I’ve read… let’s see.. precisely one half of John Crowley’s The Solitudes. And I think that’s it, because I just don’t get it.

Part of it is genre confusion. It was recommended as fantasy, but after over 200 pages there isn’t a hint of it.  What it is, mostly, is the story of the mid-life crisis of a mid-list historian, Pierce Moffett. It’s a vivid book, eloquently written, with a tendency to hopscotch all over time, but this part is like an extended artsy slice-o-life story from the New Yorker. It’d be easier to take if Moffett weren’t such a lump. As Crowley presents him, he doesn’t have much drive as a teacher or a writer, and he’s a little too fond of cocaine. Then there’s the scene where he meets a woman at a party, gets her off alone, gives her booze, and kisses her… it doesn’t go beyond that, but it’s uncomfortable in a way I suspect the author didn’t think about back in 1987.

All this makes it hard to accept the chapter I just read, where Moffett breathlessly explains a book he wants to write about “Ægypt”, and his agent/ex-girlfriend is entirely and groundlessly enthralled. Crowley himself is obviously excited about the subject matter, but he hasn’t conveyed why Moffett would be capable of plunging into historical waters no one else had, nor what might really be lurking in those waters.

Scattered through the narrative are fragments from an earlier story featuring the Elizabethan astrologer John Dee (but it’s explained that it is a story; it’s fragments from a novel some of the present-day characters read).

The tagline of the book is “Is there more than one history of the world?”  Moffett has the notion that there was an Ægypt that isn’t the same as Egypt… basically a Renaissance reimagining of Egypt as a land of magic and esoteric wisdom, based on a misinterpretation of Hermes Trismegistus as being an ancient Egyptian sage rather than a 2nd century Platonist. (The mis- is important because there are echoes of Plato and the Christian Trinity in Hermes… completely unsurprising given when he actually wrote, but eerie and prophetic if you think they came from two thousand years earlier.)

I think what turns me off is that Crowley seems to want to take this Renaissance stir of ideas seriously, only he doesn’t.  There’s an old trope in fantasy that Hermes, Paracelsus, Dee, Bruno, et al., were really onto something.  OK then!  Embrace it, make it real, show us what that world would look like.  So far as I can see, Mary Gentle was working with the same material in Rats and Gargoyles, but she made it into an actual fantasy world. Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore have done similar things. Crowley takes two hundred pages to work up to the point where he might have John Dee talk with an angel… and even there it’s presented as something within a historical fantasy, and it isn’t even Dee but his half-idiot assistant. It’s like the author is terrified that readers won’t accept fantasy.  Author, readers love fantasy. You can even ladle it into high-lit books– look at Borges or García Márquez.

A lot of people really like these books (there are three more), so I am undoubtedly missing something.

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