The Fantasy Man

The Strange Brilliance of John Crowley

When I was nineteen, I bought a paperback copy of John Crowley’s Little, Big in an English bookstore. I had been reading a lot of the Victorian fantasist George MacDonald, and was searching for copies of his fairy tales in the science fiction and fantasy aisle. Though I’d read science fiction and fantasy steadily through childhood, at nineteen I believed (wrongly) that I’d outgrown it. I suffered from the English major’s sense that such genres were best left behind for more sophisticated fare. But here was a promisingly thick book by a writer unknown to me, with an endorsement from Ursula LeGuin, the acclaimed American author of the Earthsea Trilogy, on the front cover.

Despite the microscopic print of the English paperback edition, I found Little, Big (1981) immediately engrossing. Start with the marvelous names of the characters-Daily Alice Drinkwater, Smoky Barnable, and the oracular Grandfather Trout. Add the rattling big house, an architectural sample in multiple styles. Finally, top it off with the fairies, Arthur Rackham-inspired creatures, familiar from the illustrations to old editions of Peter Pan and The Wind in the Willows. The fairies had escaped from Kensington Gardens into Crowley’s America. Having grown up on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and on the great British writers for children, I couldn’t help being Anglophilic in my taste for fiction. Little, Big was unique in my reading experience, a thoroughly American fictional world that touched the realms of faerie without mechanical aids (though there’s a very cool perpetual-motion machine in the attic). I loved the book. I read it in huge gulps, like draughts of American lemonade after a diet of English lemon squash. In the same year, I first read Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, and although in later life I went on to teach Rushdie’s important novel on many occasions, it was Little, Big that shone like a ruby at the bottom of the jumbled sack of that year’s discovered literary treasures.

Like the perpetual-motion machine that Crowley spins into life in the following passage, the novel itself had mysterious staying power:

Far upstairs, as silently as the stars it modeled, the orrery turned, passing its tiny but unresistable motion through many oiled brass gears to give impetus to the twenty-four-handed fly-wheel, shut up once again in its black case but delivering its own force to generators, which in turn fed the house with light and power, and would go on doing so until all the jeweled bearings, all the best quality nylon and leather belts, all the hardened-steel points themselves wore away: years and years, Smoky supposed. The house, his house, as though from the effects of a tonic, had perked up, refreshed and strengthened; its basements had dried, its attics were ventilated; the dust that had filled it had been sucked up by a potent and ancient whole-house vacuum-cleaner whose existence in the walls of the house Smoky had vaguely known about but which no one had thought would ever work again; even the crack in the music-room ceiling seemed on the way to healing, though why was a mystery to Smoky. The old stocks of hoarded light-bulbs were brought out, and Smoky’s house alone, the only one for miles, was lit up continuously, like a beacon or the entrance to a ballroom.

Weird, though: no one had heard of John Crowley’s gem, not even the wonky science-fiction readers I knew. No one had his earlier books either, cheap SF editions which had basically disappeared. But I managed to track down several of them in used bookstores, and I was off and running.

Along with the early masterpieces of Toni Morrison (Sula and Song of Solomon), Little, Big made me a reader of American fiction, and I have been reading Crowley devotedly for over twenty years now. His novels are consistently interesting, often quite funny, and sometimes downright thrilling. For a writer burdened by a relationship to a lowbrow subgenre, Crowley commands numerous modes and moods; the fantasy reader and the avid consumer of psychological realism, the adventure lover and the connoisseur of words, all find satisfaction in his fictional worlds. Some avert their eyes from the mystical enthusiasm of Little, Big, preferring him in his less exuberant mode-as in his recent novella The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines, an understated love story that centers on the aftermath of the 1950s polio epidemic, or The Translator, a restrained but emotionally resonant novel, set in a Midwestern college town during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, portraying the relationship between an exiled Russian poet and the American college student who translates his work.

The long view of Crowley’s career shows him following his muse, the muse of Ariosto and Edmund Spenser, sixteenth-century authors of Orlando Furioso and The Faerie Queene, respectively. The muse of Renaissance romancers still inspires serious fiction, but rarely: among contemporaries the Welsh Catholic novelist Alice Thomas Ellis and American Michael Chabon, author of Summerland and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, may have heard her promptings. Crowley transcends the label of fantasy writer in part because many fantasy readers also have an appetite for the old-fashioned romancers. Perhaps that explains why my own first reading experience of Crowley was so gratifying; Little, Big made me feel like an initiate into mysteries who didn’t, suddenly, have to give up her ordinary identity in order to join.

