Like our memories of those parts of Ægypt which this last instalment outgrows like Beethoven abandoning the unfencible gaiety of absolute music in the opening passages of the last movement of his Ninth Symphony, Prague still stands. It is not only that the physical city seems to have survived, almost intact, the long suicide of Europe over the course of the twentieth century, so that the labyrinthine vistas of seventeenth-century Prague—which John Crowley entablatures throughout Ægypt, but brings to a kind of climax in Endless Things—still throng the eye; it is more than that. With more intensity than I for one have ever experienced of any other local habitation, Prague is the story of itself: the whole pantomimic in-your-face urban-fantasy intensity of the inner city and Hradcany across the story-stoned bridge is like a Theatre of Memory, a great clamour of histrions, histories animate, each spouting its version, each fountain begging you to to come down to drink, each storey making offers you can't refuse: the vying of the centuries, the faiths, the races, the tongues, the dynasties, the golems and the newts and K, turn a corner and you turn a page. But you cannot trust a word of it (you can never read the same page twice), not one of the pumped epiphanies that fill your heart with such woe and joy. If only (you think) it could be true.
But poor old Prague forever young is exactly not true. It is a warren of the false dream that Europa could turn into a Garden, into a different story of the world. Prague comes to a thousand climaxes as you turn it over, all of them heartbreaking, all of them false. I guess that's Europe for you, the best world we were ever likely to make, and look at it now, look at us. If we seek to build a different story of the world, Prague may be as far as we're likely to get; which is why it seems so appropriate that Crowley has chosen to locate there in 1620 the false climax of Endless Things, which takes place two hundred pages before the end of the book and the quartet, and which makes those two hundred pages—the greatest passage of writing Crowley has yet accomplished—possible.
It is not really possible to make much sense of Endless Things for anyone not already familiar with the first three parts of Ægypt, the 1600-page novel this volume concludes, twenty years after the publication of the first; indeed, there is good reason to think these final chapters are not really reviewable at all in isolation. These comments are uttered in the knowledge that reviews of the first three volumes—The Solitudes (1987), Love & Sleep (1994), and Dæmonomania (2000)—have appeared here in Strange Horizons over the last few days. Every toe one dips into synopsis is immediately soaked in endless recursions: like Pierce Moffett (who finally realizes in this volume what has seemed pretty clear from the get-go: that he has, literally, no sense of direction at all) trying to walk a straight line. So there are no straight lines in Ægypt.
In any case, to remind myself of my own previous readings, I've found myself applying a seasonal take to the long story of Pierce Moffett's nearly endless circular spiral quest for a place to stop—a place so ontologically dense that he will be able to stop stock still without vertigo, without potential worlds exfoliating dizzyingly under his bemused glance: only a footstep away if he could only take one single step in that direction. Most of Ægypt comprises stories Pierce might make true by walking their walk, by telling them; Endless Things comprises, in part, a release into stillness, an ontological black hole from which other stories of the world cannot escape, or are disinclined to; a spiral which becomes a circle in the end; a holy emptiness vaster than pleroma, where the utter still centre of the world utters all. But (just as Crowley more exquisitely is prone to do) we are circling our point: that a seasonal take on Ægypt might serve as one line of sight through the whole.
So The Solitudes (first published as Ægypt) is a Summer novel (I first thought it was Spring, but the doors that seemed to be opening on a first reading in 1987 turned out to be habitudes densely grown); as the book opens, Pierce arrives in Blackury Jambs, somewhere in hither New England, a pastoral venue he will never in a sense leave, though by the end of Endless Things the actors of that pastoral are no longer figures in a dream of Prospero but entirely who they are. Love & Sleep moves from summer into the dream-time autumn, at a somnifacient pace, a novel hard to remember exactly but necessary to establish a great gap in felt time, and to begin properly to describe John Dee and Giordano Bruno, both engaged in a profound gematria, which may be defined as "the alteration of pre-existent things by the alteration of the letters that comprise their true names, which first brought them into being"; some form of gematria—some transformation of the way the world is told, so that a different world can then be told—is required for the "Great Instauration" longed for by Dee and Bruno (and Sir Francis Bacon, whose term it is) as the old magic-indurated but autumnal world hovered at the cusp of Something around the year 1600. Pierce's attempts to get a fix on this new story of the world occupy hundreds of pages of Ægypt; the narrative detail-work of his dazed moonstruck progresses and retreats are necessary to an understanding of Endless Things, but only appear on the current pages as a kind of echolalia. (But of course Pierce inhabits Echolalia until he finds a place to stop.) Dæmonomania is dire with winter, frozen shut, a quite terrifying book to read. Pierce has locked into mechanical actings out of rituals of escape or penetration, like a windup tiger in a real cage. The Bondage he limns becomes, almost embarrassingly, literal, though Crowley—who is quite astonishingly reticent for a writer so conspicuously and fruitfully knowledgable about the bullseyes and aporias of heterosexuality—"spares" us much detail of the actual bondage rituals Pierce engages in with the second (or third) of the women named Rose who have fixated him in turn like arrows to the same place in the same heart. So Endless Things must be spring.
We must return to Prague.
