Apr/May 2007

Magical History Tour

John Crowley’s novel completes his epic four-part cycle

Christopher R. Beha

Creation myths fascinate us because they point to the time when things began to become as they are, and so suggest that we might go back and choose a different, better path. "The universe comes to be at the moment when God wills it to be," John Crowley writes in Endless Things, the concluding volume of his four-part series, Ægypt. "It never existed before that moment, and after that moment it always did." Now that the series is finally complete, this is rather how Ægypt—twenty years in the making—itself feels: as if it had been there all along, and Crowley had merely come along to point it out to us.

And yet in some ways, it is hardly here at all: Endless Things sat unpublished for several years before Small Beer Press took it on, and all three previous volumes—The Solitudes (1987), Love & Sleep (1994), and Daemonomania (2000)—are out of print. This is unfortunate not only because the four novels ought to be read together but because, combined, they constitute an effort as valuable as (however different from) Updike's Rabbit novels and Ford's Frank Bascombe trilogy.

As he has done throughout his books—from early speculative work like Beasts (1976) and Engine Summer (1979) to his fairy-haunted masterpiece Little, Big (1981) to his more recognizably "literary" The Translator (2002)—in the Ægypt cycle Crowley has created characters who understand themselves as characters, as caught up in mysterious tales whose true meaning remains unknown to them. This is a common enough intimation in contemporary literature, but in Ægypt, the trait is as much a method of old-fashioned character development as it is a meta­fictional conceit. Crowley seems fascinated by the myriad ways in which actual human beings have apprehended the world and their place in it and particularly by those moments in history when these means of apprehension have shifted—from the sacred to the profane, from the magical to the scientific. (Hence, too, the interest in creation myths and the universe's origins.)

As the Ægypt series begins, Pierce Moffett is a child in '50s Kentucky, reading books written by Fellowes Kraft—novels and biographies set in the Renaissance (one such period of transition in the way the world thinks about the world), which feature historical figures like Shakespeare, Giordano Bruno, and the mathematician and alchemist John Dee. These works, along with a history text called Time's Body by Frank Walker Barr and an occult reference book, combine with Moffett's Catholic upbringing to create in the boy a mystical sense of the world and of the existence of a magical place called Ægypt.

By the time Moffett begins studying history as a graduate student, he has lost much of this sense, even as he comes to work under Barr and to realize that the Ægypt that fascinated him as a child was a real place—or, at least, was once thought real by Hermeticists like Bruno and Dee. Moffett seems to have forgotten about Kraft's books entirely, in part because they are as difficult to find as some of Crowley's own.

All this changes early in The Solitudes, when Moffett, now a tempest-tossed erstwhile history professor, finds himself ship­wrecked ("buswrecked," actually, on his way to interview for a teaching position that's already been filled) in the Faraway Hills of upstate New York. He settles there, in the town of Blackbury Jambs, home to his former student Brent Spofford; Spofford's lover, Rosie Rasmussen; Rasmussen's almost ex-husband, Mike Mucho; and Mucho's lover, Rose Ryder. Blackbury Jambs was once also home to the late Fellowes Kraft, whose work was long supported by the Rasmussen family's foundation. Moffett is employed by the foundation to read through Kraft's last, unfinished novel, which seems a summation of all Kraft's works that came before it at the same time that it bears resemblances to Moffett's own unwritten work, Ægypt, for which he has accepted an advance from a trade-paperback publisher. The fifteen hundred or so pages of Crowley's first three Ægypt books alternate between the Faraway Hills in the last months of 1979 and the Renaissance Europe of Bruno and Dee in the pages of Kraft's book.

The most common failing of a novel of this sort—one that jumps between plotlines, between historical eras and narrative levels—is a lack of balance. Some readers will prefer to stay in the here and now and find themselves skipping quickly over the tale within the tale. Others will have the opposite response: They'll wish away the frame and want only the aged canvas. Crowley has found a rather simple solution to the problem: He does well everything one hopes for a novelist to do. Each narrative thread is a fully realized world, populated by rounded and shaded characters. Each contains humor and pathos, intellectual weight and poetic lightness. If there is a fault, it is that the plot, such as it is, unfolds rather slowly, with various false starts and loose ends. But for the right kind of reader, this narrative languor, accompanied as it is by these other strengths, is one of the work's chief delights.

However, most of these threads have been either sewn up in the preceding novels or abandoned entirely by the time Endless Things starts. Moffett has gone from attempting to write about magic to practicing it, in the form of his sexual domination of Rose Ryder. The consequences of these efforts have forced him away from the Faraway Hills. In Daemonomania, Bruno is burned at the stake for his insistence that the universe is infinite and uncentered. Near the beginning of the present volume, Moffett (now working on Kraft's unfinished manuscript) brings Bruno briefly back to life. But this fantasy cannot last. Not simply because Bruno in fact burned in "real" life but because Endless Things is a novel mostly about giving up magic. The Ægypt cycle begins with a shipwreck and is marked throughout by tempests, and now it must end with Prospero breaking his staff. Moffett travels to Europe in Kraft's footsteps, where he realizes once and for all that he will never finish his own book. Within Kraft's manuscript, Bruno is replaced by Descartes, and with him the new Cartesian mode of thought, with its rigorous separation of subject and object, comes into being. With that, the magical locale of Ægypt "cease[s] to exist, and now never existed," so there is no going back and choosing a different path. Even creation myths are undone, as Darwin "relieve[s] God of the awful burden of making the world."

Eventually, Moffett returns to Blackbury Jambs and meets a new woman, Roo (the book's third Rose), who stands completely apart from the circle of lovers and friends that has occupied the bulk of the book. "He seemed to have no warrant for such a person as her in his story at all," Crowley writes, though we know that this only means that Moffett's story will be changing. "Oh that is such bullshit," Roo tells Moffett, when he tries to apply his mythical theories to their new life together. Crowley adds:

Bullshit it exactly was. Roo beside him was no avatar; she was of this earth, more than anyone else he knew she belonged nowhere else, on no other plane.

Moffett and Roo marry, they adopt twin girls, and Moffett manages to put his teaching career back on track. During a sabbatical, he goes on a Trappist retreat, where he has a curious encounter with Brother Lewis, a Thomas Merton– like figure, which leaves him at least open to the possibility of returning to his Catholic roots. He soon gives himself over to the happy life we want for him. If there is a feeling of disappointment here, it comes from wishing we didn't have to give up on magic, from watching recede that time when the world could still be some other way. "Fellowes Kraft liked empires that were so old, and grown so complex," Crowley tells us, "that they could be named, and belonged to, and traveled in, but not controlled: which had frontiers, but in­side were limitless. Moffett thought he did, too." The Ægypt series proves to be this sort of empire, and Endless Things a fron­tier, not a limit.

Faced over the course of these volumes with all so much magic and alchemy, theosophy and Hermeticism, a reader might ask, "Am I really supposed to believe all this stuff?" Of course, the question is irrelevant: This is fiction, not history. We have always sought to understand the strangeness of our lives by telling ourselves into tales. With Endless Things and the completion of the Ægypt cycle, Crowley has constructed one of the finest, most welcoming tales contemporary fiction has to offer us.

We may one day look on Ægypt's publishing history with the same head-scratching curiosity with which we now regard Melville's tragic struggles and André Gide's decision to turn down Swann's Way. In the meantime, it is comforting to know that once this epic tale takes its rightful place in our literature, it will have always been there all along.

Christopher R. Beha is writing a book about reading the Harvard Classics, to be published by Grove/Atlantic.