The first book of Ægypt: The Solitudes by John Crowley
Reviewed by Abigail Nussbaum
02 July 2007
John Crowley's The Solitudes was originally published in 1987 under the title Ægypt, and is the first in a four-novel sequence of that same name in which Crowley posits and, to a certain extent, depicts the end of the world and the beginning of another one. Through a process that is either mystical or metaphorical—or perhaps the one crystalizing into the other—the history of the world is repeatedly transformed, shifting the present day back and forth between wonder and reason. The Solitudes presents the reviewer with an unusual challenge. How to review the novel as an independent entity—and thus avoid stepping on my fellow reviewers' toes—when it is so clearly and overwhelmingly part of a whole? More importantly, how to review Ægypt the novel when the experience of reading Ægypt the series so completely and irrevocably colors and alters one's reactions to it?
The plain fact of the matter is, The Solitudes does not stand on its own as a novel—at least, not in any sense of the word that I understand. The Ægypt sequence is, in certain respects, rigidly and architecturally structured (in other respects, it is a meandering, lumpen mess), with each installment roughly corresponding to a season of the year, and each divided into three chapters named after houses of the zodiac. In The Solitudes, these houses are Vita (the house of life, birth, and beginnings), Lucrum (the house of finance, but also resources, the stuff one starts out with), and Fratres (brotherhood, but also friendship and society). In other words, The Solitudes is setup—it introduces us to the series's main characters, establishes their individual storylines, and brings them together into a group. It is a novel of beginnings.
Or, more precisely, new beginnings. The characters who, by the end of The Solitudes, have congregated, some time in the late seventies, in a rural part of upstate New York with the fairy-tale name of the Faraway Hills are, for the most part, starting their stories over. There's Pierce Moffett, a former history professor at a tiny liberal arts college in New York, who flees the city following a romantic, financial, and professional breakdown. In the Faraways he meets a former student of his, Brent Spofford, Vietnam vet turned shepherd. Spofford introduces Pierce to Rosie Rasmussen, who, two-year-old daughter in tow, has just walked away from a husband she no longer loves or even likes, and to Rose Ryder, that same husband's research assistant and sometimes-girlfriend. There's also a historical strand, set in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, revolving around Elizabeth I's court magician John Dee and his efforts to produce the philosopher's stone, and the Italian heretic and free-thinker Giordano Bruno, both of whom appear as characters in the last, unfinished novel by Fellowes Kraft, a Faraways native whose estate is placed in Rosie's, and later Pierce's, care.
Pierce's nominal reason for coming to the Faraway Hills is a contract to write a book about "the secret history of the world," which is also the Ægypt sequence's underlying theme and its driving concept. As Pierce explains to his agent,
"It's as though," he said, "as though there had once upon a time been a wholly different world, which worked in a way we can't imagine; a complete world, with all its own histories, physical laws, sciences to describe it, etymologies, correspondences. And then came a big change in all of them, a big change bound up with printing, and the discoveries of Copernicus and Kepler, and the Cartesian and Baconian ideals of mechanistic and experimental science. The new sciences were hugely successful; bit by bit they scrubbed away all the persisting structures of the old science; they even scrubbed away the actually very strange and magical way the world appeared to men like Kepler and Newton and Bruno. The whole old world we once inhabited is like a dream, a dream we forgot on waking, even though, as dreams do, it lingered on into all-awake thinking; and even now it lingers on, all around our world, in our thought, so that every day in little ways, little odd ways, we think like prescientific men, magicians, Pythagoreans, Rosicrucians, without knowing we do so."
In Crowley's hands, this metaphor for the shift from magical to scientific thinking is, in the grand tradition of genre writing, made literal. It is actually true, Pierce comes to believe, that the world was once different, that magic and alchemy were once real and potent. Then something changed—"Time's immense body now and then waking from sleep, shifting its massy limbs, disposing them differently, groaning, sleeping again." The old sciences lost their power—had always been powerless—and rational science took their place. In the course of his research, Pierce concludes that the transformation is about to happen again—the Ægypt sequence is in fact charting just such a period of change, from one history to another.
Beginnings are promises. The ones John Crowley makes in The Solitudes are substantial, and it is impossible to discuss the novel's effects without taking into consideration the ways in which Ægypt as a whole keeps, or fails to keep, those promises. After a fairly straightforward opening chapter, the series devolves into what is probably best described as a mass of digressions. In one of his earlier novels, 1979's Engine Summer, Crowley coins the term "snake's hand" as a description for a digression that takes on a life of its own. Taken as a whole, Ægypt might best be described as a millipede, with the narrative moving back and forth through Pierce's and Rosie's childhoods, telling the life stories of minor characters, following Dee and Bruno as they trudge across Europe and bounce from one patron to another. None of the the pieces are bad—this is writing by John Crowley, after all, and he avoids the pitfall, as he sadly failed to do in 2006's Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land, of regurgitating information for no reason other than to hear it repeated. In fact, most of them are quite good, but it seems woefully inadequate to say that they fail to come together into a whole. A stronger expression is required, something along the lines of there being nothing left, once one turns the final page in the Ægypt sequence, to hold onto, nothing but an impression of the series's gestalt effect.
