Reviewed by Bill Sheehan
Sunday, June 3, 2007
By John Crowley
Small Beer. 341 pp. $24
John Crowley's Endless Things is the fourth and last installment in a vast, intricate series of novels collectively entitled "Aegypt." The series (which is really one long novel) began in 1987 with the publication of Aegypt (soon to be reissued as The Solitudes) and was followed by Love & Sleep (1994) and Daemonomania (2000). It was clear from the start that Crowley was on to something special, and the appearance of this final volume confirms that impression. In its entirety, "Aegypt" stands as one of the most distinctive accomplishments of recent decades. It is a work of great erudition and deep humanity that is as beautifully composed as any novel in my experience.
Endless Things concludes the story of Pierce Moffitt, a teacher and historian who leaves his painfully disordered city life for the pastoral solitude of the Faraway Hills. There, surrounded by friends, lovers and assorted castoffs from the '60s, Pierce embarks on a new, though no less complicated, life and begins writing a book based on a radical new theory of history. This theory posits that, at infrequent intervals, the nature of the world changes in fundamental ways. As one age ends, the world moves through a kind of passage time, settling finally into a new age dominated by new and different laws, laws that unfold retroactively into the past. Thus, a world that is -- and always has been -- governed by physics might give way to a world that is -- and always has been -- governed by magic. There is, Crowley tells us, "more than one history of the world."
This view of history receives some unexpected support when Pierce encounters an unfinished manuscript by the late historical novelist Ffellowes Kraft. Kraft's novel describes an alternate 16th century on the brink of its own passage time. At the center of the tale are a pair of actual historical figures: John Dee, the Elizabethan scholar/alchemist who spent much of his life attempting to communicate with angels, and Giordano Bruno, the Dominican monk who first conceived the idea of an infinite universe and whose "heresies" led to his death at the stake in 1600. Dee, Bruno and Pierce have one thing in common: They are all seekers after Meaning, and their intertwined stories reflect and illuminate each other in countless large and small ways.
By the time Endless Things begins, many of the narrative's central events have already occurred in earlier volumes. Dee, deserted by his angels, has settled into an old age marked by poverty and neglect. Bruno, after reaching the zenith of his notoriety, has fallen into the hands of the Inquisition. And Pierce, laboring away on a book he can never finish, has barely survived a lacerating love affair and has played a crucial role in rescuing a very important young girl from a predatory religious cult. In some respects, Endless Things becomes an extended aftermath, a valedictory that encompasses the end of one age and the beginning of the next. In the process, it offers a fresh, sometimes revisionist perspective on all that has gone before, brings back a gallery of familiar characters and adds a few new ones to the mix.
Familiar faces from earlier volumes include Brent Spofford, Vietnam vet turned shepherd; Rosie Rasmussen, Pierce's friend and occasional employer; Sam, Rosie's epileptic daughter; and Axel Moffitt, Pierce's wonderfully eccentric father. Also making a final, enigmatic appearance is one of my favorite characters, Frank Walker Barr, professor of history and author of "Time's Body," a book that doesn't exist in the world outside the novel, but should. Of the new characters, the most significant is Roo Corvino, a feisty female car dealer who provides Pierce with a gateway to the larger world -- the larger life -- that has always eluded him.
The search for a larger, more expansive way of living stands at the heart of this complex collection of nested narratives. John Dee dedicates his life to the search for angelic presences and magical transformations, while Bruno chooses to burn rather than accept the tiny, imprisoning universe of religious and scientific orthodoxy. Prison cells, real and symbolic, appear throughout the novel. Bruno spends the years before his death in one such cell. Pierce, adrift and imprisoned in another age, makes a pilgrimage to that same cell. For these men, the theory of cyclical historical change that Pierce uncovers becomes, in the end, a source of solace and hope, for if the universe is capable of endless change, then so are we.
In Endless Things, Crowley finally allows his long-suffering characters to leave their respective prisons and enter the "limitless common day" that awaits them. Following their slow, uncertain progress through the course of four large volumes has been a deep -- and inexhaustible -- pleasure.
Bill Sheehan is the author of "At the Foot of the Story Tree" and co-editor of the recent anthology "Lords of the Razor."