Time’s book critic Lev Grossman made a splash on this week’s NYT bestseller list, debuting at number nine in the hardcover fiction category with his second novel, The Magicians. The book has gotten a healthy publicity push, but strong sales numbers also suggest that readers are responding to its hook: “a kind of Harry Potter for grown-ups.” I haven’t read The Magicians yet, but its premise – the academic and extracurricular adventures of a contemporary East Coast Wizard – puts me in mind of an unjustly neglected fictional opus: John Crowley’s Aegypt Cycle.
After Matt Ruff chose Aegypt for our 2007 Year in Reading, I picked up the first novel in Crowley’s tetralogy and was hooked. Wands and fairies – er, faeries – were never my thing, but I probably learned more about magic, myth, and historiography than I would have from any work of nonfiction this side of Joseph Campbell. Moreover, Crowley is a beguiling stylist, a constructor of Joycean intertextual games, and (ultimately) a passionate humanist. For several years, The Solitudes, Love & Sleep, and Daemonomania were out of print, but now Overlook Press has brought them back into print, and Small Beer Press has published the concluding volume, Endless Things.
The Times points to an interview where Grossman muses about “all the things that were missing from J. K. Rowling’s Y.A. series, from sex and booze to . . . fantasy novels”; those are the very sorts of inclusions that make Aegypt so rewarding. This is not to undermine the originality of Grossman’s approach; rather, it is to demonstrate one of Crowley’s big ideas: that we make new stories, and new magic, out of the old.
Bonus Link: Michael Dirda on Aegypt in The American Scholar.
Matt Ruff is the author of Fool on the Hill, the award-winning Set This House in Order, and, most recently, Bad Monkeys.This year, while millions of Harry Potter fans celebrated and mourned the end of their favorite series, a much smaller but no less devoted group of readers marked another literary milestone: the publication of the last book in John Crowley’s Aegypt Cycle.We’d been waiting a long time. The first book, originally called Aegypt and later rechristened The Solitudes, was published in 1987. I was just 22 years old then, fresh out of college and awaiting publication of my own first novel. I was already a fan of Crowley’s work, in particular his fantasy Little, Big, and I picked up The Solitudes eagerly when it appeared, having no idea what I was getting myself into.The book’s protagonist is Pierce Moffett, a history teacher whose studies of the Renaissance have led him to theorize that the world “once worked in a different way than it does now; it had a different history and a different future. Its very flesh and bones, the physical laws that governed it, were other than the ones we know.” Although this theory is intended as a metaphor for the way pre-Renaissance belief in magic and religion was supplanted by post-Renaissance acceptance of reason and science, Pierce begins to suspect that it might be more than just a metaphor, that it might “actually literally really be so” that the world sometimes changes its nature – and that another change is due.The Solitudes is divided into three sections, each titled, for reasons explained in the story, with a Latin verb corresponding to one of the first three houses of the zodiac. The scheme suggested that it was only book one of a quartet, although the text, in a classic Crowley touch, cast doubt on this assumption. Late in the novel, there’s a scene in which Pierce Moffett’s old mentor Frank Walker Barr lectures his students on the difference between modern fiction and classic folktales. In modern fiction, Barr says, we expect logical progression, a plot with a beginning, middle, and end. Folktales operate instead on a principle of thematic repetition, the same elements recurring over and over again, like the seasons, “until a kind of certainty arises, a satisfaction that the story has been told often enough to seem at last to have been really told.” There are also “some interesting half-way kind of works… which set up for themselves a titanic plot, an almost mathematical symmetry of structure, and never finish it; never need to finish it, because they are at heart works of the older kind…” Barr offers The Faerie Queene as an example of one of these “half-way kind of works,” but it sounds as though he might also be describing the book that he himself is a character in.It was like a bonus mystery: was The Solitudes a standalone novel, or was there more? Fans were left to wonder until 1994, when the sequel, Love & Sleep, finally appeared.Love & Sleep set Pierce Moffett on a quest to find the one thing that had survived the last change of the world (Boney Rasmussen, Pierce’s patron, is hoping that the one thing might be the philosopher’s stone, which grants immortality). It set readers on a quest, too: to make it to the end, now that we knew we hadn’t reached it yet, and see how the story turned out.As I say, it was a long wait. Book number three, Daemonomania, didn’t show up until the year 2000. By then the first two volumes of the series were out of print, and Crowley’s publisher made the perverse decision not to reissue them. Since this wasn’t the sort of story you could come in on the middle of, that pretty much doomed Daemonomania to commercial failure, and put the publication of the fourth and final installment in doubt.For six more years, devotees of Aegypt traded rumors and speculation on the Internet: Was Crowley still working on the book? Was he finished yet? How was his health, by the way? The man was getting older, and we were too, and the philosopher’s stone had not yet been found.At last Crowley himself made the announcement on his blog: the book, Endless Things, would be published by Small Beer Press. It arrived in stores last April, and even before I read it I knew that, for me, this was the book of 2007.Having read it, I can say that it was definitely worth the wait. To say more than that is difficult; I’m still a bit dismayed to not have it to look forward to anymore, and I also know that, as good a book as Endless Things is, no one who needs my recommendation to read it will experience it in anything like the way I did – not without a time machine and a whole lot of patience.But at least you can read it, along with the rest of the series. Overlook Press has begun reprinting the entire Aegypt Cycle in trade paperback. The Solitudes is already out, and Love & Sleep is due this month. If it’s not the same story for you that it was for me – and it won’t be, for the world is different than it once was – it’s still a great story. Do yourself a favor and check it out.More from A Year in Reading 2007