31 May 2007

Locus Magazine reviews John Crowley

by Graham Sleight

from Locus Magazine, May 2007

Endless Things, John Crowley (Small Beer Press 978-1-931-52022-5, $24.00, 400pp, hc) May 2007. Cover by Rosamund Purcell.

One of the characters in John Crowley's Ægypt sequence has a theory called "Climacterics," that life moves in seven-year up-and-down cycles. Doubtless Crowley didn't intend it that way, but the publication of the four volumes in the sequence has more or less followed that pattern: Ægypt (1987); Love & Sleep (1994); Dæmonomania (2000); and now Endless Things (2007). The sequence has two main stories: in the contemporary one, not-quite-failed historian Pierce Moffett moves from New York City to the upstate idyll of Blackbury Jambs. There he rediscovers the historical novels of the local writer Fellowes Kraft, which he read as a child in Kentucky. Kraft's novels are a patchwork narrative covering the sequence's historical story, of the Renaissance scholars like Giordano Bruno and John Dee who thought they were able to manipulate the universe by what we would call magic. All four novels are packed with notions about how the inchoate universe "out there" might be ordered in the human mind: secret histories, Climacterics, astrological patterns, the act of creating stories. It's suggested more than once that the world might occasionally move through a "passage-time," so that different laws of nature might apply in Bruno's past. The effect is dizzying and disorienting, as it's doubtless meant to be. It seems at times like there's no way of paraphrasing Ægypt that's not already encoded in its pages.

The end of Dæmonomania is one of the darkest I know. Pierce's affair with a local woman has fallen apart — his just reward, perhaps, for having coerced her into the relationship by magic — and he finds himself, it seems, irredeemably lost. Bruno's and Dee's experiments have ended, and on the last page of the book Bruno is burnt at the stake by the Church. Melancholy pervades the book, the seemingly endless maze of depression that allows you no idea of how you could find your way out.

The miracle of Endless Things is that it takes these pieces — and the rest of the vast jigsaw that Crowley has assembled in the first three books — and places them in a picture that's open, smiling, filled with possibility. Pierce has spent the first three books, it might be argued, binding himself into a Gnostic prison made from his desires. For him, and for some of the other characters, Endless Things embodies a release from prison. As ever in the sequence, the "action" is relatively unimportant. Pierce makes a long-awaited trip to Europe, Bruno survives in a strange (and sometimes very funny) afterlife, and years pass. Some new notions are introduced: the New York World's Fair as a pivot point in the 20th century, for instance — a subject that Crowley has also dealt with in his career as a documentary maker. Pierce's father Axel, one of the most intriguing characters from the earlier books, plays a more prominent role. And a number of threads finally converge on the city of Prague, which has been surrounded in previous books by rumors of miracles. What matters, though, is the pulse of thought underlying the actions, the gradual move to an open ending.

This is something new for Crowley: his previous major works, like Engine Summer (1979), Little, Big (1981), and "Great Work of Time" (1989), end with vast gestures of closure, with endings that block the possibility of any more stories. Ægypt returns its characters to the world, letting them give up "magic" and live normal lives.

It goes without saying that Endless Things is gracefully written, beautifully characterised, moving, and thought-provoking. (It probably also goes without saying that it's not a work that will give anything like its full rewards to someone who's not read the previous books.) It's borderline fantastic, for those who mind about such things, in the same way its predecessors were. Indeed, one way of describing what it's about is that it's an enormously full description of how we make stories, and fantasies in particular.

It would be easy to say something like: this is the conclusion to the most challenging, learned, and encompassing fantasy series of the last few decades. But one of the lessons of Endless Things is that any system for understanding the world (like, say, the ones critics use) is limiting. So perhaps it's better to say that Endless Things gives its characters, and its readers, more life.

Read more! This is one of over forty reviews from the May 2007 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe or buy the issue.
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At Friday, June 01, 2007 2:58:00 AM, Abigail Nussbaum said...

Pierce has spent the first three books, it might be argued, binding himself into a Gnostic prison made from his desires. For him, and for some of the other characters, Endless Things embodies a release from prison

I don't disagree with this description, but you've left out the part where this release takes the form of a 'Get Out of Jail Free' card. Rosie doesn't work through her depression. It's there when we leave her in Daemonomania and gone when we rejoin her in Endless Things. Pierce doesn't become a better person. He's adopted by a woman who deserves better than him but for some reason is willing to settle.

I considered the possibility that this is yet another instance of a world transforming itself, and its past, but if this is the case than the preceding three books are made almost irrelevant - it doesn't matter that Rosie was once in serious trouble, and that Pierce was very nearly a rapist.

At Sunday, June 03, 2007 2:44:00 AM, Graham said...

Hi, Abigail. I suppose my first response is that you object to Rosie getting better or Pierce becoming better, but not to Giordano Bruno avoiding his burning at the stake by transmigrating his soul into the body of an ass. For me, the key sequence in ET is when Fellowes Kraft figures out that he can do such things, that indeed that's what stories can uniquely do. I assume that that's why Crowley calls the relevant section Benefacta, the gift: a gift isn't in any sense earned or contractually required, but gets given anyway. (More life is a gift, too; when I wrote that last para, I was thinking of the end of Tony Kushner's Angels in America, a great fantasy work with a very similar affect at this point.) So I guess I'm arguing for the idea that sometimes we just get more than we deserve in life.

That said, I agree that Pierce's case is especially problematic; in my mind, his greatest offence is the one he commits in Book 2, of thinking that because he can compel love, he should. Everything else follows from that. But it's complicated by Rose R's weirdly blank affect: there are very few places in the sequence where I'm certain of what it is that she wants, except to be associated with the vile Powerhouse. Pierce clearly wants forgiveness at the end of Book 3, but has no-one to ask for it - except, perhaps, his author. Your problem, if I understand rightly, is that the author said Yes.


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