John Crowley’s fourth and final novel in the Aegypt series brings to a close the journey that main character Pierce Moffet began twenty years ago . The novel, like its predecessors, actually contains two main narrative arcs, the first, centered around Pierce’s quest to answer this central question: What if the world had once been different than it is? More specifically, what if ours were (or could again be) a world in which magic was possible? The second arc takes place mainly in the 17th century, focusing on the lives of Giordano Bruno and John Dee, men of esoteric learning who, in their own way, sought answers to questions similar to Pierce’s own.
The series contains a large cast of characters, whose lives intersect and run parallel with wonderful complexity, thematizing another of Crowley’s favorite concerns, the mysterious workings of coincidence in our lives. Crowley himself says (he maintains a LiveJournal blog) that Endless Things functions as a kind of coda in relation to the rest of the series. And this makes sense: at the end of the third novel, Daemonomania, Pierce and his friends rescue a girl kidnapped by a fundamentalist Christian cult, who claim the ability to cast out demons (which they said were responsible for the girl’s epilepsy). In rescuing the girl from the cult, the characters effectively repudiate all magicians of the world, in that they relinquish (symbolically but also literally) magic as a means to change material reality. Pierce, since childhood a person who wished he were a magician, discovers (to his own mournful surprise) that ultimately his affinities lie with those who are content to make what they can out of this life, in this world. At the end of Daemonomania, Pierce breaks with the woman on whom he’d been practicing a kind of magic (theirs was a sadomasochistic relationship) and in Endless Things, we find him involved with a very earthy, very honest woman, who knows and is known by him. It is their knowledge of one another that causes them to fall in love, not their desire for mystery or their attempt to transform themselves through magical/romantic means.
None of this gives a very clear idea of what the book (or the series) is about, however. And so I have to return to the beginning, to the first book, which will be re-released this fall under its new name, The Solitudes. Pierce leaves New York City and takes a bus to the Faraway Hills, which are loosely based on the Berkshires, only in the Faraways strange things happen. Pierce finds himself the shepherd of a book that seemingly has been written before, by the great sages and esoteric masters at different periods of the world’s history. This is a book that reimagines the history of the world: claiming that at certain periodic junctures, the world underwent (and will again undergo) great changes, during which all the old rules get rewritten. People alive during such a change sense it, but once the change has been finalized, their own memories get rewritten as well. This premise allows for the existence of real working magic in the world.
Crowley himself professes to be a man of the earthly sort, a man who doesn’t believe in magic, and who is thus more akin to the man Pierce ends up becoming in Endless Things. The fact that Pierce ends up accepting, and indeed, celebrating, the world-as-it-is, seems to have unleashed rumbling discontent from some of his fans. I use the word “fans” advisedly: Crowley is one of the most literary (and literate) writers alive, yet unlike many of our most celebrated writers of literary fiction, he also writes fantasy. The fans of fantasy fiction are, to say the least, passionate about the works that help transport them to other worlds. Their passion has meant that fantasy fiction remains more commercially viable than literary fiction, whose writers are more and more frequently forced into the academy to survive. But Crowley’s decision to opt out of the realm of fantasy has presented problems for some of these passionate fans. His novel advocates the loving acceptance of the limits of our “real world” where (though magical thinking is alive and well) actual magic doesn’t work. Rather, he celebrates the world in which material reality is one to which we must remain faithful, a world in which (luckily) wishing does not make a thing so.
This precept is movingly illustrated by the double chapters that describe the burning of Bruno the apostate at the stake by the Italian Inquisition. In the first version, Bruno escapes by turning himself into an ass (in an echo of Apuleius’s golden ass). Bruno manages to master human speech and, in doing so, discovers the key that can free all humans from the prison of their bodies. But the next chapter undoes this imagining. No, that’s not how it happened, this revised version tells us: Bruno chooses not to free us (or himself) from this supposed prison; like Prospero, he chooses instead to break his staff, because the wise man recognizes that true wisdom lies in recognizing the beauty of our limitations, the profundity of our ties to this material world.
I suspect that many of Crowley’s readers, especially those who love the Crowley who won the World Fantasy Award for Little, Big, don’t want to be told that they should love the world as it is, and embrace the limitations of their material natures. Yet this book is so beautiful because it both acknowledges our desire for magic and the power of wishing, yet also recognizes that we would never know what it means to be human if we weren’t forced to live within the limits of our bodies and our identities. Indeed, Crowley’s series seems to suggest, it is those individuals in our society (celebrities, members of the corporate and government elites) who continue to act on their magical thinking (i.e., delusions), that end up causing so many problems for the rest of us.