John Crowley (1942- ) is an American author whose work ignores the boundaries between speculative fiction and mimetic fiction. To date he has published eight novels and numerous shorter pieces. His fiction is relatively unknown, due most likely to its complexity and failure to fit patly within genre conventions. Criminally, the first two volumes of Ægypt, his unfinished masterpiece, have fallen out of print. Little, Big, his most famous novel, has been intermittently available in the United States.
Let us put aside (for now at least, I am uncertain if I can contain myself) these lamentations over the state of publishing, and turn our attention to the glories of Crowley's prose. He has few stylistic peers, perhaps Pynchon and Wolfe, among living American authors (I am of course, overstepping here. I apologize. I have not read widely enough (can one ever?) to make this judgment. And yet I make it.), match his skill, though neither write like him. Here I would quote from Little, Big or Ægypt, but I have lent out those remarkable novels to friends. Instead I will quote from the second volume of the Ægypt quartet, Love & Sleep. I have taken cares to find a beautiful passage that will not act as a spoiler, but I must warn you that, as Crowley's fiction is not primarily plot-drive, anything may be a spoiler that increases the reader's understanding of the characters and their lives. The following describes a trip to a car wash:
Sam held tight to her arm as things happened one after another, each more astonishing and alarming than the last if you had never seen them before. After the water bardo came the bardo of brushes: huge furry animals fell on them, spinning like dervishes, bright blue for some reason, and Sam stared at them in disbelief. This was not the reason anyone ever had a kid, but it turned out to be one of the greatest gratifications of it, and one that no one ever described to you: to see in them the amazing world experienced, and so experience it again yourself as for the first time. Unless it was what greeting cards meant by the Wonder In the Eyes of a Child and all that.
Perhaps Crowley's greatest strength is that, though he writes what can be loosely classified as fantasy
, the sense of wonder
in his work is so often connected to the commonplace.
Like another Crowley, John Crowley's work makes much use of esoterica. Giordano Bruno and his art of memory are central to both Little, Big and Ægypt, and John Dee also makes an appearance in the latter. He is erudite in a playful, almost Borges-like sense; the novels can be wonderfully multi-layered and reference. Oh my. I am gushing.
Though I have complained of Crowley's publishing situation, things seem to be improving. In 2003, his most recent novel, The Translator, was published, and in 2002 Little, Big was republished in an attractive trade paperback edition, as well as an anthology of his first three novels, titled Otherwise. Finally, a few days ago, on April 27th, 2004, according to Amazon, a new collection of Crowley's short stories was published, titled Novelties & Souvenirs. I have a small hope, and I dare not enlarge it lest it be crushed, that all this activity presages the publication of the final volume of Ægypt. That would be a pleasant thing.
Volumes available in the United States:
Otherwise: Three Novels (Contains The Deep, Beasts, and Engine Summer)
Little, Big (Winner of the 1982 World Fantasy Award)
Novelties & Souvenirs
Out of print novels:
Love & Sleep