February 13, 2008

Tales from the Completist: "The Solitudes," by John Crowley

(Just like anyone else who is a lover of great books, I find myself sometimes with a desire to become a "completist" of certain authors; that is, to have read every book that author has ever written. This series of essays chronicles that attempt. Don't forget, a list of all the other books reviewed as part of this series can be found on CCLaP's main book review page.)

The Solitudes (1987; revised in 2007)
By John Crowley
The Overlook Press / ISBN: 978-1-58567-986-7

So to even begin understanding today's essay, you need to first understand the following -- that what we now know as modern "science," back when it was invented in the 1500s, was in fact mostly a religious pursuit when it was first created. See, such deep thinkers back then ultimately wanted to be closer to God, and that led them to closely studying the way that God works out in nature; and since they wanted to share these discoveries with other deep thinkers, and be able to reproduce the discoveries in other environments around the world, a whole set of systematic rules started getting developed for how to perform and record such observations. And thus did the entire thing start resembling the "scientific process" we know today (form a theory; test it under unbiased conditions that can be reproduced by anyone; share your findings no matter what they are); and thus did such a process have less and less to do with religion over the centuries, with such "scientists" deliberately drubbing out such former mystical elements of their profession as alchemy so as to get the public to take them more seriously.

The Solitudes, by John Crowley

But was it in fact a mistake to drub out such metaphysical elements from what we now know as science? Did in fact the deep thinkers of humanity before the Renaissance have a different understanding of the way the world works, precisely by combining science with mysticism in the way they did back then, and did the deep thinkers of the Renaissance actually ruin something for humanity by separating the two topics? That's the question at the heart of John Crowley's The Solitudes, part 1 of a four-book cycle known officially as "Ægypt" (or "AEgypt" as I'll be calling it for the remainder of today's essay, to better accommodate those on web devices that cannot display special characters), a book which originally came out in 1987 but just last year received a major reworking and publishing. It is a frustrating book, I'll warn you right off the bat -- a dense, thick, scholarly novel, written in a style meant to sometimes deliberately confuse the reader, with a pacing that can drive you crazy at points and a storyline that is constantly flying at least a little bit right over your head. But it's also one of the most fascinating books I've read in years as well, a book that proposes ideas I've never heard another fantastical author even mention, ideas that literally take a lifetime of academic study to produce in the first place. It's a confusing book that elicits all kinds of shifting emotions in me that are hard to pin down; all of those things are of course going to end up affecting what I have to say about it today.

For example, let's start with just the surface-level plot itself; it is ostensibly the story of Pierce Moffett, a burned-out '60s history professor now muddling through life in the late '70s when our story takes place, who at the beginning of the book is just finishing up a disastrous few years in New York City, teaching at a hipster college in Brooklyn and living with a cunning and beautiful coke dealer in a concrete-lined condo in midtown Manhattan, going deeply into debt to support both the lifestyle the girlfriend brings and to help finance the illegal schemes she's constantly in the middle of cooking up. All of the elements just mentioned have recently blown up in Pierce's face, which is what finds him traveling by bus at the beginning of the novel to attend an interview at a precious private college in the northeast boonies; but right in the middle of the trip the bus breaks down, by complete coincidence in the picturesque upstate New York town of Faraway Hills, where by complete and utter coincidence an old '60s radical friend of his is now living and raising sheep. And thus does Pierce ditch the unmade interview and decide to relocate to Faraway Hills instead; and thus does he attend a series of precious small-town events like annual town-wide croquet matches and hot-air balloon races; and thus does Pierce ring up an ex-girlfriend who's now a literary agent and propose a new job for himself -- as the author of a series of Tolkien-style "Chariot of the Gods" type fantasy novels, so trendily popular in the late '70s, positing a world in which ancient races in mythical cities actually carved out the world we now know, just to fall into obscurity and to be forgotten in modern times.

Ah, but here's the first big complication -- that Pierce isn't kidding about any of the stuff being proposed, and in fact sees himself as writing a nonfiction historical book, simply passing it off as escapist fantasy fluff so that he won't have to go back to being a professor. In fact, Pierce's belief in such a secret past (and subsequent belief in the aforementioned AEgypt, his alternative version of Egypt that like Atlantis has now been lost to modern humans) has been a theory he's been forming since a child, a nerdy and scholarly child in rural Kentucky who used to pore through random books by the boxful because of hating his environment so much. And in this, then, you can see the entire AEgypt cycle as not just a series of highly trippy fantastical novels, just like the literary beard Pierce is using within the book itself, but also as the ultimate romantic ode to scholars and academes, those who nobly devote their lives to arcane ivory-tower pursuits, those who take the time to properly cite sources in an academic style and have all their papers go through a peer review, and all those other highly formal steps of the academic world that have literally been around since the time of monks a thousand years ago. After all, it is only through decades of such a life in the book that Pierce is even able to begin understanding AEgypt in a complex way for the first time; it is his obsessive love for such barely-known Renaissance figures as Giordano Bruno, John Dee, Edward Kelly and more that eventually leads him to the road of enlightenment in the first place.

