Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Doorways to Elsewhere IV: Review of Ægypt by John Crowley

Grade: A
Sticking with the external theme here, Crowley's Elsewhere, in a trivial geographic sense, circumscribes the Litchfield Hills, the Catskills, nips western Massachusetts, and maybe the southern tip of the Adirondacks. It includes New York City, sort of by reluctant default, but digs its magic out of the distant and wooded suburbs. Ægypt strays to different continents, and it's a whole lot bigger than eastern New York state, but it's hard to imagine that magic manifesting in any place other than the (fictional) Faraway Hills. (I'll admit that gives it a certain personal appeal.) In previous novels, Crowley has let the mythology of the British Isles immigrate to the Northeast. This time, it's legends of the Renaissance.

Given these aspects of the setting, I'm tempted to compare this novel to Winter's Tale, by Mark Helprin: it's filled with a similar sort of magic-infused history, swinging similarly wide, epic loops. It's got a common quality of breathless observation that's beautiful but ends up all going down the same. With no special destination evident plot-wise, it was an easy enough novel to put down, and it took me twice as long to read as something this length normally would. But of the two, Crowley is really the superior writer. Where Helprin couldn't help himself from pouring it on ever thicker, Crowley prefers to meander inward (and the deeper you go, the bigger it gets). Crowley is better at remembering the childlike dimension of wonder. And as the shape of the story finally begins to resolve itself, it does get more gripping. It's all about having faith that the author is in control.

You could probably say that Crowley pointedly goes nowhere at all. The plot, such as it is, mainly involves a Renaissance historian (or alternate historian) moving from the city to the hills to write a book. This book, most likely. In one of the several self-referential nuggets, he "'would attempt one more book...a book composed of groups ambiguous but clear, great solitutes that look on and look away from each other; a book empty and infinte at its center...' Actually, though...these enormous thoughts were a little premature." And certainly a little bold. Ægypt tries to straddle the transition between any number of mystical dichotomies, and the door between fiction and reality is just one of them. (Whole sections of the novel are excerpts from other fictional histories of magic.) It recursively bridges dreams and waking, heaven and earth, cosmos and microcosm, reality and memory (the universe itself is the ultimate mnemonic palace of the universe). The author character delves richly into Hermetically flavored magic, a Renaissance vision of occult Egypt (Ægypt) brought into being--or maybe into acknowledgement--by nothing more than it's belief. It imagines a universe permeated and held together by countless angels, significant of numerology, full of heretics, Elizabethan sages, and astrological mutterings. In 400 pages, John Crowley takes us through one single door, across which nothing changes but history, and even if it looks exactly the same on either side, the transition is astounding.

[Note: This novel hasn't been in print for some time. The structure suggests that this it is missing several parts (the sections are named after houses of the zodiac and there are only three), presumably as sequels, and he's published others in the same universe. I've not read them yet, but alarmingly, it looks like Crowley's been descending into (more) verbose plotlessness. I'll reserve judgement.]

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