It isn’t exactly easy being one of America’s most underappreciated novelists, and Crowley supported himself for many years with a full-fledged career in documentary filmmaking. He currently has a teaching gig at Yale University, where several of his most famous fans had a hand in getting him a post. Yet he is no creature of the academy. Crowley’s language vibrates with the passionate wordy energies of the autodidact and the amateur scholar. His characters are not only built out of words, but they make language seem like a force, a power that can be channeled and abused. The Translator persuasively (and movingly) examines the intimacy of the act of translation, as well as the resonances of culture and history that inhere in particular words. Never as loony in his morphing of the English language as Russell Hoban in his Riddley Walker mode or Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange, Crowley has his own modest collection of coinages and reanimated discourses: the “thought-stream” of Giordano Bruno, the “Otherhood,” “infundibular” worlds. Indeed, he shares his magpie word collection with his character Will Shakespeare, in a book inside a book in the novel Ægypt (1987):

Will, grown tall and earnest looking, played the pedant Rhombus, a stock comedy character he was good at: pedants and scholars with mouthfuls of inkhorn terms he alone of the boys could commit easily to memory. Let me delicidate the very intrinsical maribone of the matter. Well-spoken, Doctor, I see you have your degree magister artis. I do, if it please your Majesty (sweeping a low bow, with a hand to the crick in his old pedant’s back), I have it honorificabilitudinitatibus. The queen laughed aloud at that, a word he had used to rattle out to make Simon Hunt laugh at Stratford School; and after the play she reviewed the Boys, and stopped before Will, a head higher almost than his fellows, a red-haired head.

If there is a bit of the smell of the inkhorn about Crowley, it comes from a longstanding commitment to the period of great vocabulary innovation, the Renaissance. His interest in the Renaissance arts of memory, in alchemy, hermeticism, and the allegorical representations of emblems all find their way into his fiction, begetting strange juxtapositions of words and worlds. The large-scale ambition of his imagination perhaps explains why fantasy and historical fiction have been such fruitful modes for him. Bold worldmaking is something he shares with other fantasy and science-fiction writers, though they are rarely his equal in other areas of craft. Perhaps only Philip Pullman among contemporary fantasists is a true peer, in the His Dark Materials trilogy. Michael Chabon, a Crowley admirer, is his equal in the evocation of particularly American scenes. Too demanding and literary to achieve bestseller status, Crowley’s fiction has garnered decades of respectful reviews and a loyal readership, including some very famous fans, such as Yale literary critic Harold Bloom. Nonetheless, Crowley remains obscure. (I once heard him comment with wry self-deprecation on his fan base: “They come up and tell you, ‘You’re one of my two favorite authors.’ Believe me, you don’t want to know their other favorite writer!”)

Though readers with a taste for postmodernism find Crowley’s fiction congenial, he’s really an ontological maker in an older sense, a romancer. But he’s not at all fusty. He writes women characters well. He has an excellent feel (perhaps related to those documentary films) for period details. In The Translator, for example, one character refers to his lachrymose sister as “Old Goofy Glass.” As a touch of characterization, it’s typical Crowley. There are both exasperation and affection for his weepy character in the epithet of a leaking trick glass, but also a sure placement of image and idiom, a typically deft handling of the resonance of objects to embody a period, a place, and a mood.

In Crowley’s fiction, time and place are deep coordinates, perhaps especially when the times are remote and the places traditional. He’s a novelist with topoi: the road, the walled garden, the makeshift student apartment, and the long-haul bus all carry their freight of theme as capably as do his highly original and psychologically convincing characters. In Crowley’s hands, the combined time/space of Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin’s chronotope becomes a leaping-off point for utterly original worldmaking. His New York City in Little, Big must exist somewhere, with its tenements containing a full-fledged working farm, and the Seventh Saint Bar and Grill, and the transworld couriers of the Wingéd Messenger Service. Crowley adopts fairy-tale plots but resists the prefab directions embedded in their topoi.

To readers who might not be prone to pick up a novel about magic, the author himself suggests a way into his fiction. As he told journalist Richard Gehr in a 1994 interview, “One of the values of magic, the humanist-magical option, is to say that man is really here to learn, to understand everything, and to gain powers from nature because God has provided nature to give powers to man.” One way of reading Crowley’s career would be to observe how he strives, in all his modes of writing, to restore meaning, combat indifference, and put the ghost back into the machine. Crowley honors human striving in his psychologically convincing characters. Their actions, choices, failures, belated understandings: these he represents as consequential-even if readers, not God, are the only observers.

