Endless things, his mother had used to say, and write in her letters too: a little ejaculation or verbal sigh, the endless things of this world that trapped and pestered her or pleaded for her attention like unfed sheep. Endless things, he too had said, said to himself in those days when he had set out for the brand-new Old World in his twenties; endless things, his own small prayer and mantra as he stood on the boat deck or in the crowded and scented foreign street. To him it meant not the ghastly multiplication of things, as it did to her. It meant those things that roll on forever: travel, and the intoxications of thought and gaze and words, and possibility; sex, the sea, childhood and the view from there, the way ahead.
This, the last book in John Crowley’s Aegypt series, is the strangest and in some ways the most beautiful of the four. (Here are my reviews of The Solitudes, Love and Sleep, and Daemonomania.) In this final installment, Crowley completes the shift from one age to another, the shift that the first three books have been slowly working through. The original question was: what if the magic of the old age — alchemy, werewolves — was once as real as physics and mathematics are today? That question is answered in the first three books. The question of this last book is: now that we are in the new age, what is the wonder, the healing, the magic for us here?
The structure of the book is different from the others. Pierce, released at last from his fierce and destructive relationship with Rose Ryder, is tracing backward the European journeys of Fellowes Kraft. We go backward, too, over the life of Giordano Bruni. Life, Crowley suggests, is always Y-shaped: there are branches we can never recognize until we look back and see we have taken the turning. He creates heartbreaking nostalgia for events that never occurred: peace, plenty, jubilee — but no, no, someone took the wrong turning, and we are on this branch now: sit down, sorrow.
This Y-shaped philosophy, and structure, is consistent with one of the oddities of the book. I’ll let Crowley tell you about it himself, describing Fellowes Kraft’s last work:
As the pages had silted up Kraft had seemingly begun making the worst of fictional errors, or ceased correcting them: all those things that alienate readers and annoy critics, like the introduction of new major characters at late stages of the story, unpacked and sent out on new adventures while the old main characters sit lifeless somewhere off stage, or stumble to keep up. New plot movements, departing from the main branch of the story for so long that they become the main branch without our, the readers’, agreement or assent. All of it inducing that sense of reckless haste or–worse — droning inconsequence that sooner or later causes us — us, the only reason for any of it, the sole feelers of its feelings, sole knowers of its secrets — to sigh, or groan in impatience, or maybe even end (with a clap) the story the writer seems only to want to keep on beginning.
It’s true. Main characters disappear and are dismissed with barely a cursory wave, and sometimes not even that. Brand-new characters appear and become crucial to the story. And yet all this is consistent, and ultimately satisfying. We are on a new branch of the Y, we are in a new age, with its new wonders; how can there not be upheaval, and travel, and sex, and possibility, and childhood and the view from there?
So what is the magic of the new age? I’ll let you find out for yourself; it’s a complex and winding path, strewn with dark and bright stones, crowns, cups, roses. But I will say that Utopia is now a place, and that things we knew to be true in the old age are true in a different way in the new age, and can now be healed. This is a book of change and tenderness and deep satisfaction. Peace, prosperity, jubilee. I could scarcely bear to read the last page, knowing it was over. Thank goodness I have more of Crowley’s work to read.