Boston Review
table of contents
new democracy forum
new fiction forum
rave reviews
writers’ guidelines
bookstore locator
literary links


Search this site or the web Powered by FreeFind

Site Web


Genre Trouble
What stands between John Crowley and a serious literary reputation?

James Hynes

For the most part, the American novelist John Crowley flies under both the commercial and critical radars, as invisible to most readers as he is to most critics. You don’t have to look very hard to see why this should be. Despite their high literary gloss and intellectual sophistication, his first three novels were originally published as genre fiction: The Deep (1975) is a gothic fantasy reminiscent of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy; Beasts (1976) is a science fiction romance about the genetic recombination of humans and animals, sort of a cross between The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Wind in the Willows; and Engine Summer (1979), Crowley’s most impenetrable work, is an after-the-apocalypse narrative. In an attempt to give it mainstream credibility, some admiring critics have called his next book, Little, Big (1981), a magic realist novel. But Little, Big, his best known work and arguably his masterpiece, is unequivocally a fantasy novel, albeit a highly idiosyncratic one. Much of the book reads like a straight literary narrative–it is as compelling a portrait of a long marriage as any I know–but it is based on the Sufi fable The Parliament of the Birds and uses the themes and archetypes of Northern European folklore. In other words, it is a long, gorgeously written, picaresque family saga, in the last fifty pages of which all the major characters, with one heartbreaking exception, turn into fairies.

There are some exceptions to his critical invisibility: Michael Dirda championed him in The Washington Post; Harold Bloom has officially canonized three of his novels (Little, Big, Ægypt, and Love & Sleep) in one of the lists in The Western Canon; and various other reviewers have compared his later novels, Ægypt (1987) and Love & Sleep (1994), to the work of Thomas Mann and Robertson Davies. Count me in: I’ve read Little, Big four times now, and wept shamelessly each time over those last, extraordinary fifty pages, and over the years have purchased and given away fifteen copies of it (when I could find it–it is inconsistently in print). When "You’ll love this" isn’t recommendation enough, I have proceeded to claim (as I’m claiming here) that Little, Big is an Important American Novel that bears comparison to such works as One Hundred Years of Solitude and Nabokov’s Ada.

Still, Crowley’s career is an object lesson for any writer who wants to write serious fiction outside the lines, as it were: once you enter the labyrinth of genre, it may be impossible to find your way out again. It’s all right, apparently, for a writer with an established literary reputation to venture into science fiction (Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale), the gothic (John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick), or fabulism (nearly anything by Salman Rushdie), but God forbid someone should try to create literature with the tools of the genre writer. Ursula K. Leguin and Philip K. Dick have peeked over the edge of genre into the promised land, and lately Stephen King, by sheer force of will, has won an O. Henry Award. But even these authors are only grudgingly allowed at the garden party, and whispered about when their backs are turned. They remain tainted, half-castes in some old melodrama of artistic miscegenation, trying to pass for literary.

I suspect that the genre/literary divide is not nearly as important to Crowley as it is to a reader like me, who feels the need to justify his love for fantasy novels to his literary friends. From his earliest work, Crowley has simply ignored the distinction; he is not so much undermining the border between genre and literary as he is acting as if it weren’t there at all, except perhaps as a marketing consideration. He moves back and forth easily and at will, takes what he wants from either tradition, and shrugs off the critics from either side of the divide who don’t want anybody trading with the enemy. And so, emboldened perhaps by the success of Little, Big among both fantasy and mainstream readers, Crowley has since embarked on an even stranger and more ambitious project, a four-volume series of novels, set both in the present day and in the late sixteenth century, and based in large part on Renaissance mysticism. While the books so far are entirely satisfying as narrative, the series is fundamentally a huge novel of ideas, an epic meditation on the search for gnosis, for an intuitive grasp of the interrelatedness of all things. The first of the series, Ægypt (1987), was widely and respectfully reviewed, as was the second novel in the series, Love & Sleep (1994). With the publication of Love & Sleep, Crowley’s publisher, Bantam, made a full-court-press attempt to break him through, Cormac McCarthy-style, by releasing all of his previous novels in handsome new trade paperbacks (the first three in one volume). Unfortunately the attempt didn’t take. Now, six years later, only Crowley’s new novel, Dæmonomania, the third in the Ægypt quartet, is in print, and it is being buried alive in the sci-fi/fantasy section of your local superstore. Thus, by the curious logic of our commercially driven literary culture, the most mediocre graduate of an academic writing workshop automatically receives the official imprimatur of "literary writer" along with his or her MFA, while John Crowley’s lushly written and vastly more intellectually satisfying books are shelved, if they are in print at all, with nth-generation cyberpunks, vampire novelists, and Tolkein wannabees.

TO BE FAIR, Crowley doesn’t make it easy on himself. Given the hidebound rules of genre vs. literary, it’s hard to peg these books. For pages and pages at a stretch, these novels read as straight, mainstream narrative, a fact that is liable to disappoint the spectacle-hungry genre reader. Yet there are occasional, not entirely unequivocal incursions of the fantastic and the fabulous–sightings of angels in a crystal ball, an Elizabethan wizard’s photograph of the young William Shakespeare, werewolves–that are liable to put off the more fastidious mainstream reader. Furthermore, they are eloquently but densely written, requiring a level of concentration beyond that of the average literary novel, let alone the average genre book; gnosis is a compelling but complex notion, not easy to explain, and Crowley isn’t attempting to explain it, really, but to evoke it as a storyteller.

Adding to the difficulty is the unfortunately glacial pacing of each novel’s release–six years between Ægypt and Love & Sleep, and seven between Love & Sleep and Dæmonomania. As someone who has just read all three one right after the other, it’s clear to me that they are best reviewed as one immensely long and ambitious novel. But the recent "Books in Brief" notice of Dæmonomania in the New York Times Book Review, for example, reviewed it as a brilliantly written, but rather baffling fantasy novel by someone who is also the author of the Ægypt series; the reviewer expressed a confusion about the parallel storylines that could have been cleared up if he had bothered to read the first two volumes. In large part this is Bantam’s fault, for not only has the publisher neglected to mention anywhere on the dust jacket of the book that it is the third in a series (probably for fear of scaring off readers), but it has not even kept the earlier books in print. The literary world is what it is, I suppose, and no doubt Crowley is even more keenly aware than I am of the huge risks he is running–of intimidating readers and baffling reviewers, of trying the patience of his publisher, of falling off the literary map altogether–but in the end, literary greatness isn’t bestowed on the faint-hearted. However frustrating the pace of its creation must be to his readers, his publishers, and Crowley himself, the Ægypt quartet is–already, unfinished–an astonishing accomplishment.

Books discussed in this essay

John Crowley
Bantam Books, $24

Little, Big
John Crowley (out of print)

Love & Sleep
John Crowley (out of print)

John Crowley (out of print)

Taken together, the three books so far tell, roughly speaking, two large, complicated, and thematically intertwined stories. One is set in the late-1970s in a fictional region of the Northeast called the Faraway Hills (much like the Berkshires, where Crowley lives) and centered around a writer and historian named Pierce Moffett. Having lost his position at a small college in New York, Moffett washes up in the Faraways, amid a network of 1960s survivors. These are not the highly ideological veterans of the ’60s who moved into academia and politics, but castaways of the other ’60s, the spiritual ’60s, the gentle dopers and vegetarians and New Agers who resettled in crumbling industrial towns in Massachusetts and upstate New York and opened tarot parlors and bookshops. Crowley’s cast includes Brent Spofford, a Vietnam vet and an old student of Pierce’s; Beau Brachman, the informal leader of a casually communal house and day-care center and a practitioner of astral projection; Mike Mucho, a psychologist at a private institution called the Woods and inventor of a pop psychology system called Climacterics; Rosie Mucho, née Rasmussen, Mike’s wife, who is divorcing him and sleeping with Spofford; Mike and Rosie’s young daughter Sam; and another Rose, Rose Ryder, who is Mike Mucho’s lover in the first book, and in the second and third volumes, Pierce’s.

As Pierce enters into this shifting web of friends and lovers, he begins work on a book about what he calls the other history of the world, based upon his theory, from his studies in the Renaissance, that the world sometimes changes overnight:

Did he really intend to suggest in his book that once-upon-a-time the useless procedures of magic had had effects, the lead had turned to gold, the dead had risen; but that then the world ("the world") had passed through some sort of cosmic turnstile and come out the other side different, so that now not only are the old magics inefficacious but now they always were? Was he going to say that?

He guessed he was. Certainly he was going to hint at it, utter it, assemble ambiguous evidence for the proof of it, hold his readers in suspense with a search through history for the proof of it, the one thing–event, artifact, place, word–that is still, indisputably, what it once was in the past age, as nothing else any longer is. Whatever it might be.