A bit like a windup tiger in a real cage, the first quarter of Endless Things rehearses the thousand bindings of maya and story-not-yet-told that continue to lock Pierce Moffett into the hibernaculum of his unawakened self. This is not, at points, easy reading; nor is the flow of the novel much helped by the reader's growing sense that Pierce, who is taking a kind of Cook's Tour of the lands and libraries of Europe traversed decades earlier by the late Fellowes Kraft, is never going to find his way to the moment of gematria Kraft may have discovered (though once the world becomes a different story it is that story, turtles all the way down to the primordial Word: so the previous version cannot be remembered) or may have created. As Pierce is aware, Kraft had increasingly focused on Giordano Bruno as his exploratory spirals intensified; Bruno was of course burned at the stake in 1600 in Rome by the Catholic Church, and the apparent fragments of Kraft's last, uncompleted (or uncompletable) book encircle that death. But Pierce is a long way behind. (Crowley tends to begin scenes with the character he's focusing on frozen in the middle of an action, like a frame out of Eadweard Muybridge: in depicting Pierce this narrative habit, even though it is neatly isomorophic with the information overload that afflicts his protagonist at every contemplated step, can become a bit of a tic, a tic in amber, with a thousand worlds longing to become at the continuation of the act.) Pierce is way behind, he is now taking a retreat in a monastery, and he has never reached Prague (and never will), even though Prague lay at the heart of Dee's compass, and Bruno's, and Kraft's. And then, in a flash, he gets it (suddenly "Pierce could see" the tale), he understands what Kraft must have done, he gets the gematria that creates the new world.
The Golden Ass of Apuleius has been referenced variously throughout the quartet, and the transformation of Bruno into a "little gray donkey" at the flick of a quill, just before he is taken to the place of execution, cashes in so many assonances of metamorphosis that we feel a sudden irresponsible joy—what one might call Coming Out of the Wardrobe Joy—as the ice breaks and Bruno escapes into donkey life, eventually to be rescued from servitude by a troupe of players. Eventually he is transformed back into a man, Philip a Gabella (a figure in another reality created by the historical Johann Valentin Andreae in a book, published in 1615, where, vulgarly, Rosicrucianism is fabricated out of whole cloth). Meanwhile in Prague, a monarch has died; his natural successor, being Catholic, is not permitted to rule; Frederick of Heidelberg (husband of the English Elizabeth; we have run across this loving couple again and again in Ægypt) accepts the offer of the throne of Bohemia. In one world (ours) this leads to the devastation of Prague at the hands of the affronted Catholic monarch, and to the Thirty Years' War. In the world which is a different story, an epiphanic celebration—conducted according to Brunian principles—inaugurates the new rule, and the elated citizenry of Prague, hosted by invisible cherubim who are allowed to exist in this reality, defeat the Catholic armies. There is no Thirty Years' War. The Great Instauration begins,
a backwards revolution, a backflip of wonder performed to turn the progress of the world around like a galleon and head it again for the Age of Gold, which lies in the past, in the beginning, but which could now be sought for in the time to come, as Hermes Thrice-great in Ægypt so long ago predicted.
And that is how the world came to be in which we would come to be...
Our seas teeming with metamorphosis, the great gems growing in our caves, watched over by solitary Dæmons; our walled and towered cities guarded too by their own genii, our famous colleges and abbeys where no sort of wisdom is forbidden and no error punished except by laughter. Our many well-loved monarchs, kings, and emperors holding their inoffensive dream-empires together simply by sitting still at their centers like queen bees, to be fed on royal jelly by wise magi, who then can draw from those princes' fattened hearts the alphabet of all good things, Peace, Plenty, Justice, Delight, Wisdom, and Comfort. Mere signs, yes: but signs are food and nurture for us, they are in fact all the food and nurture that we need: all of us in here.
The writing here is of course beautiful, but it is also terribly young, deliberately so. (Crowley is of course too grown up to end a novel in a bell jar like this, no matter how fragrant the royal jelly; indeed, there are times when one wonders if Crowley is too grown up to write a novel at all.) It is a false climax to Ægypt, it houses itself in a version of Prague we might almost think we we may be able to catch a glimpse of, at the corner of the eye, here in our own twenty-first century. It is false, just as the heartrending panto Prague we know in 2007 is false, but its power as a releaser in the text—and for the reader continuing the joyful task the taskful joy of finishing the 1600 pages—is almost incalculable. It is a bit like sex.
We are indeed released.
Bruno himself is mentioned only twice in the two hundred remaining pages. Like Shakespeare's Prospero—Crowley has Shakespeare basing him on John Dee for the purposes of Ægypt—Pierce has cast down his Book, the great book to be called Ægypt which would argue for and exemplify the argument—the deep existential faith—that there is more than one story of the world. Nothing of Ægypt—neither Kraft's nor Moffett's nor Crowley's—will be forgotten; but he will not return to it. From this point, only Crowley's Ægypt bears the tale onward, "the Great Instauration of everything that had all along been the case." It will be Pierce's great task, after everything has been told, and everything spelled, to settle into deep being, into the Rose and the Rose and the Rose, into the endless things of world. "The bird's fire-fangled feathers dangle down," Wallace Stevens, "Of Mere Being": for anything that was otherly is now this picnic. The harp on the mountain spells the world at the end of the mind. There is really a mountain at the end of Endless Things. There is really a harp. There is really a picnic. Pierce does awaken.
John Clute (email@example.com) has been writing SF and fantasy criticism since the 1960s, and has been involved in writing encyclopedias since the 1970s. His first novel in 25 years, Appleseed (2001), was a New York Times Notable Book in 2002. The Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Horror was published last year.