There is only one time I wish I were Harold Bloom, and that’s when I finish reading a book by John Crowley. What I want is a platform to tell the world about this author who seems to hide in plain sight. How does he do that? How can he write so well? Each time I’ve completed a book in the Aegypt cycle (this is the third — here are my reviews of The Solitudes, and Love and Sleep), it has loosed its hold on me only slowly. I’ve taken days, sometimes, to exit its spell. While I’m reading, as slowly as possible to wring all the pleasure I can from the book, I feel that happy, excited feeling in the gut that means I’m in love. (Love, of course, enters through the eyes, right off the page.)
In Daemonomania, Crowley takes the ideas he established in the first two books — that once, the world was otherwise, and alchemy and magic were as real as physics and chemistry are today — and moves a step further. Could it be that one person, or one set of people, in a passage time from one age into another, could actually be responsible for saving the world? Pierce Moffett, the protagonist of these novels, is stuck, horrified by the weight of this responsibility and drowning in the absurdity of the notion, knowing he will botch the job (whatever the job actually is) but unable not to try. Woven into that narrative is the story of John Dee’s sojourn at court in Prague, abandoned by his angels — were they ever angels at all, or were they always demons? — and scarcely knowing what the next right step would be. Yet even in the midst of this despair, there is hope and an aching tenderness. Bright threads among these thick, soft textures: a hospital in the city, a child with epilepsy, a frightening evangelical cult, werewolves, a powerful sexual relationship, a crystal ball, flowing water.
These books are arranged according to the astrological houses. In Daemonomania, you find the house of Uxor (marriage, divorce, business relationships), Mors (death and rebirth, committed relationships, finances), and Iter (journeys and religion.) So Pierce, wrapped in a fierce dominant relationship with Rose, is moved to offer marriage as the one possible path that could lead them both out of the cult’s clutches; Rosie Rasmussen considers the rebirth of her heart; John Dee constructs a boat with wheels that will sail him far away from Prague on the winds the angels gave into his charge. Every detail is disorienting, faceted, dislocating, and perfectly right. I read, and think, Yes, of course, although nothing, really, could be stranger.
Apart from the perfectly-crafted story, of course, is the writing. I can’t count the number of times I re-read passages, just to get the pleasure of them again, just to get some sense of how, how, how he had done it. Look at this one:
If courts of law are like crossroads — one road leading to punishment, cost, or confinement, and the other to liberty, exculpation, vindication — then the waiting rooms of doctors are like the trunks of trees: the squirrel of your thought scampers out along a hundred branching ways as you sit there with the doctor’s magazines, running toward cure, toward quick cure, toward nothing really wrong at all; or toward something sort of mysteriously wrong which might one day get worse, a little worse, a lot worse, or really quickly worse, very bad right now, much worse than you thought or than you feel, but then maybe better, the resources of medicine — as mysterious as the forces of disease — brought all to bear, one quick treatment, or a few treatments, many treatments, endless treatments, bewilderment, failure, surrender. Death. Life. Half-life,worse than death. All these embryonic fruiting bodies ready to come forth at each twig tip.
Can’t you see the squirrel, your mind, scampering along all those possibilities? Haven’t you done that yourself? Oh, what a writer.
Every time I write a review of one of Crowley’s books, I feel completely inadequate to the task, and as if I’m giving away a secret. Please, just read one. Let him speak for himself.