He was going to entertain the notion; oh more, he was going to fête it, he was going to wine and dine it; he was going to have his way with it amid the spilled cups and crushed fruit of an uproarious banquet. And he was going to father on it a notion more powerful than itself, a notion which would only be given birth to in his concluding pages: only if we treat the past in this way, as though it was different in kind from the present, can we form any idea of how different from the present the future will be.

Pierce is also hired by Rosie Rasmussen’s elderly uncle Boney, the director of the Rasmussen Foundation, to edit the papers of a local celebrity, a dead and nearly forgotten historical novelist named Fellowes Kraft. In the central coincidence of a narrative full of coincidences (and that is in large part about coincidence), Pierce discovers in Kraft’s old mock-Tudor home a last, unpublished manuscript that covers the same ground philosophically as his own prospective book. Indeed, much of Ægypt is given over to excerpts from Kraft’s first novel, Bruno’s Journey, about the Renaissance philosopher and alchemist Giordano Bruno; from Bitten Apples, his romance about the young William Shakespeare; and, most importantly and prolifically, from Kraft’s last manuscript, a curious but exquisite philosophical romance centered around Bruno and the Elizabethan alchemist John Dee. This last work continues on through Love & Sleep and Dæmonomania (where, not knowing its provenance in the first two books, the New York Times reviewer was baffled by it), making up not quite half of the quartet so far.

Just as there is, according to Crowley and his character Pierce, another history of the world, there is another account of the Ægypt quartet. Apart from being an unusually lush, and leisurely, account of the lives of its modern and historical characters, the novels are based largely on the themes of Hermetism (after Hermes Trismegistus, its mythical prophet), the highly syncretic late-Classical philosophy combining elements of Platonism and Gnosticism, and the philosophical underpinning of alchemy. More particularly, Crowley is writing out of the variety of Hermetism that flourished during the Renaissance, when a fascination for magic and alchemy informed both literary culture and science; his main inspiration is the work of the English historian of Renaissance magic, Dame Frances Yates. Bruno enjoys quite a reputation these days as a martyr for science, but he was also a major, if not the major Hermetist of the Renaissance; he disseminated its ideas and obsessions all across Europe, from Rome to Paris to London and back again. And while John Dee is mainly remembered as an astrologer and a crystal ball gazer, he was also an all-around natural philosopher, adviser to Elizabeth I, and, in Kraft’s novel, harried family man. Natural philosophy and magic were all mixed up in the Renaissance, and Crowley, in his quartet, is doing his best to mix them up again.

All of this compounds Crowley’s genre trouble: spare a thought for the poor conglomerate publisher who is asked to market a wildly allusive and intensely erudite 1,300-page unfinished novel with a cast of alchemists and hippies, based on Renaissance esoterica and issued one book at a time over fifteen years. It would be easier if Crowley were taking the low road, writing a pop, New Age tract, another Celestine Prophecy (to which Ægypt and Love & Sleep have, very unfairly, been compared). Instead, he is writing rigorously about a subject that many readers would consider inherently unreasonable, engaging the philosophy behind alchemy, the strange, rich, and surprisingly resonant early modern search for gnosis that Frances Yates explored in such books as Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition and The Rosicrucian Enlightenment. Thus the quartet is intellectually sophisticated, but in an idiosyncratic way. There is a slow, powerful forward momentum to the twin narratives, as Giordano Bruno, in the sixteenth century, heads unknowingly toward the stake, and Pierce Moffett, in the twentieth, heads for a sort of spiritual auto-da-fé. As the modern day narrative has progressed from volume to volume, the hippie gentleness of Ægypt has darkened, with Pierce descending into an increasingly transgressive eroticism encompassing homoerotic fantasies with an imaginary adolescent son and real sadomasochistic sex with the troubled young woman Rose Ryder. Rose leaves him finally, following her former lover Mike Mucho into a frightening Christian cult known as the Powerhouse. Mike, in turn, is pursued by his ex-wife, Rosie Rasmussen, who is determined to keep custody of their daughter Sam. Meanwhile, the sixteenth-century narrative, which was kept rigorously separate in the earlier volumes–a novel within a novel–begins in Dæmonomania to bleed into the present-day narrative, the two of them stitched together by parallelisms of plot, character, language, and even props. Sam is diagnosed with epilepsy; epileptic seizures having once been considered trance states leading to visions and prophecies, her condition seems to tie her to the girlish angel Madimi who speaks through his crystal ball to John Dee in the historical sections. Indeed, this Sam/Madimi parallelism is reinforced by a time-traveling exchange of orbs, as a child’s inflatable ball from the twentieth century mysteriously bounces into John Dee’s study, and Dee’s own crystal ball is handed down through the centuries, through Fellowes Kraft to Boney Rasmussen, to end up as one of Sam’s playthings, stuffed in her backpack.

