Northampton, Mass., Small Beer Press, 2007; $24 hb; 341pp
reviewed in New York Review of Science Fiction 229, September 2007
Over the course of the four novels that made up The Alexandria Quartet, Lawrence Durrell told essentially the same story, but in ways that opened it up to new interpretations. Durrell likened it to different dimensions: presumably Justine (1957) represents length, Balthazar (1958) width, Mountolive (1958) depth, while Clea (1960) would ‘unleash the time dimension’. The Alexandria Quartet is the work to which I have most often seen John Crowley’s Aegypt sequence compared. It is a comparison that, to my mind, makes no sense whatsoever except in one particular: the fourth and final volume, Endless Things, is the one which unleashes the time dimension.
This may seem a curious statement to make about a work which has dealt so cavalierly with time, shifting restlessly between the present of Blackberry Jambs and the hinge point at the end of the sixteenth century when the medieval was transforming into the modern. But in fact the timescale of the first three volumes is tightly constrained: little more than a year passes between the arrival of Pierce Moffett in the Faraway Hills at the beginning of The Solitudes (1987) and the rescue of Rosie Rasmussen’s daughter from The Powerhouse and Pierce’s simultaneous loss of Rose Ryder to The Powerhouse at the end of Daemonomania (2000). Though we may skip back in time to New York in the 1960s and to Pierce’s childhood in 1950s Kentucky, and further back through the writings of Fellowes Kraft to the lives of John Dee and Giordano Bruno, the focus and the action of the novel is centred here in this one year. And the year is very specific: 1977-8. In a note at the end of Endless Things, Crowley mentions that the publication history of Aegypt covers 20 years, and that ‘the conception and writing go back ten years farther’. In other words, when Crowley began the work that would grow into Aegypt it was a precisely contemporary novel, by the time the first volume appeared it was already an historical fiction. Looking back from the consumerist 80s and 90s, it is a contemplation of the end of the dreams of the 60s, just one more passing age finding echoes among so many others. To this point, the three novels that make up Aegypt tell a story of endings, and the story itself, the interlinking lives of a small group of people in rural New York state during the course of a year, seems to reach its own end in the wintery conclusion of Daemonomania. With Dee’s return to the solitude of his final years, with Bruno’s death at the stake, the sequence seems to have worked its way to a grim but satisfying closure.
It is by unleashing time that Endless Things opens the whole thing up again. After the slow movement through the days of the early volumes, Endless Things, by comparison, takes us at a headlong rush through the succeeding years. The whole novel is, to borrow a term from John Clute’s The Darkening Garden (2007), all ‘aftermath’. This is the moment, as Clute defines it, when story is over, when the dream ends and the real world returns, when we must take cognizance of and accept the effects of all that has gone before but still move on.
(Parenthetically, it is possible to map onto the four volumes of Aegypt Clute’s quadripartite analysis of horror. The Solitudes is ‘sighting’, the first glimpse of infection. Love and Sleep is ‘thickening’, the sense of disturbance become tight and close about you. Daemonomania is ‘revel’, when the truth of story is revealed. But to accept such a map would be to read Aegypt as a work of horror. The horror implicit in the stories we tell to mask our helplessness in the face of life, perhaps? But even that feels too narrow a reading of the work.)