Though his characters struggle with faith and doubt, Crowley is not exactly a religious writer. Born in 1942, he grew up in Vermont and later Kentucky, where his father, a physician, took a postwar job in a Catholic hospital. In that remote town, the Crowley children were tutored by a nun and studied books that arrived in crates; later the family relocated to Indiana, where Crowley’s father was a physician at Notre Dame. In his late teens, the future novelist rejected Catholicism. He is on record as finding the church insufficiently mysterious, quoting Sir Thomas Browne, “Methinks there be not impossibilities enough in Religion for an active faith.” Crowley persists in favoring mysteries over dogmatism and quests for knowledge over settled explanations. Several of his novels, including Little, Big (1981) and the three-quarters-complete tetralogy-comprised so far of Ægypt, Love & Sleep (1994), and Dæmonomania (2000)-take on the task of making up worlds endowed with sufficient spiritual and ontological complexities to render religion mysterious enough for active seeking, if not for settled faith.

His struggle with his childhood Catholicism works itself out in unusual ways in fictions, more wistful than hostile, which show the inadequacies of traditional faith stimulating fruitful invention rather than denunciation. Indeed, in an early story, “Novelty,” a writer pitches an idea to his wary publisher: he proposes to write “a sort of a Catholic novel,” but not the tired stuff about “the nuns, the weird rules, all that decayed scholastic guff.” Instead, the writer’s novel sets out to recover a church “coextensive with the world,” made of real things, “objects, places, words, sights, smells, days.” This religion, and indeed the novels that invent it, the writer declares, would aim at perceiving the real world “in a sacramental way.”

To pull this off in his own fiction, Crowley needed magic and fairies. A gnostic sensibility and working magic thus became vital elements of many of his invented worlds, which is why he has mostly been considered a writer of fantasy fiction. Crowley’s magic goes beyond fairies and tarot decks (though it includes them) to embrace aspects of Renaissance hermeticism, the belief in ancient magical wisdom that can be discovered by initiates through alchemical, cryptographic, and numerological research. Crowley marshals a cast of historical characters-including Renaissance mage John Dee, Giordano Bruno, and Friedrich Barbarossa-to the stage of novels that also represent contemporary American life, where sectarian divisions threaten the safety of children, and where the recovery of a right relationship to magic and history may offer an opportunity to heal the broken world.

Crowley’s Ægypt tetralogy exploits these rich resources of time, place, and arcane knowledge with special brilliance. I encountered the first volume of the series back in graduate school, during an afternoon of day-dreaming errantry in the bookstores of Harvard Square. To all appearances Ægypt was a quite mainstream-looking book of contemporary fiction, and I approached it with a little trepidation, like a country music fan whose favorite singer has a crossover hit. Bound to be disappointing, I thought. I took the book up to Room Z of Child Library, a hidey-hole at the top of Widener Library. And there I entered a zone of guilty pleasure. Ægypt had Renaissance hermeticism! It had Doctor Dee! (John Dee [1527-1608], mathematician, founder of the Rosicrucians, astrologer to Queen Elizabeth, alchemist, and adept, whose obsidian scrying stone is in the British Museum.) Crowley’s book had Doctor Dee taking a photograph of Shakespeare with a primitive camera! But it also had the Appalachian hill culture that I knew from my western Pennsylvania childhood.

At the time I think I would have said it was the uncanny Renaissance historical fiction-really quite a lot better than British novelist and biographer Peter Ackroyd’s later version of the same turf, in The House of Doctor Dee-that I liked best about Ægypt. In retrospect it was the bookishness inside the book, the story of how a reader comes into being (like the part in The Prelude where Wordsworth lets you see his childhood reading), which grounded Ægypt in something totally right and recognizable for me. For the second time in my reading life, Crowley had written a novel I would remember as one of that year’s most glittering finds.

Having read Crowley’s fiction for more than two decades now, I confidently look forward to more surprises and confirmations in the pages of his novels. Twice in the past six years he has interrupted the completion of his tetralogy to take on other challenges: first with his lyrical novel of the Cuban missile crisis, The Translator, and just last year with another historical fiction, Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land, which reconstructs a lost Byron text in capable pastiche, rejuvenating the romance of the archive with a quest into the codes which unlock hidden inventions of the past for our discovery. The novel opens with a Web page about Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace (1815-52), founder of scientific computing and friend of Charles Babbage (1791-1871), the inventor of the calculating Difference Engine. In Crowley’s imagined world, even the fictive spaces of our online lives lend themselves to symbolic revisions that reinstill mystery and invite the recovery of secret histories. He’s by no means done ringing the changes on his carillion of materials. Like his own fabulous, protean, and ever-unfolding career, Crowley’s faux Web page promisingly cautions: “Page still under construction.”

Published in the 2006-08-11 issue: 

Suzanne Keen is the Thomas H. Broadus Professor of English at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.

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