ALL THIS IS DRAMATIC ENOUGH, as are various other subplots not mentioned here, but in a curiously oblique way, with the focus more on the spiritual struggle of each character (particularly the struggles of Pierce and the two Roses) than on their actions. Anyone reading these books purely for plot would quickly be discouraged; as lovely as the prose is, there are longeurs and repetitions, as Crowley, given the years between each book’s release, is forced to recap stuff that a reader unwilling to start from scratch might have read years ago. There’s also a fair amount of winking self-referentiality: Pierce’s explanations of the intent and structure of his work-in-progress are meant to double as descriptions of the Ægypt quartet itself, and it’s easy to come to the conclusion by the end of Dæmonomania that Pierce’s, Crowley’s, and Fellowes Kraft’s projects are all one and the same. At a costume ball on the winter solstice near the end of Dæmonomania, Pierce has a funny encounter with a man in a mask. "Masks always make us oracular. The one this fellow wore was a realistic human face, a pleasant tired older fellow with crinkly eyes and a shock of molded white rubber hair. Pierce supposed he ought to know the face," which can only belong to Crowley himself. They have an ingeniously misdirected conversation, as Pierce thinks they’re talking about the masked man’s failed production of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, while the Crowley figure is clearly talking about the book in the reader’s hands:

"I came to believe," the man said, and crossed his legs, ready for a chat, "that Marlowe must have been an awful shit."


"Yes. I think of him as a totally amoral person who liked to arouse people, just because he knew he could. Get them to riot and go on rampages. His plays did, you know. Against Jews. Catholics. Whomever he could turn a crowd against."


"Oh yes. Poor old Doctor Dee. And I don’t think for a minute he cared anything about the Devil or God’s justice. He was like a punk rock star today, with a swastika tattooed on his forehead, getting kids to go mad and commit suicide." He lifted his drink to his mouth, and drank, or pretended to. "A genius, though. Unlike your rockers. There’s the difference."

Who was that mask? Pierce knew he had seen the face it was modeled on, in some special context; the boyish snub nose, the hair that had once been sandy. "What happened?" he asked. "To your production?"

The man sighed hugely, and for a long moment looked around himself, the expression on his false face altering as the light took it differently. Then he said:

"Well I’ve failed. I failed. Yes I think that’s evident now." He said this with what seemed great anguish. "The conception was just too huge, the parts too many. No matter how long it was let to go on, it got no closer to being done."

"It’s a corrupted text," Pierce said. "I believe." There was, he now saw, another bentwood chair beside the man, exactly like the one he sat in.

"I so much wanted it to knit," the other said. He interlaced his own fingers. "Past and present, then and now. The story of the thing lost, and how it was found. More than anything I wanted it to resolve. And all it does is ramify.

"You take this party, or ball," he said, lifting his glass as though to toast it. "I mean it’s hardly the Walpurgisnacht that was promised for so long."

"Well," Pierce said. "I mean."

"The all-purged night; the all-perjurers’-night. The transmuting revels, the night machinery out of which we all come different. Wasn’t that the idea? ‘Where nothing is but what is not.’ What is not yet, or is not any longer."

"Ah," said Pierce...

Yet this self-referentiality is not the usual postmodern giddiness, but part of the quartet’s rigorous structure, which is liable to seem strange to a modern reader. The Hermetists communicated their beliefs through highly allusive prose; and Crowley’s lyricism is certainly allusive, occasionally maddeningly so. I sometimes wondered if the books’ intended demographic was simply Harold Bloom, even down to the titles of each volume. Ægypt, with its fussy little ligature, refers not to the real country, but to the mythical Ægypt of Hermes Trismegistus; Love & Sleep is a sly abbreviation of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a curious Renaissance volume about architecture and sex whose title can be translated as "The Struggle of Love in a Dream"; and Dæmonomania is also the title of an early modern witch-hunting manual. Not for nothing, in Ægypt Pierce struggles through an English translation of the Soledades by the early-seventeenth-century Spanish poet Gòngora, whose name became a watchword for complicated imagery and arcane mythological allusions. It is Crowley’s way of warning the modern reader, pay attention.

