Neil Gaiman calls John Crowley’s best-known novel, “Little, Big,” “one of my favourite books in the world.” Michael Chabon claims Crowley as an inspiration for his own work, alongside Borges, Steven Millhauser and Thomas Pynchon, “writers who can dwell between worlds.” Other fans include the late poets James Merrill, Mark Strand and John Hollander, as well as Alice Turner, the legendary fiction editor of Playboy magazine (she published John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates and David Foster Wallace), who co-edited a book of essays on Crowley’s work. Yet in an illustrious 42-year career, John Crowley has written just 13 novels (including those in the four-volume Ægypt sequence), three collections of short fiction and two books of essays, as well as a modern rendering of a 17th century German text, “The Chemical Wedding.” His essays have appeared in Harper’s, Lapham’s Quarterly and Tin House. Since 1993, he has taught creative writing at Yale. And to date, he’s the only author who’s received (among many other honors) both the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Literature and the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement.
So yes: John Crowley is a writer’s writer, the rare stylist whose stories can feature both downtown New York City bars and 16th century cosmologist and martyr for science Giordano Bruno. Yet Crowley is also a serious reader’s writer. As with Middle Earth, his imaginary worlds so enchant and entice that many fans read and reread his books obsessively, the closest we can come to inhabiting them. But, unlike Tolkien’s legendarium, most of Crowley’s fiction is resolutely set in our own world. Even those works that venture onto other planets maintain quicksilver ties to this one. Decades before George R.R. Martin’s series “A Song of Ice and Fire,” Crowley’s first novel, “The Deep” (1975), recounted an ancient, seemingly endless conflict that evokes the War of the Roses and its precursors. In his second novel, 1976’s “Beasts,” humans and genetically engineered sentient animals make their way across a near-future U.S. devastated by civil wars and a totalitarian government.
His new novel, “Ka,” is a beautiful, often dreamlike late masterpiece. Narrated by an unnamed man, recently widowed and himself near the end of his life, “Ka” recounts the lives and adventures of a crow that is the embodiment of that immortal Crow — psychopomp, fool and trickster figure — whose legends and fables recur in human cultures over millenniums and throughout the world. The novel expands upon ideas and themes Crowley has examined in nearly all his fiction; it feels at once valedictory and celebratory.
Crowley’s first major work, a National Book Award finalist in 1980, was the haunting “Engine Summer,” a strange and luminous post-apocalyptic vision that’s also a utopian novel. It delves into what has become his most enduring theme: the intertwined nature of memory and storytelling and how our gift for narrative makes us human. The novel’s narrator, a youth named Rush That Speaks, is a so-called truthful speaker who aspires to be a saint — in his world, oral culture has mostly replaced a written one, and a saint is someone whose command of narrative transfixes and transforms listeners. “They’re saints not because of what they did, especially, but because, in the telling of it, what they did became transparent, and your own life could be seen through it, illuminated.”
It’s only at the book’s end that we learn that the story is being told not by Rush That Speaks but a sort of artificial intelligence that contains his consciousness: Rush That Speaks has been dead for more than 600 years. Now, centuries later, his recorded memories exert a near-mystical command over his listeners: One tells him, “We were blind, and you made us see.” But unlike his audience, Rush That Speaks is trapped within his own story — fated to retell it countless times, without ever remembering that he has told it before. At only 182 pages, “Engine Summer” is a tour-de-force of compressed, elegantly allusive storytelling. It is also — surprise! — a great cat novel.
Crowley’s literary reputation was cemented by 1981’s “Little, Big,” a book that’s attained cult status since its publication. Its twentysomething protagonist, Smoky Barnable, is (as his first name suggests) a somewhat unformed young man who finds himself happily, if perplexedly, married into a New England family that has dealings with the realm of Faerie. The novel’s power derives from its seamless interweaving of the lyrical and the quotidian. There are fairies and countless references to characters from classic children’s books — Lewis Carroll’s Alice, Arthur Rackham’s gnomes and brownies, George MacDonald’s “At the Back of the North Wind” and Thornton W. Burgess’ Mother West Wind stories — but “Little, Big” is set in our own near future, when a fascist American president is brought to power by a cabal of wealthy businessmen. And despite the intricate family saga that unfolds, the book’s central and most heartbreaking element is Smoky’s growing realization that, like Rush That Speaks, he is a necessary character in an ongoing story, but one from which he is ultimately estranged. It’s a role he accepts gracefully, if with a certain resignation.
Crowley is one of the few contemporary writers whose work, at its best, can evoke how William Shakespeare “amazes by sheer cognitive originality,” as literary critic Harold Bloom put it (Bloom cites “Little, Big” as his favorite novel, and he included Crowley’s “Ægypt” and “Love and Sleep” in his 1994 book “The Western Canon”). Cognitive originality but also cognitive dissonance: “Little, Big” dazzles and also disorients, as the reader descends with Smoky deeper and deeper into the myriad larger worlds incongruously nestled within our smaller one (hence, the book’s title).
