Monday, October 22, 2012

John Crowley, Endless Things (2007)

Let's be honest: this final novel of Ægypt, more than any of the others by a wide margin, is not remotely a stand-alone novel.  It feels more like an extended coda to the series than a thing in itself.  If the entire thing were published in one volume--which, really, would be the most sensible way to do it--this last part might not stand out so much.  But it hasn't been, and it does.

What's it about?  Gawd, that's an even tougher question than it is for Love & Sleep.  The "present day" of this novel is 1989, a decade after that of the previous books, though it frequently cuts back to previous times.  The first half of the book is kind of a salmagundi, with short segments from the perspective of various marginal characters, including Pierce's parents (in 1939), Fellowes Kraft (the fictional writer who sort of kick-started this whole thing, if you remember), and Frank Walker Barr (Pierce's academic mentor).  The most sustained and most interesting part--most interesting part of the whole book, really--is the conclusion of Giordano Bruno's story.  At the end of Dæmonomania, Bruno was being taken away to be burned at the stake, but it was strongly implied that before his sentence could be carried out, his consciousness was transferred into a donkey, which slipped off unnoticed.  Endless Things continues this story, a picaresque that is also quite deliberately a re-telling of Apuleius' Golden Ass: Bruno gets passed through a number of owners, until finally he regains his human form (it will be recalled that the protagonist of The Golden Ass became human once more with the help of Isis, into whose mystery cult he is then initiated).  As we've become accustomed to with Crowley, this is all somewhat obscure, but quite fascinating (and while it's happening, there's all sorts of political and religious conflict raging which is meant to be indicative of the change from one model of the world to another, and I learn that there is a historical event called the "Defenestration of Prague," which makes me very happy).

Then, Crowley does this thing he sometimes does where he goes "no, that didn't happen; this other thing happened," in this case meaning that Hermes Trismegistus offered to save Bruno, but he refused on the basis that his execution was the only way to change the world, and when he did this, there were no more gods and never had been--or at least, not in the same way as before.  So he was burned, and that was that.  It's clear, however, that we have different versions of the world sort of invisibly floating over one another, both occupying the same space and time but remaining wholly separate from one another.

Then, about halfway through the novel, we suddenly learn, oh, at some point Pierce was married, and he and his wife have two young daughters, which is somewhat disorienting.  The back half of the novel consists of the story of how they met and adopted their daughters and Pierce sort of moping around as he does trying to figure out what's what with the world--the "magical" aspects of the story have disappeared at this point.  I must admit, I found this last part to be less than riveting; you sort of get sick of Pierce at a certain point; you kind of want to smack him and tell him to get over himself.  Also, there are so damn many characters from previous volumes who you wish would reappear in some capacity but then…don't.  I can't help feeling the narrative sort of got away from Crowley at a certain point.  Either that or his sense of aesthetics is substantially different from my own, which is a real possibility.  A mild disappointment, I must say!  If you've read the first three books, clearly you're gonna read the fourth one too, but truth be told, I think you'd be doing okay if you stopped after Dæmonomania, which is really the climax of the series.

In any case, Crowley's first three novels--which I take to be more straightforwardly genre-ish--are collected in this omnibus, so we're gonna see what's up with them.


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