The confluence of gnosticism and sexual bondage, Christian fundamentalism and New Age magic seems a brazen subject for a Great American Novel. But John Crowley’s work has always explored the irruption of the supernatural—even the divine—into everyday American lives.
The author of six previous novels, including one beloved classic, Little, Big, Crowley is something of an enigma, a writer whose cult following includes critics such as Harold Bloom and The Washington Post‘s Michael Dirda. His work is unabashedly extravagant: Little, Big is a New England family saga in which the family has married into the secret commonwealth of fairies. Like the Velvet Underground’s first album, Little, Big initially mesmerized a relatively small audience, but in the nearly two decades since it appeared its influence has been considerable, on writers from Mark Helprin to Neil Gaiman.
Crowley raised the stakes considerably with the publication of Ægypt, the first book of a multivolume sequence to which it has given its name. An intense, sprawling, occasionally pixilated work, Ægypt may prove to be one of the high-water marks of fin de siècle American literature. The first novel in the trilogy was followed by 1994’s Love & Sleep, and now Dæmonomania (a fourth and final novel is yet to come). Ægypt encompasses a sort of alternate American history, in which the psychic and sexual explorations of the 1960s and 1970s succeeded in creating a blueprint for shattering, perhaps apocalyptic, change in the world we know.
The protagonist of all three books is Pierce Moffett, a thirtysomething history instructor who, like Dante, finds himself midway in the journey of his life lost in a dark wood. We first meet Pierce when he is marooned in the village of Blackbury Jambs. There, Pierce begins to unfold the mysteries of his craft.
In his first career as a teacher at a small New York City college, Pierce was a counterculture instructor who combined nascent New Age theology with established historical and scientific theory. “He began to think that even though magic, and science, and religion did not all ‘mean the same thing,’ they all ‘meant in the same way.’ ” Through Pierce’s speculations, Crowley articulates the idea that “the world has a plot,” that “there is more than one history of the world.”
As the first volume unfolded, it promised to reveal that plot. A manuscript discovered by Pierce introduces an alternative story line, involving the tangled lives of several historical figures—Dr. John Dee, Giordano Bruno, and Edward Kelley, sorcerers and heretics and magicians manqué in 16th-century Europe. Initially this Renaissance story line appears to be a picturesque conceit, secondary to the romantic and domestic entanglements of the residents of Blackbury Jambs, whose misadventures have the offbeat appeal of Shakespearean comedy cast as a Bill Forsyth film. Of these contemporary characters, the most memorable are the feckless Rosie Rasmussen, a single mother whose daughter suffers from seizures, and Rose Ryder, the even more feckless young woman who in Dæmonomania becomes Pierce’s lover and fellow adept.
Love & Sleep continued in this vein, although with more backstory detailing Pierce’s Kentucky childhood, which makes for one of the more convoluted narratives since Tristam Shandy. In Dæmonomania, the notion that there is more than one history of the world takes on ominous overtones, as the link between Pierce’s life and those of the Renaissance magicians he is reading (and writing) about becomes darker and more disturbing.
As Dæmonomania opens, Rose and Pierce are engaged in a series of sexual encounters involving bondage and discipline. Gradually it becomes clear that their ritualized sex play is an attempt on Pierce’s part to work real magic. Like Giordano Bruno and Dr. Dee, Pierce seeks universal knowledge and power over others; like them, he discovers that attainment of that knowledge and power comes at a terrible personal cost.
While Pierce is striving to unravel the secret history of the world, his own world is going to hell. Rosie Rasmussen’s ex-husband, now involved with a fundamentalist Christian cult called the Powerhouse, makes plans to gain custody of their daughter so that she can be “cured” by the cult’s leader. Worse, Rose Ryder has been seduced by the same cult and leaves Pierce to live with members of the Powerhouse. In the aftermath of their breakup, Pierce himself starts to show signs of cracking up—or is it that his experiments in changing the fabric of reality have actually worked?
And what would he tell her. . . . How he had messed with magic for his own delight, to get for himself what he wanted but should not have had, and in consequence had harmed irretrievably the world, “the world,” like a kid with a chemistry set who by chance learns to crystallize or liquefy the bonds of space and time, a process beginning at his own Bunsen burner in his own basement and proceeding outward exponentially. Stop oh stop. Horror and wonder.
Crowley’s work has always drawn on Shakespeare, from the hierarchic fairies in Little, Big to the Midsummer Night’s Dream doubleness of Ægypt‘s Rose and Rosie, both of whom sleep with Pierce (who in Dæmonomania finds himself at a costume party, wearing an ass’s head). There are echoes of other books as well: The Golden Ass of Apuleius; the Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg’s Renaissance studies Ecstasies and The Night Battles.
But as Dæmonomania‘s story turns increasingly melancholy and often bleak, it returns to the Shakespearean model—not Midsummer lyricism, but problem comedies like The Winter’s Tale and Measure for Measure, with their dark sexual situations and imprisoned heroines. At the end of Dæmonomania, Pierce is preparing to visit Europe, following the trail of Bruno and Dee. If the Shakespearean model holds, Crowley’s best work is before him, with Ægypt‘s final volume perhaps taking a cue from The Tempest, and Pierce making the jump from callow adept to magisterial Prospero.
As disturbing as it is compelling, Dæmonomania occasionally loses its way. Yet it is also a book to get utterly lost in. Like a magus, John Crowley shares his secrets generously, allowing us to believe that his book is revealing the true and glorious nature of the world, and the reader’s own place within it.