I admired [Robert Louis] Stevenson; I did more than that. I did what we are not supposed to do with the characters we encounter in books -- I identified with him.
--John Crowley, “Robert Louis Stevenson and the Dilemma of an Uncritical Readership”
I imagine that I first came across John Crowley’s name as a child, poring over “The Reader’s Guide to Science Fiction,” my vade mecum, circa 1979. The cover announced the endorsement of the OtherwOrlds Club, a group whose identity or purpose was never elucidated. The description of Crowley’s work concludes: “The talent shown in these novels has raised the hope that John Crowley might be a major voice in science fiction in years to come.”
But I wouldn’t read him for nearly three decades. Originally published in 1987, Crowley’s “Aegypt” became known to me gradually, sometime after learning it had found a place in Harold Bloom’s Western canon. An actual copy remained out of reach: I couldn’t find it at the public library or with the eccentric subscription library I belonged to, or at the library at the university where I teach; secondhand copies were priced too dear for me to take a chance and purchase one.
Now that Overlook Press has brought out “Aegypt” as “The Solitudes” (Crowley’s preferred title) and will soon dust off two other works in the “Aegypt” cycle (1994’s “Love & Sleep” and 2000’s “Daemonomania”), and Small Beer Press has issued the Aegyptian finale, “Endless Things” (the subject of next month’s Astral Weeks column), it’s as though a string of curiously beautiful planets has emerged from a long, cold shadow. As if “Aegypt” had been waiting all along for me to discover it.
This will sound a bit dramatic unless I explain that the biggest thrills in “The Solitudes” (Overlook: 432 pp., $15.95 paper) come from episodes of bookish revelation. (The astronomical connection is here too: Giordano Bruno, the 16th century heretic, reads forbidden cosmological works in the privy.) To a degree, Crowley’s characters are what they read (or stop reading). Rosie Rasmussen, in the midst of a divorce from her psychologist husband, “fall[s] into books. . . as though it were an old fever contracted in childhood and breaking out periodically.” As a child, she didn’t discriminate between fiction (Nancy Drew) and biography, a habit that helps her as she makes her way through the vividly imagined historical novels of the late Fellowes Kraft, a local author.
When we first meet Pierce Moffett, a “historian (of sorts)” in his mid-30s, he’s on a bus trip from New York to a job interview at a distant college, holding “the Soledades of Luis de Góngora in a new translation; he was to review it for a small quarterly.” Raised by his mother and uncle in rural Kentucky, Pierce and his cousins would have “Christmas every month” when a shipment of books from the state library arrived, and now he wonders whether the haphazard syllabus led to his imagining of Aegypt -- a kind of alternate Egypt, a “country where all the magic arts were known.” (As a child, he formed -- or continued? -- the Invisible College, “sworn knights of Aegypt” or a sort of OtherwOrlds Club.) And in one of the novel’s interior narratives (a work of historical fiction by Kraft called “Bitten Apples”), we’re treated to a young Will Shakespeare’s view of the house of John Dee, occultist and advisor to Queen Mary: “These hundreds -- thousands it might be -- he could almost hear them whispering together, whispering to each other of their contents.”
Crowley cannily makes Pierce’s intellectual mission stand for his own: to listen to the whisperings of alternate histories and modes of knowledge, of foundational works officially suppressed but never quite extinguished. Thus such marginalized figures as Dee and Bruno reappear here as counterculture heroes. (Like another title in Bloom’s canon, Ishmael Reed’s “Mumbo Jumbo,” “The Solitudes” is explicitly anti-canonical.) When Crowley describes the way Pierce “put his pencil between his teeth like a pirate’s dirk” as he gets up to find a reference from an old book, it perfectly captures the sense of adventure familiar to anyone who has chased a connection from book to book, through footnotes and card catalogs, with referential mania waiting patiently in the wings.
Pierce’s job interview never happens; his bus breaks down in the hermetically sealed region known as the Faraway Hills, where he eventually settles -- at least in this book -- for a life lived sub rosa: He dodges an advance by Rosie, nearly seduces another Rose (who happens to be Rosie’s husband’s lover) and tries to write a book (ostensibly capitalizing on New Age themes) for his agent and ex-girlfriend, Julie Rosegarten. (I love the scenes of Pierce explaining his book’s complicated thesis to Julie -- in effect, selling the book to her, and to us.)
In this seemingly sedate but mentally stimulating new land, Pierce’s quest begins in earnest, but here the plunder is in ideas, not coin. And though Pierce gets contracted to write a popular pseudo-historical tome à la “Chariots of the Gods” (satirized here as “Phaeton’s Car”), Crowley saves the big eureka for an act of reading: “He knew now that his whole life up to this point had all prepared him not to write a book at all . . . but to read one.”
“The Solitudes” is about finding the story you have been waiting for without even knowing it, discovering that a book glimpsed long ago and almost completely forgotten not only exists but also is present, in your hands. My admiration for “The Solitudes” is so fervid that I wonder whether I can trust myself. It seems fitting to disclose now that part of my fascination stems from the fact that I spent a great deal of the late 1990s -- call it “Three Years of Solitude” -- writing, with a discipline that eludes me now, a novel with kindred obsessions and truly uncanny overlaps (hot-air balloon in last chapter: check). A grand failure but one so immersive that I feel like I spent those years dreaming of “The Solitudes” (not knowing it already existed, had already been dreamt). Which is to say that “The Solitudes” is the book that I was preparing to read.
Then again, I could simply be reacting to the way Crowley treats some of my favorite themes (the art of memory, books within books) in a style both high-wire and magisterial, like some impossible collaboration executed by the gods of my personal pantheon. In the books of “Aegypt,” Nabokovian synesthesia (Pierce notes the “oblong ghosts of his pictures” on the walls of his emptied apartment; Alka-Seltzer tablets “dissolve as though in ecstasy”) meshes with Faulknerian word hypnosis (especially in “Love & Sleep,” with its chapters relating Pierce’s childhood in the South) and bursts of Gaddis-like dialogue (“But well just tell me a second”).
Or do I mean that I relish the way Borgesian brain scramblers (“Only by committing to memory the entire universe, and casting on it a universe of images, could all the things in the universe be remembered”) get enacted by characters who deepen over time and intersect at dramatic angles, all swept up by a roman-fleuve in the manner of Anthony Powell?
“Are you a lover of books?” John Dee asks Shakespeare. That’s the only question you need to answer before taking the trip to Crowley’s Aegpyt -- about which, more next month.
Ed Park is an editor of the Believer. His Astral Weeks column appears monthly, and his novel “Personal Days” is forthcoming from Random House.
Next time: Park continues his travels into John Crowley’s Aegypt with a discussion of the last installment of the Aegypt Cycle, just published, “Endless Things.”