But the Hermetists also communicated by emblems–dense, complicated illustrations inspired (mistakenly) by Egyptian hieroglyphics. These emblems, deliberately obscure, were meant to be instruments of gnosis, intended to enter the eye and go straight to the heart, bypassing the reasoning mind entirely, opening the viewer to the infinite web of connections between him and the cosmos. This, I think, is how Crowley intends us to read his work. The structure of the Ægypt quartet is largely symbolic: taken together, the three volumes are best read as a modern alchemist’s emblem book. For the Hermetists, and for Crowley in these sublimely eccentric novels, gnosis is a dual process–knowledge of one’s true self on the one hand, and a direct, unmediated knowledge of the divine on the other. But these two brands of knowledge are not sought serially, one after the other, but simultaneously, with the implication that, after all, knowledge of oneself and knowledge of the divine are the same thing. Taken as one huge work, divided into twelve sections named after the Houses of the Zodiac (which are not, as Crowley carefully explains, the same thing as the signs of the Zodiac), the Ægypt quartet is a series of tableaux, or emblems, in which love and desire and death and identity are held to the light and examined in all their facets.

These tableaux are not necessarily discrete set pieces, either, but can be plotlines or situations that run through all three books, and must be extracted in the reader’s imagination and looked at whole. A single example will have to suffice (it would take a book to tease out all the complexities of these novels; dissertation writers, take note). One of the Hermetists’ articles of faith is the interconnectedness of all things (whatever its scientific validity, this is the metaphor at the root of astrology, that we are connected to the stars and they to us in subtle and mysterious ways). This can be a powerfully erotic idea, at least as Crowley expresses it, and perhaps the chief characteristic of the vast web of interconnectedness in these novels is their eroticism. Over the course of the books, nearly all the major characters are sexually involved with all the other major characters, in a web of astonishing complexity. Rosie Rasmussen and Mike Mucho are married, and produce their daughter Sam; Mike leaves Rosie to have an affair with Rose Ryder, and Rosie Rasmussen starts an affair with Pierce’s former student Brent Spofford. But Spofford too once had a brief fling with Rose Ryder, and on one memorable occasion, Mike Mucho, Rosie Rasmussen, and Rose Ryder all ended up in bed together. Enter Pierce Moffett in Ægypt, in which, in a sly authorial sleight of hand too complicated to explain here, he and the reader come to confuse the two Roses, thinking that they’re the same person. Both the reader and Pierce are surprised to discover at the end of the book that there are two Roses; it takes a second reading to see how Crowley does it. Subsequently, in Love & Sleep and Dæmonomania, Pierce becomes Rose Ryder’s lover, and then, when she leaves him to follow Mike Mucho into the Powerhouse cult, Rosie Rasmussen and Pierce end up in bed together.

As soap operatic as this may seem in description, what it resembles when extracted from the three books and held up to the light is a complicated alchemical emblem of intertwined bodies, with a powerfully allegorical, if mysterious, purpose. Because of the deliberate conflation of the two Roses in the first book and the fact that the two women sleep with all the major male characters and even with each other, the implication seems to be that they are the same woman in some metaphorical sense, or perhaps facets of the same woman. There is even a third Rose, sort of: Julie Rosengarten, Pierce’s ex-lover and current literary agent in New York, who, it turns out in the third book, knows the New Ager Beau Brachman, and together Beau and Julie are watching over Pierce, without Pierce’s knowledge. (In a book as allusive as this one, all these Roses are, needless to say, a clear allusion to Rosicrucianism, a close relative of Hermetism.) And this does not take into account Pierce’s eventual equation of Robbie, the imaginary son with whom he indulges in homoerotic fantasies, and Bobbie Shaftoe, the Kentucky girl with whom Pierce had his first sexual experience years ago, and who turns up late in Love & Sleep as a nurse’s aide in the hospital where Rosie takes her daughter Sam for treatment of her epilepsy. Bobbie’s father, Floyd, is a Kentucky hill man who roams the woods as a wolf in his sleep, mirroring a Bohemian werewolf in the historical narrative, who was the subject of another one of Fellowes Kraft’s novels, The Werewolf of Prague, and whose real-life descendants many generations later come to populate the mining towns of Appalachia. Meanwhile the angel Madimi visits John Dee and tells him to swap wives with his scryer, or crystal ball reader, Edward Kelley, which mirrors the interconnected sex in the Faraway Hills of the 1970s.

