Monday, May 25, 2015

John Crowley, Beasts (1976)

Crowley, of course, is the author of the sublime Little, Big and the flawed but fascinating Ægypt cycle. Little, Big is, in fact, the author's fourth novel; sedulous readers may recall that some time ago I attempted his first, The Deep, and that that did not go so well, which put me off from reading more for the time being.

...the time being OVER, I should say, because now I've read his second novel, Beasts. And..I am really, truly, positively dumbstruck, because, in sharp contrast to The Deep, this is an astoundingly good novel: a sophisticated conception executed just about flawlessly and with great lyricism. Where the heck did this sudden quantum leap in quality come from?

The second chapter of Beasts starts with an epigraph from Wittgenstein, which one can easily imagine might've been the book's initial inspiration: “If a lion could talk, we would not understand him.” It all takes place in a medium-ish future in which North America is in a state of political instability, divided into autonomous zones that may or may not reunited. The precise ins and outs here aren't all that clearly explicated, and aren't the point. Some time in the past, there had been genetic engineering experiments to create hybrids of different species, most of which, as you'd expect, never having gone anywhere; however, for whatever reason, an effort to create a human-lion species succeeded. The existence of this species is a major point of political contention, and the action of the novel largely consists of people trying to figure out how best to navigate the situation.

Thematically, the point lies in that Wittgenstein quote: the leos (as they're called) are intelligent beings capable of speech, but, also being lions, their motivations and concerns are fundamentally alien to humans. We think we can understand them, but our understanding is incomplete and error-prone. This doesn't just play out in regard to the leos: it's also rehearsed with birds of prey—one of the characters is, among other things, a falconer—and there's also an enigmatic character who's a fox-human hybrid (the result of a much less successful experiment than that which produced the leos). Perhaps most extraordinarily, there's one section from the point of view of a stray dog that befriends (not really the right word, but we go with what we have) a fugitive leo (and because I know this is always a concern, let me note, by way of minor spoiler, that THE DOG DOES NOT DIE). There are a number of surprising point-of-view shifts here, that prefigure Crowley's later work. And, yes, there's also some light Christian allegory, or at least hints in that direction, but nothing overbearing—Crowley's certainly no CS Lewis. It's all deeply thought-provoking and beautifully written, alternating between realistic and impressionistic as necessary.

I really cannot overstate how much I liked this book. It's shorter and less devilishly complex than Little, Big and the Ægypt novels, but it absolutely deserves to be categorized as major Crowley. Fail to read it at your peril.


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