A book-length historical fantasy about a crow? On the surface, this may sound like a birdbrained idea. But consider its author: John Crowley is one of the finest writers of our time, author of the youthfully romantic "Little, Big"— the most admired American fantasy novel of the past 40 years — and "Aegypt," a four-volume philosophical masterwork touching on history, magic, sex and Gnosticism. Crowley has also published mainstream fiction, a handful of stories and novellas (including the dazzling Escher-like "Great Work of Time") and even an adaptation of the famous Renaissance allegory, "The Chemical Wedding."
Still, "Ka"— an exploration of the bond between the living and the dead — may be a challenge for some readers. First of all, it really is told largely from the viewpoint of a crow named Dar Oakley who, phoenixlike, undergoes periodic rebirth. In each of his incarnations he closely interacts and communicates with human characters who are all, more or less, shaman figures; these include a Druid priestess named Fox Cap, a medieval monk called the Brother, a Native American singer of tales, a Civil War widow turned medium, and the book's dying narrator, who lives in a near future when the world is falling apart. In each section, Crowley's avian hero accompanies his human friend on a journey into the realm of the dead.
In many cultures, crows have long been regarded as "death-birds." Eaters of carrion and corpses, they are sometimes even said to convey the soul into the afterlife. Crowley's title itself alludes to this notion: Dar Oakley croaks out "ka," which isn't just a variant spelling of "caw," but also the ancient Egyptian word for the spiritual self that survives the decay of the body. Yet what actually remains of us after our bones have been picked clean? Might our spirits then dwell in some Happy Valley or will we suffer in eternal torment? Could death itself be simply an adventure-rich dream from which we never awake? Who knows? The narrator, who might be a writer, says of his dead and much-missed wife Debra that "the ultimate continuation of her is me." What, however, becomes of Debra when he too is dead?
Time, Crowley knows, isn't just linear, it's stratified. Throughout his fiction he returns repeatedly to the notion of recollection, whether of past selves, lost wisdom or secret history. As the centuries roll by, Dar Oakley periodically realizes, "where he now was he had been before." In the medieval "Saint of the Foxes" the crow recognizes a distorted memory of his old friend, the priestess Fox Cap.
Because of her, Dar Oakley first entered the Other Lands, where the two searched for "the Most Precious Thing," the secret of eternal life. He alludes to his subsequent visits there with a distinctly Crowleyan image: "He knew how it would be: he would go into Ymr, and the farther in he went, the farther there would be to go. It was never the same place twice." In fact, as another crow reminds him, "you never do go back anywhere. You only go on." Later, Dar Oakley tells a skeleton that he can't find the thing that would keep him from death forever:
"Maybe not, said the Skeleton. But look at it this way. When you return home, you'll tell the story of how you sought it and failed, and that story will be told and told again. And when you're dead yourself, the story will go on being told, and in that telling you'll speak and act and be alive again."
This is, of course, the dream of all artists: immortality through their work.
Again and again, "Ka" depicts quiet loneliness — because Dar Oakley connects human and crow cultures he isn't quite at home in either — and achingly evokes the spring-fever of dawning love. Dar Oakley never forgets his beloved mate Kits (who turns out to be far more than she seems). He even reenacts the story of Orpheus and Eurydice when he tries to bring a later mate back into the world of the living.
As that suggests, "Ka" is nothing if not syncretic. More than a book of stories nested in stories, it is, as the Skeleton implied, a book about Story. Dar Oakley discovers that he himself is "inside a story, which was also inside him." The well read will pick up faint echoes and submerged allusions to, for example, Robert Graves's "The White Goddess," the Brazilian myths decoded by anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, the legendary voyages of Saint Brendan, the allegorical visions of William Blake, Native American legends, any number of bird and animal fables, striking lines from Christopher Marlowe and Walt Whitman, and, at one point, wordplay that recalls Wallace Stevens's famous poem about the snowman who beholds "nothing that is not there and the nothing that is."
In sum, "Ka" is just the kind of deeply moving, deeply personal "late work" that a great artist sometimes produces at the end of his or her career. I mustn't, however, close without indicating something of the serene beauty of Crowley's prose. Here, then, is a passage about the 19th-century Spiritualist view of death:
"Those who die happy in the company of their loved ones and in the home they know often can sense no passage at all between earthly and heavenly life, and can believe themselves still among the living: here is the flowered path to the familiar door, here are the remembered ones who went before us, in their habits as they lived; here the table is set, the good odors of sustenance; here the apple tree and the peach tree where once they were, bearing fruit."
Michael Dirda reviews books every Thursday for The Washington Post.
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By John Crowley. Illustrated by Melanie Newcomb
Saga. 464 pp. $28.99