THE MASKED MAN AT THE BALL WAS RIGHT: none of this resolves, but it ramifies like hell. And that, perhaps, is the point: Hermetism, and its parent, gnosticism, are not rigorous, rational philosophies; they are engines of revelation, meant to bypass the intellect. This epic meditation on gnosis is constructed to become more complicated and ramifying the deeper you read into it; as Crowley put it in his earlier book, Little, Big, "the further in you go, the bigger it gets." The goal of gnosis may be a moment of perfect understanding, but that moment may not necessarily be simple, or explainable, or reproducible in anyone else. Alchemical emblems and Renaissance mystical prose are not supposed to make sense rationally, they are not analytical puzzles, they are not parseable; rather, they are like a Western version of Zen koans, logical impossibilities that you are supposed to give yourself over to until you either get it, or you don’t. At the very end of Love & Sleep, in a bravura passage of incantatory prose, Pierce, in a spiritual panic, imagines a messenger on his way ("or is it she?") with a message that will save him:

But will she come in time? Oh yes just in time; whenever she comes is just in time; when we have despaired for the thousandth midnight of any such a one ever coming from anywhere, she will arrive, in a tearing hurry, breaking into or out of the last spheres of air, fire, water, earth as though throwing open the successive doors of a long corridor, down which she rushes, her hair streaming and her brow knit, her hand already beside her mouth to call into the ear of our souls Wake up.

Given the gloriously odd ambition of these novels, it’s no wonder that the books come across as well-crafted but impenetrable to anyone who tries to read them for the usual literary reasons–plot, character, suspense–and why they are next to impossible to review as independent volumes. Lest this sound daunting, and pointless, and terminally odd, it’s useful to note how fruitful this subject matter has already been for a number of indisputably literary novelists: Marguerite Yourcenar sympathetically depicts an alchemist named Zeno, based on Paracelsus, in her masterpiece The Abyss; Peter Ackroyd performs one of his reliably mysterious interpenetrations of two widely distant historical periods in The House of Dr. Dee; and Lindsay Clarke uses alchemy for an extended meditation on gender in his splendid novel The Chymical Wedding. If Crowley is being obscure, he’s in good company, and his books bear comparison with any of these–indeed, they may very well be the most ambitious, mysterious, and rewarding of the lot.

Be assured as well that these books are also uncommonly and unfashionably beautiful, in their oblique but lyrical prose, in their overall architecture, and in the calm, deliberate passage of each extraordinary set piece. There are wonders in every volume: a great windstorm, hauntingly evoked, blows through both the sixteenth and the twentieth centuries; John Dee really does turn lead into gold, only to have it turn to slime later on; and the twin werewolves, the Bohemian and the Kentuckian, rise from their bodies at night as a wolves, and battle witches at the gates of Hell in order to save the world. But there is also, if you find werewolves and transmutation off-putting, as keen and complex an understanding of difficult, troubled, and passionate characters as you are liable to find in any mainstream novel, set in a natural world that is evoked with extraordinary vividness.

A good novel must be note-perfect to succeed, but a great one can sprawl–must sprawl–if it is to encompass all the unseemly and unrestrained passion of its own ambition. The craftsmanlike novel is read the way an onion is peeled, one layer at a time, until you have nothing left; but with a John Crowley novel–well, the further in you go, the bigger it gets. Granted, half a million words on hippies and alchemists probably seems pretty big to begin with, but where Crowley’s work does show its genre roots–what he does share with the best of modern fantasists and fabulists (Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, John Cowper Powys), apart from sheer determination in the face of critical and sometimes commercial neglect, simply to persevere–is a sense of spaciousness, of depth, of the boundlessness of his imagination. What he also shares with these writers is the ability to give the reader the feeling that at any point in these novels you could make a sharp left turn from the narrative and just keep going–there’s that much world and story and mystery out there that he’s simply not bothering to show you. It’s a majestic folly, to spend all these riches of language and imagination and erudition, all this effort and all this time, to create a work of art that will, I hope, in its final volume, lead Pierce Moffett, and maybe his author, and maybe even me, to a moment of perfect understanding. Wake up.

James Hynes is the author, most recently, of The Lecturer’s Tale. He reviewed Carl Hiaasen for the February/March 2000 issue and Ross Feld for the October/November 1999 issue.

Originally published in the December 2000/January 2001 issue of Boston Review

Copyright Boston Review, 1993–2005. All rights reserved. Please do not reproduce without permission.

 | home | new democracy forum | fiction, film, poetry | archives | masthead | subscribe |