And this leads us to the next big complication about The Solitudes -- that it's not just a trippy modern fantastical/academic novel speculating on events from the early Renaissance, but half the manuscript is an actual early-Renaissance story unto itself, a fictional look back at all the real people mentioned above, showing the "what actually happened" story of why this secret world of AEgypt was abandoned. And this wouldn't necessarily be that bad, except that Crowley completely switches stylistic gears in these sections; the language itself becomes a lot more obtuse, the sentence structure a lot more flowery, exactly like you would expect from a Renaissance tale but a jarring shift when you happen to be in the middle of a trippy modern one. In fact, Crowley does a similar thing a number of times throughout the book that I just did not care for at all, which is to do jarringly clever things just for the sake of being jarringly clever, just to bring the flow of the story to a complete and utter halt while he takes the time to scream to the reader, "LOOK AT HOW F--KING CLEVER I'M BEING HERE! LOOK, LOOK!" I don't like it when authors do this; I don't like it when they deliberately take me out of the story to remind me of what a delicate little literary genius they are.

But that said, I also know that there are also other ways of looking at the issue, and that there are going to be lots of readers out there who will love Crowley's personal style for the same reasons it sometimes drives me a little batsh-t. Not to mention that I still find the whole thing rather compelling when all is said and done; compelling enough, anyway, that I ended up finishing the novel, and am also now planning on reading the other three books of this tetralogy. Because that's the ultimate thing to emphasize about The Solitudes, the thing most important about the book and is what led Harold Bloom to listing it in his infamous Western canon list; that much like all the best writers in history, Crowley puts all these elements together so that their total is much larger than a mere sum of their parts, a flabbergasting epic that ingeniously manages to tie together such disparate elements as medieval Hermetic cults, hippie astrologers, the east-coast drug scene of the '60s and '70s, Freemasonry and the founding of America, and even (no kidding) the Fifth Dimension hit "Age of Aquarius." (By the way, Bloom also called Crowley's earlier book Little, Big one of the five-best novels on the planet by a living writer...but that's another essay for another day.)

Along the way, though -- and this might be the most interesting thing about The Solitudes of all -- Crowley posits an instantly fascinating theory that I have literally never heard another speculative author ever posit (and I've read a lot of speculative authors); that in a world where there really is this mythical "lost" past of humanity, maybe the most important thing to be lost there is a certain intellectual insight about the world such people had, not any kind of actual "magic" that did or did not exist in such mythical past societies. That like the past mythical stories we can now confirm as naturally-occuring elements of the universe (for example, angry gods actually being solar eclipses), maybe such "magic" in these past tales of Atlantis and the like actually have solid scientific explanations to them too, only that we modern humans no longer have the intellectual capacity to understand them. That maybe the combination of science and alchemy and religion and mysticism during the Middle Ages, for example, was ultimately a good thing, and that the separation of the subjects by proto-scientists during the Renaissance was ultimately detrimental; that if they hadn't done so, maybe by our times we would actually have a scientific explanation behind ESP and telekinesis, maybe we could figure out how to actually travel faster than light. And that things like astrology and people like psychics, these are our last modern connections to that entire plateau of human understanding we've now forgotten, more superstition than real now but sometimes getting it right; and that, Crowley argues, is why people like psychics and astrologers actually do get things sometimes freakishly right, is that they are the last people on the planet even remotely tuned into these insights that everyone used to have thousands and thousands of years ago.

I've heard elements of such a theory put forth by a whole series of interesting authors now, but I've never seen someone put it all together into a grand storyline quite like Crowley does; it ultimately made me forgive his moments of stylistic masturbation, as well as sometimes maddening pace that starts and stops like a 16-year-old learning how to drive. I can honestly say it is a book utterly unlike any other I've ever read, not even close to any other book I've read; and when you're a heavy reader like me, just this simple fact alone is worth noting and celebrating, no matter what your opinion of the work itself. It is a book virtually worshipped by its most passionate fans, a book definitely worth your time, but one that will profoundly challenge all but the most hardcore of academes; all of these things should be kept in mind before picking it up yourself.

Read even more about The Solitudes: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 2:07 PM, February 13, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |