the shadowy men chapters over the Lee chapters. This completely reversed on the most recent read, and I now prefer the Lee. Libra is a historical novel, the history of events that for the most part never took place. But some of them did take place, and a generation remembers where they were on the 22nd of November. If that memory lasts deep into history, it might be because of Libra and other works of art and myth.

The long shelf life of A Handful of Dust

22225538057Some of us who read A Handful of Dust never get over it. The Waugh-heads in college were all Brideshead Revisited junkies, but for me it comes down to Dust, and I’m always surprised by its cutting clarity, the method (mostly dialogue) Waugh employs to showcase the coming apart of a union, and how sad and funny it is, all of it. A Handful of Dust is a novel that is self-contained and full of itself, and like the best novels of that persuasion full too of the world.

Hapless John Beaver is introduced, a young negligible idler who frequents Brat’s Club and his bedroom in his mother’s house. He has 300 a year and no ambition, and is invisible to most his peers. He arrives somewhat unannounced at the Lasts’ estate for a weekend holiday.

Brenda and Tony Last don’t know what to do with Beaver so they run him down, until ever so subtly Brenda succumbs to Beaver’s city charm. She’s been in the country too long, misses her set and friends and the buzz of bright lights. She turns from Tony toward Beaver and falls hard.

Tony is unaware of Brenda’s affair, the only one ignorant. Waugh uses dialogue of the Lasts’ peers to illustrate the frivolity and excitement of the Last situation; these peers live for gossip.

The Lasts’ son John Andrew dies in a riding accident, and Brenda has one of the strangest reactions to tragedy in literature. It’s a heartbreaking scene, because a reader up to this point in the novel hasn’t come down on either side of the marriage. Afterwards, one is firmly pro-Tony, and Brenda Last joins Fran Dodsworth as one of the great bitches in all of literature.

Brenda wants a divorce, and Tony agrees to participate. Divorce meant for cause then in England, so Tony takes a tart on holiday to Brighton, in order that he be found out by hired detectives. It’s a great farce Waugh showcases, sad and noble. But Tony changes his mind soon about giving up his estate and giving over cash to Brenda, and  he takes leave of England. He stands up for himself rather selflessly, if such a move is possible–of course Brenda sees it as beastly behavior–and he undertakes a frivolous and dangerous last-minute adventure to the Brazilian jungle.

Tony’s jungle adventure makes up the last third of the novel and it is the best section, full of Waugh’s vivid language and prejudices. Stranded and feverish, Tony’s hallucinations read true and frightening; it is an ending of bad circumstance and fear, and features one of the great evil characters in literature, Mr. Todd.

What strikes me most about Waugh is that his people and scenarios usually arrive at truth despite at first being unaware of needing truth. Not many in Waugh are happy though they certainly don’t encounter honest problems. There’s something of Wodehouse in Waugh, but Waugh has deeper feeling on two counts; he writes women better, and he is proficient in conflict, with dueling ideals. His chapters are usually chapters in characters’ lives; they end succinct but not neat.

A Handful of Dust is a perfect novel, and risky, and everything works except the brutally flawed characters, who like real people don’t work well at all.

The Shape of The Quiet American

I know that record. Siam goes. Malaya goes. Indonesia goes. What does ‘go’ mean? If I believed in your God and another life, I’d bet my future harp against your golden crown that in five hundred years there may be no New York or London, but they’ll be growing paddy in these fields, they’ll be carrying their produce to market on long poles, wearing their pointed hats. The small boys will be sitting on the buffaloes. I like the buffaloes, they don’t like our smell, the smell of Europeans.

The dates of work on the last page of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American are March 1952 – June 1955. It seems a long time for this short novel, and that it takes me half a day to read it might belittle the three year effort. But I’ve read it many times, it is familiar as an old friend, and I’m presently reading it for a second time this year. Twice in one year?

One learns the title character’s name (Pyle) and status (dead) within the first ten pages of the The Quiet American. This is not a spoiler; the book is a journey, not a destination. I have dozens of thoughts about this novel, but I’m now enjoying it for its structure as much as its story.

Greene didn’t play much with continuity in his novels–part of his apprenticeship as a thriller writer likely shaped his linear habits. But his best novel The End of the Affair jumps from wartime and peacetime London in odd fashion, and The Quiet American, with its four parts and divvied chapters within, loops back onto itself like an infinity ribbon ∞, mixing past and present, city life and countryside wars.

There is plenty of detail and color to the Indochina warfare of the mid-1950s Greene describes, and the chapter cuts Greene makes–from a nightclub dance floor to a darkened coastal outpost battle in the northern part of the country–are severe and catch one by surprise. The novel’s structure is jarring in that way, but fluid in its overall graceful shape; imagine cracks in that perpetual ribbon.

One reason the haphazard scenes work without linear relation is that Fowler, the narrator, is a journalist, and one can imagine a journalist in Vietnam covering disparate events from one day to the next–a celebration Friday, a bombing raid Saturday. Fowler is also a bitter man, and that too plays into the shape, as bitterness has a short shelf-life, and needs breaks and air to work well in a novel. The sharp cuts, the lack of continuity, are excellent techniques if one has a compelling narrator like Fowler, who acknowledges his happiness is his woman and his opium pipe and little else; he is narrow minded, but a great watcher in a vibrant warring country.

I likely won’t read The Quiet American a third time this year, but there is still time to do so.

John Crowley’s novels

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.