John Crowley – Aegypt: The Solitudes (1987)

aegypt

8/10, 426 p.

Aegypt seems not so much a novel but more like an intellectual investigation. Like Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco or the stories by Jose Luis Borges, Crowley spends many pages on exploring intellectual ideas about forgotten history. His antagonist is an historian who ruminates about books like Dante’s divine comedy, and he comes to believe that the very laws of nature were once different, and that the inverted idea of earth as the center of the universe was true once, and that magical powers once existed. In this book series, the world once again turns towards such a state of the universe.

I suspect that publishing houses have no idea how to handle a book like this. Crowley doesn’t really stick to genres but since this book has an element of the magical in it, it is seen as fantasy, but it is very understated and speculative. It is mostly about older people in mid-life crises, set against a backdrop of a return of magic to the human world. Which makes it hard to sell from the get-go, especially to legions of young readers still enamored by YA coming of age stories.

Not only that, but this book is part one of a meandering, four-book series that not only is very vague in its content, but is simultaneously following a very strict setup, like, each book follows a season and signs of the zodiac and this first book is about spring. About beginnings, meaning that you’d need to read the whole series to get the proper import of the story. This sounds like a giant commitment with unsure results, and indeed many people who have read the whole series have come out disappointed. They report that this series has no proper ending and that it is more about the journey and the moods that Crowley evokes. If that is so, then why bother with the whole thing.

Ok, where does that leave us? I bought this book, not knowing that it was the first part of a series because it was treated as a single entry in Gollancz’s Fantasy Masterworks imprint. I’m going to read the first book anyway, even though it is more like a promise of a story than a real proper story. But I know how good Crowley can be, and maybe it would be worth it for only the prose itself.

Oh and it is! Crowley’s writing is magical. It is like Crowley is holding many thoughts at the same time in his head while writing, thinking about the characters, the themes and the flow of paragraphs simultaneously, and forging beautiful passages with ease. It is witty, intelligent and draws you right in. It is worth reading for the prose alone, and for the characterization of Pierce Moffett, the main character. Whatever idea Crowley wants to investigate, he packages it in a heavy layer of intellectual and emotional depth, and it really raises a sense of wonder.

Having said that, this is not a ‘fantasy’ masterwork. It is a literary work that wanders a lot and is mostly about people ruminating about their past, about books and failed relationships. Strangely, it seems dated. It feels like it belongs to the 70s and hippie mysticism and drugs and sexuality. You may wonder what the point of the book is, and Crowley made it very meta, with how the history of humanity and the personal history of his characters develop in same way, and it is about a guy writing a vague book that is almost the book that we are holding in our hands.

The great problem is that there is no discernible plot and the whole thing runs out of steam quickly. If Crowley’s writing style wasn’t so good, I would have put it away halfway through.

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