That this is an intentional choice on Crowley's part is quite obvious, and one is made to feel almost uncouth for expecting anything else, for hoping for crescendos and conclusions, especially in light of the following warning, issued near The Solitudes's end by Pierce's former professor Frank Walker Barr, as he lectures students on "the History of History":
"Plot, logical development, conclusions prepared for by introductions, or inherent in a story's premise—logical completion as a vehicle of meaning—all that is later, not necessarily later in time, but belonging to a later, more sophisticated kind of literature. There are some interesting half-way kind of works, like The Faerie Queene, which set up for themselves a titanic plot, an almost mathematical symmetry of structure, and never finish it: never need to finish it, because they are at heart works of the older kind, and the pattern has already arisen satisfyingly within them, the flavor is already there."
If the flavor is already there, however, then so is an unpleasant aftertaste. It would be hard to fault a reader who comes to this passage, which seems so obviously to refer to Crowley's Ægypt, and wonders whether or why they ought to go on with the series—with thousands more pages devoted to achieving the same effect that has already "arisen satisfyingly." (One possible reason is "in order to read more stuff by John Crowley." This is a persuasive argument, and one which carried me about halfway into the third book, but no further.) A reader who does persist with the series will discover that there is very little in Ægypt that wasn't there in The Solitudes, and that the effect that the later novels—Love & Sleep (1994), Dæmonomania (2000), and Endless Things (2007)—have on the whole is not always salutary.
The components of Crowley's attempt at what Barr describes as a midpoint between epic storytelling and modern literature are, after all, the bog-standard makings of the naturalistic novel—unhappy, middle-class white Americans approaching middle age and struggling with the failed promise of their youth—and whereas in The Solitudes this juxtaposition of fantastic and mundane creates an interesting effect, as the series progresses it all but tears the story in half. Rosie, for example, makes some positive strides in The Solitudes by leaving her unpleasant, passive-aggressive husband and forging new relationships, but she spends the novel, as well as its two sequels, in a numb daze, unable to feel anything more than a sense of duty towards her daughter, or to return Spofford's smoldering affections. And then the narrative abandons her. When we rejoin Rosie in Endless Things, the spell has been lifted, her depression ended. She and Spofford get married and live happily ever after, which is gratifying for readers who have come to care for her, but was it really so unreasonable of us to expect to see the path from point A to point Z?
There are, however, worse things in store for The Solitudes's characters than having their most important emotional transformations take place off-page. At the end of The Solitudes, Pierce cuts a pathetic but mostly pitiable figure. He's a half-grown child, an extremely intelligent man who never amounted to anything because there's nothing he's ever worked to accomplish—he is surprised at being turned down for a faculty position which he has done very little to earn because "he had taken it for granted that this future would be offered him as a matter of course." Ostensibly a rational man, he is incapable of separating the fantastic, in which his childhood and academic career are steeped, from the mundane, of dealing with the real world and his disappointment in it on their own terms. Instead of trying to solve his problems in the real world, Pierce sinks into contemplation of fantastic solutions in whose existence he doesn't really believe—to name but one instance, he obsessively and quite seriously ponders what three wishes he might make, should the opportunity to make three wishes ever be offered him, without believing that that opportunity will ever come. He comes to the Faraways to escape a crushing romantic disappointment, and vows, like a lovelorn teenager or the protagonist of a particularly melodramatic romance, never to love again.
It is difficult to describe the mounting horror one feels as, over the course of the next two books, Pierce's immaturity curdles into a monstrous selfishness, as he strikes up a relationship with Rose Ryder that goes (on his end) from manipulative to needy to abusive, and culminates in an attempted rape. It is an emotion that can only be overwhelmed by disgust at the way Endless Things dumps Pierce into a prefabricated happy ending—not long after hitting rock bottom, he is picked up and dusted off by a smart, sensible woman whom the world has knocked about just often enough to make her give up on ever finding a man who deserves her, and willing to settle for a child instead of a husband. Pierce himself is so passive within that relationship—his abusive and self-destructive urges miraculously done away with—that he simply allows her to manage him, which seems to suit both characters very well. That Pierce and Rosie's journeys, or lack of same, are meant to mirror the series's central theme—that their sudden transformation, from sullen adults clinging to the last vestiges of their youths and to the dying embers of the sexual and social permissiveness of the period in which they came of age, to solid, middle-aged spouses and parents who have arrived at their angle of repose, is an illustration in miniature of the corresponding transformation of the world, of yet another movement away from wonder and magic, is by no means a consolation. The dissonance between the mathematically constructed philosophical treatise and the naturalistic novel of Baby Boomer angst is, by this point, too great—one can encompass one or other, but not both simultaneously.
These are, however, the reactions of a person who has read Ægypt as a whole, not the person who has just finished reading The Solitudes and has the rest of the series to look forward to. That person would say that Crowley strikes an interesting balance between the novel's fantastic and naturalistic elements, that the tension between these two modes, the way that the fantastic intrudes on the characters' mundane lives, not because magic is real in their world but because they still occasionally, as Pierce puts it, think like prescientific people, is a very fine illustration of the series's central theme. They might also go on to say that Crowley's refusal to commit to, well, a genre—to decide whether the secret history of the world is a metaphor or a reality—is a significant part of what makes The Solitudes successful. Unfortunately, that person is no longer here. They read the rest of Ægypt and were transformed into me, and were placed in the ridiculous position of writing a negative review of a novel they quite liked because its sequels were not so much bad as largely unnecessary, for the very reasons that Crowley puts in Frank Walker Barr's mouth—because the point of the series is its effect, not its conclusion. With a few minor alterations, I can easily imagine The Solitudes standing on its own as a contemplative, meandering, open-ended yet self-contained work.
Is The Solitudes a good book? Yes. Is it a novel? No. Does it make you want to read the rest of Ægypt? Yes. Is this a good thing? Sadly, no.