The Ægypt sequence, Crowley’s next masterwork, comprises four books, “Ægypt,” “Love & Sleep,” “Dæmonomania” and “Endless Things,” published over the course of two decades. The first, “Ægypt” (also known as “The Solitudes,” Crowley’s preferred title), appeared in 1987. It follows a young history professor, Pierce Moffett, who forsakes his day job to embark upon writing a Great Work, inspired by the question, “What if the world has a plot?” and its answer, “There is more than one History of the World.”
“Nowadays history is made of time; but once it was made of something else,” Pierce muses. “Stories inside, each one nestled within all the others; as though all the stories we had ever been inside of lay still nestled inside of us, back to the beginning, whenever that is or was. Stories are what the history not made of time is made of.”
Like Rush that Speaks and Smoky Barnable, Pierce finds himself part of a story; the book he is writing, or perhaps the books he is reading by a nearly forgotten historical novelist named Fellowes Kraft. Or perhaps the books that other characters in the sequence are reading.
But, of course, Pierce is part of a story: the one we’re reading, written by John Crowley. The Ægypt sequence is an alternate history of our own world, one in which the hermetic fancies and experiments of the Aquarian generation actually bear fruit and seem to promise some great instauration, the restoration of a world lost to those of us trapped in our own mundane histories. With its cascades of mistaken identities, loves lost and regained and human and supernatural agencies, the Ægypt quartet is Crowley’s most overtly Shakespearean work. Like Shakespeare’s great comedies, it ends with a wedding, but it subverts the expectation of a return to some ancient, mystical world order: It turns out that our own world is miraculous enough.
“The Translator” (2002) and “Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land” (2005) continue to play with these notions of stories within stories. “The Translator” features a Russian émigré poet, equal parts Vladimir Nabokov and Joseph Brodsky (and also perhaps Crowley’s friend, Romanian writer and historian Ioan Culianu, who was killed by an unknown gunman), who may be an angel; “Lord Byron’s Novel” contains an eponymous lost novel within a novel titled “The Evening Land” and ostensibly written by Byron. “Four Freedoms” (2009) seems on its surface to be a more straightforward historical novel set in an aircraft factory during World War II. But here too Crowley is quietly subversive in his depiction of an American utopia — another alternate history — created by the factory’s employees: women, racial and ethnic minorities and those with disabilities.
Which brings us back to his new novel, “Ka.” The narrator lives in a bleak, dystopic world that might be our own not too many years hence. Two years earlier, he found a crow, itself near death, and nursed it to health. Whereupon he and the bird, Dar Oakley — always referred to as a Crow with a capital C — begin to converse. Dar Oakley recounts his many adventures with humans in their world, Ymr, a place that is at first contiguous with Ka, the realm of Crows, but which over millenniums engulfs, then begins to threaten it.
Like the Summer King of myth, Dar Oakley is born, dies and is reborn. He doesn’t recall all his lives: In “Ka,” he focuses on just a few. The first is set in northern Europe during the Iron Age, when he befriends a girl named Fox Cap, who goes on to become a shaman. The two venture into the underworld in search of an object that will bestow immortality upon Fox Cap and all other humans, but their quest doesn’t end as planned.
In a way, it never does end. Dar Oakley re-enacts some version of this journey again and again: in the company of a monk in early Christian Europe, among Native Americans when the first European colonists arrive in North America, during the American Civil War and finally in the post-millennial, slow-apocalypse world where the novel begins. With each rebirth in Ymr, Dar Oakley learns more of what it means to be human, a process that inevitably leads to him becoming more like us and less like a Crow. At the heart of this journey is Dar Oakley’s understanding of the importance of stories, his realization not just that “Stories were the way People lived” but also that “the story that he tells — it might as well be the story that he is.”
And not just any story, but the Story, the one that humans tell and have told endless times through the millenniums, from Gilgamesh to whatever’s on this week’s bestseller lists, “always [about] a precious thing lost and found and lost again.”
As “Ka” unfolds, the nature of that precious thing grows clear. All our stories are spun from the primal tale of a journey to the underworld in search of eternal life, something that, by our nature, we perpetually seek but can never attain. Like the Crow that is the death bird in numberless myths, Dar Oakley repeatedly guides us People to the Land of the Dead, but the history of humanity is encoded in our inability to grasp Death except as a story we tell ourselves, a narrative that, ironically and mysteriously, itself becomes a sort of triumph over Death.
As Dar Oakley realizes near the end of “Ka,” when he befriends the Native American trickster Coyote, the two immortal creatures are “caught in People stories and People hopes, foolishly wise, journeying in realms not theirs, seeking or stumbling upon or finding and losing the Most Precious Thing: stealing it for themselves, hiding it and losing it, forgetting where it was. The thing that kills the thing that kills us all: Death. Coyote’s gift, the thing People have hated and feared the most and yet can never do without.”
“We’re made of stories,” Coyote then tells Dar Oakley. But, of course, we humans make the stories and are made of them. Elegiacal and exhilarating, “Ka” is both consoling and unflinching in its examination of what it means to be human, in life and death. If, as Robert Graves wrote, “There is one story and one story only,” we are very lucky that John Crowley is here to tell it to us.
Hand's fiction has won the Nebula, World Fantasy, Shirley Jackson and Tiptree awards, among others. Her latest book, "Fire," is a collection of essays, stories and criticism.
Saga Press: 464 pp., $28.99