It's not what you thought when you first began it;
You got what you want, but you can hardly stand it ...
—Aimee Mann, "Wise Up"
The story of the first three volumes of John Crowley's Ægypt sequence is, broadly, the story of his protagonists getting what they want and finding they can't stand it. The terrible stasis that volume 3, Dæmonomania (2000), locks itself into by the time it ends is lifted only years later in the the final volume, Endless Things (2007). The first volume, Ægypt (1987), is the story of the main characters wishing; Love & Sleep (1994) is the story of them getting.
(A small footnote: in an interview in Interzone 21 at the time of the publication of Ægypt, Crowley indicated that that was his preferred title for the whole sequence, and that ideally the first volume would be known as The Solitudes. Apparently the re-release of volumes 1-3 later this year will follow his wishes, and so I will too.)
The Solitudes puts forward a structure for the whole sequence: Pierce Moffett, fleeing from failed jobs and affairs in New York to an upstate town in the mid-1970s, discovers or is discovered by the unfinished works of a dead writer named Fellowes Kraft. Kraft's historical novels hedge around figures of the Renaissance like Giordano Bruno and John Dee, and the sense they articulated that the world might be describable by certain systems, and perhaps could be shaped by those who understood how to manipulate those systems. One such system is astrology, and each volume of Ægypt comprises three astrological houses, known by emblematic Latin names. Each volume also, therefore, stands for one season: The Solitudes is spring, Love & Sleep summer, Dæmonomania autumn, and Endless Things winter. In a sense, Pierce's story is the frame narrative, because through it we perceive the historical stories of Bruno and Dee, apparently taken from Kraft's manuscripts. At the end of The Solitudes, Pierce has settled in Blackbury Jambs, and seems to have a task before him: completing or making sense of the manuscript Kraft left unfinished at his death, a manuscript with similar concerns to both the book Pierce was planning to write and with the historical sections of Ægypt.
I said earlier that the first book of the sequence was about wishing, and it may be worth substantiating that before I go on to describe how, in Love & Sleep, those wishes come true. The first house of The Solitudes is "Vita," or as one of the characters describes it, the place where you get given the stuff which you take on your journey. In the first chapter of Vita, Pierce is sitting on a bus supposedly taking him to a job interview, and toying with a book review he has to write. But he gets sidetracked onto a question he has been thinking about since childhood: the very first words of that chapter are, "If ever some power with three wishes were to appear before Pierce Moffett, he or she or it (djinn, fairy godmother, ring curiously inscribed) would find him not entirely unprepared but not entirely ready either" (p.17). After a certain amount of umm-ing and ah-ing, Pierce recites to himself what his three wishes would be. Firstly, good health for himself and those he loves; secondly, an income or windfall—not too high, but enough that he wouldn't have to worry about money. "Which left one more, the third wish, the odd one, the rogue wish... The third wish was the world-changing one of the triad, and it was hedged around in his mind with strictures, taboos, imperatives, moral and categorical" (p.20). He toys with the idea of wishing for power before settling on love instead: "love took up the greater part of his daydreaming one way or another; and no more than any man was he able not to toy with thoughts of hypnotic powers, unrefusable charms, the world his harem—or, conversely, of a single perfect being shaped exactly to his wants" (p.21). Just as he's in the middle of this reverie, he mutters to himself: "I wish, he thought, I wish I wish..." (p.22)
There's the old tradition, of course, that saying a thing like that three times can make it so; and certainly, by the end of The Solitudes Pierce's wishes seem to be coming true. He's safely ensconced in Blackbury Jambs, and the work on Kraft's manuscript will bring him an income from the charity managing the dead author's royalties. He's also had an encounter with a woman named Rose who is heavily flagged as a future love interest for him.
So it's a shock, once the brief prologue of Love & Sleep is over, to find that its first section is devoted mostly to a narrative of Pierce's childhood in Kentucky. He was originally born and brought up an only child in New York, but after his mother Winnie discovers that his father Axel was gay, she takes Pierce to live with her brother Sam, his wife, and their children in Kentucky. There Pierce's bookish, introverted nature plays out in a number of ways. He accidentally starts a forest fire; he and some of his cousins start a secret society, the "Invisible College"; and they meet a feral girl who may or not be a werewolf. This first house of Love & Sleep—of summer—is called Genitor, the parent, and when I first read it in 1994 I assumed it would wind up being illuminating in the eventual context of the four-book sequence: the child as father to the man. Certainly, it's written with autobiographical specificity, especially in the descriptions of the Catholic rituals that Pierce later abandons. Now, I'm not so sure that it works in the final architecture of the sequence. Some plot threads started here pay off later, but I'm not sure they justify so much time being spent on the Kentucky material.