The first thing to notice when Endless Things picks up from the end of Daemonomania is that the world did not end, it was not changed. That pivotal moment that John Dee sought, and Fellowes Kraft, and Pierce Moffett, came and went and made no difference. Or rather, the world after the transformation is just a continuation of the world before the transformation. The pivotal moment is always happening, is always now, as new knowledge, new understanding continually change the stories we tell ourselves about our lives. After that one strange, hermetic year, Pierce goes on to live a pretty ordinary life. He leaves the Faraway Hills for Europe, retracing Fellowes Kraft’s journey, coming away from it empty handed as he believes Kraft did also. In this he is wrong, we know from the earlier volumes that Kraft returned with John Dee’s scrying glass, indeed there is a curious suggestion that young Sam Rasmussen once reached across time to contact Dee through the medium of the glass, an instance of the magic everyone seeks but no-one really believes in. But Pierce believes that what Kraft really acquired on his journey was understanding, and in that he is probably right. Pierce’s own moment of understanding comes some years later when he is staying in a religious retreat to finally work on Kraft’s book as he has so long promised. One night he leaves the retreat to visit a strip club and in the car park outside has a revelation about the membranes that enfold the world, the layers of meaning. It is what everyone has been after all the way through this sequence, seeking it in religion, in magic, in all sorts of belief systems in between; but what Pierce comes to realize is that the transcendent other is a vast indifference. They have all been right and wrong in their various spiritual hungers at the same time.
But whatever the belief systems we construct to make sense of the world – and Aegypt is full of them: Christianity, Rosicrucianism, magic, ‘climacterics’ – life itself must go on. The ‘Endless Things’ of the title of this volume are many, but they add up to everything that makes a life. So Pierce’s helplessness in the face of all things mechanical leads him to seek help in buying a new car, which in turn leads him to the competent Roo who will become his wife. But Roo is also Roseann, another Rose. One of the patterns of the sequence is how all the women who are meaningful in Pierce’s life are called Rose in one form or another: Julie Rosengarten, the former girlfriend who becomes the agent for his book; Rosie Rasmussen who becomes his employer in the Rasmussen Foundation; Rose Ryder who becomes his lover in a vaguely abusive relationship neither can quite handle. Julie and Rose have both virtually disappeared in this volume, Rosie has a relatively peripheral role to play, but Roo is central not only to the plot but also to the contentment Pierce has failed to find in his other relationships.
There is another Rose that plays an important part in this book, the Rose Cross. In a curious extended episode of fancy, the only step back across the centuries that this volume grants us, we follow the afterlife of Giordano Bruno. It is an episode composed of a slightly uneasy mix of tragedy, seriousness and the sort of broad comedy previously absent in this sequence. We encounter Bruno arguing theology in his condemned cell, then take the journey to the Rome square where he is to be burned. But at that extreme moment his soul is translated into the ass that bore him there. We then follow the ass on its own journeys as it learns to speak, joins a troupe of English actors, meets the celebrated Rabbi Loew in Prague, and eventually gives rise to the mysterious Order of the Rosy Cross. The whole sequence is replete with religious reference and imagery. Pierce’s Catholicism is essential in any understanding of his character (and his clash with the religious head of the retreat in this volume is the point where he understands that life must win over belief). But in Endless Things Rosicrucianism is the belief system that, for a significant portion of the volume at least, takes centre stage. Another endless thing is our human ability to conjure every more things to believe in, ways to satisfy our spiritual hunger.
All of which might give the impression that Endless Things is a heavy book. In fact it feels much lighter than the other volumes. Emotionally lighter because it does not lead into the closure that shut off the end of Daemonomania but rather into an opening up of possibility and hope. And lighter also in the way it touches on all the serious issues that filled the earlier books. Perhaps it is something to do with the pace of this volume, galloping across decades rather than inching through one year, but now those self same issues that would stop Pierce in his tracks here just seem to boost his acceleration. Aegypt is unquestionably the most important, challenging and satisfying work of serious fantastic literature of the last twenty years, and simply by the fact of completing the sequence Endless Things was always going to be the most eagerly awaited and significant book of the year. But by virtue of being the opposite of all that has gone before, by taking the sequence in a new direction, by giving it a new pace and tone, Endless Things deserves to be recognized as one of the most exciting literary events of the year purely on its own merits. One expects the final volume of a quartet to slow down, to tie off, to conclude, but in fact Endless Things reinvigorates, opens up new avenues, transforms the sequence into something fresh and different. As if this is where Aegypt begins.