Back in July 2008, I read John Crowley’s novel Little, Big, and judged that it was the best work of speculative fiction I’d ever read — truly a masterpiece. My local library doesn’t carry anything else by Crowley, and I have had a moratorium on buying books because my TBR pile is so large, so it’s taken me a long time to get to any of his other works. But I have just finished The Solitudes, the first book in the Aegypt cycle, and once again I feel I’m walking, disoriented and blinking, into the sunlight from the warm, shifting, beautiful world of this book.
Pierce Moffett is a historian. Once, when he was a child, he thought historians dispensed history the way grocers dispense groceries: they set up shop, found out what historical questions people had, and answered them. Now, as an adult, he has made some personal mistakes, and his academic career is a disappointment. A series of coincidences brings him to the Faraway Hills in New York, to the town of Blackbury Jambs (I know!) where he meets a former student of his — a Vietnam veteran turned shepherd — and a woman who is in the process of divorcing her unpleasant ex-husband. Here, in a place of new beginnings for everyone, he begins to think about a book he would like to write.
It’s the subject of this book that draws all these characters together, along with the magic, fantastic, and historical themes of The Solitudes. In Little, Big, Crowley says over and over again that the world is as it is and not otherwise. In The Solitudes, he posits instead that the world was once otherwise, and not as it is. Suppose, Moffett says, that once alchemy really did work; that magic was literally true. Suppose that there is a shadow history of the world, where all these mysterious things we hear about were real. We know that Egyptians did no magic; they were hard-headed, practical people. But there is also a history of Aegypt, where their secret magical powers could draw down the stars.
Then something happened. Time’s body shifted in its sleep, and the old sciences not only lost their power, but had always been powerless (the world is as it is, and not otherwise.) Over the course of the book, Moffett becomes increasingly certain that such a change is about to happen again: the gods will return, the fantastic will return, all the magic will all turn out to have been true history, and this deep yearning will be satisfied.
This description only does bare, scraping justice to about half the book’s plot. Another portion has to do with the magician-scientist John Dee, from the court of Elizabeth I, and his commerce with angels and spirits. Another plot line is about a novelist who once lived in Blackbury Jambs, one Fellowes Kraft, who left an unfinished novel on precisely the subject Pierce wants to write a history book about. And the structure of that novel is also the structure of The Solitudes, the book you’re holding…
The Solitudes is incredibly complex. It’s beautiful, and dense, and it moves back and forth in time and reality like a shuttle on a loom. Crowley uses a rich vocabulary of history, art, science, alchemy, astronomy and astrology to create his fantasia, and it comes out strong and sweet.
Sweet. Because this is a joyful book. There are moments of pain, of numbness and heartbreak and irritation. But overall, this is a book of yearning, of tenderness, of warmth and learning to feel joy.
Pierce left the study, and went out through the dark house and into the noontide. Continuously, unnoticeably, at the rate of one second per second, the world turned from what it had been and into what it was to be. Rosie tilted up her sun hat to see Pierce striding from the house, and Sam ceased crying; Spofford at Arcady lifted the instrument cupped in his palms to play.
“Done,” Pierce called. “All done.”
“Us too,” said Rosie; and she held out for him to see what they had looted from Kraft’s garden, huge armfuls of blossoms that would otherwise have fallen unseen, rank poppies and roses, ox-eye daisies, lilies and blue lupines.