In the second house, Nati, we return to Pierce in Blackbury Jambs and the stories he discovers of Bruno and Dee. Bruno was burned as a heretic by the Catholic Church in 1600 for taking the Copernican revolution in astronomy a step further and postulating an infinity of worlds beyond our own. Dee was, among other things, astrologer to Elizabeth I, and obsessed by the alchemist's dream of transmuting base metals into gold. Nati describes Bruno's sojurn in England from 1583-5, drawing some of its material from John Bossy's Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair (1991), which identified him as an anti-Catholic spy. This casts Bruno in a significantly less sympathetic light than in the first volume, and helps convey one of the central arguments of Love & Sleep: that the journey is much darker and more complicated that it might have seemed in the spring light of Ægypt. (The book's epigraph is from Hamlet: "thou wouldst not think how ill's all here about my heart.")
Another animating spirit behind this volume is Ioan Couliano, a Romanian historian and friend of Crowley's whose Eros and Magic in the Renaissance (1987) is acknowledged by Crowley in his Author's Note. In the aftermath of the 1989 revolution in Romania, Couliano was sharply critical of those elements in the former Communist regime which were attempting to hold onto power. He was found shot dead at the University of Chicago, where he taught, in May 1991, and it's widely assumed—though it's never been proven—that this murder was carried out by or on behalf of the Romanian Securitate. (The whole story is covered in admirable detail in Ted Anton's Eros, Magic, and the Murder of Professor Culianu .) Couliano's central thesis was that Renaissance magicians like Bruno saw eroticism as the heart of their "magic": that they attempted to use sexuality—theirs and others'—as one of the ways in which they might control the world.
Pierce's story in Nati and the last house, Valetudo, is a perfect example of this. Early on in the book, he is gripped by the sudden premonition that "Something entirely different is coming" (p.158), and soon enough that something becomes apparent. In Nati, he tells his journal of a son, previously unmentioned, called Robbie, whom he engendered on "a thoughtless and contraceptiveless night in 1965" (p.322); and just as he is wishing for his life to be about something, Robbie turns up on his doorstep, aged somewhere between 12 and 14. It's left deliberately unclear whether Robbie is real, or some kind of magically induced phantasm, or a function of Pierce's mental state. What is not at all ambiguous is what happens next. Pierce wakes in the middle of the night, and sees Robbie beside his bed. Robbie asks to join him, and Pierce lets him. In the morning, he begins writing in his journal, but stops: "He put down his pencil, vividly conscious suddenly of what he had done, what acts; startled and shamed to see himself at them. So. He had not, it seemed, escaped harmless from his own father's sexual tortuosities" (pp.328-9).
It is, I'm sure, meant to be a shocking scene, and one that distances readers from Pierce. Axel, his gay father, has expressed disgust for those who prey on boys, and Robbie's seduction of Pierce has the dreamlike simplicity of pornography. Pierce may not have known that he wanted this; but his wish for love—for someone to love—has surely been granted.
As it happens, Robbie slowly fades into the background from that point, replaced by Pierce's interest in Rose Ryder, the local woman whom he met in the first volume—though then he had her confused with another, Rosie. Pierce gains, through his encounter with Robbie, a sense that he can indeed do what Bruno wished to—bind people to his will. Indeed, in his first sexual encounter with Rose, he does literally bind her, and it's plain from later descriptions of their relationship in the third volume that they continue further down the same path.
All of this takes place over the space of 500 pages, which means that Love & Sleep certainly contains less incident than any of the other three books of the sequence. If it's a book of summer, it's summer as stasis: the hot nights you can't sleep through, the buzzing of insects, the heat it's a struggle to walk through. Summer finally breaks at the end with a great storm, in both the historical and the contemporary settings. In the historical story, it's the storm John Dee is supposed to have conjured to defeat the Spanish Armada. In Pierce's story, it seems to be the wind of a passage-time, signalling a shift in the world's laws and nature. The story of the last two volumes of Ægypt is the story of what survives that change. Before that can happen, though, Pierce has to pay a price for what he has taken, and that's the subject of Dæmonomania.
To return to wishes again, Pierce in his first thoughts about them noted that they can be got wrong, misprisioned. Midas, for instance, turning everything to gold with his touch, got what he wanted until he could not stand it. The same, I think, is happening to Pierce in Love & Sleep. Indeed, it also happens to others in the book: in the most memorable passage in Love & Sleep, Dee and his medium Kelley finally succeed in making gold from base metals. In order to do this, Kelley must endure an extraordinary emblematic voyage through the houses of the zodiac; but at the end, they find that they have somehow got the procedure wrong and Kelley has sacrificed his soul for only a few grains of gold. Similarly, Pierce is constantly getting the story wrong, mishearing, misunderstanding—and being misunderstood. Crowley seems to be saying that we take the inchoate world out there of one-damn-thing-after-another, and make it comprehensible by turning it into stories. But by doing so, we inevitably get it wrong. Astrology is one kind of story, and so are wishes, and so is history. Love & Sleep shows that getting what you want only binds you further—even if you think you're the one in control. Pierce is knotting himself deeper and deeper into a Gnostic prison made by no one but himself. It will take another two books, and much more suffering, before he can wise up enough to be free.
Graham Sleight lives in London, U.K. He writes for The New York Review of Science Fiction, Foundation, Locus, and SF Studies, and will become editor of Foundation from the end of 2007. His review of Endless Things, the last book of Ægypt, appeared in the May 2007 issue of Locus and is available online here.
You must log in to post a comment.