Some novelists produce like clockwork: every year or three, a new work ripens and is ready for the harvest. But there are many whose output can’t be resolved against a calendar. Consider the famous case of Thomas Pynchon, who fell silent (at novel lengths, anyway) for seventeen years between Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) and Vineland (1990). William Gaddis took twenty years to leap from The Recognitions (1955) to JR (1975). After Catch-22 (1961), Joseph Heller made readers wait thirteen years until releasing Something Happened (1974). In these cases, and many others, you just can’t rush quality.
The exceptionally gifted John Crowley has published his work at a respectable pace — twelve novels in forty-two years since his first, The Deep, in 1975. But there have been sizable time gaps between some, such as the seven-year wait between the third and fourth books of the Ægypt Cycle. So news that he would debut a new novel just one year after we saw The Chemical Wedding: by Christian Rosencreutz: A Romance in Eight Days by Johann Valentin Andreae in a New Version, his recreation of a gnostic fable, was cause for wild rejoicing. But the anticipation was further heightened by the prior release of a small collection of stories and essays. So as not to delay our enjoyment any further, let’s look at both books now.
The essays and short stories reveal small slices of Crowley’s genius, which the novel manifests in dazzling fullness. Crowley’s signature gifts come in paradoxical pairs. He is noted for his soaring lyricism, which somehow produces a keen, often melancholy gravitas. He is a master of naturalism, and yet uses his mimetic skills to discern and depict the veins of the fantastical running underneath our consensus reality. He believes in the unrivaled power of true love, over which death has no dominion — and yet death frequently seems to have the last word. He is an embracer and champion of tradition, almost basking in nostalgic, yet revels in the doings of rebels and nonconformists. He argues for the inevitability of change, yet highlights those elements of existence that remain eternal. This synthesis of opposites grants all his work a unique ambiance and charm.
PM Press is primarily a nonfiction publisher with a progressive bent. But starting in 2009, SF writer Terry Bisson began curating a series of fiction titles for them under the rubric Outspoken Authors, featuring such standouts as Ursula K. Le Guin, Norman Spinrad, and Elizabeth Hand. The latest offering in this line is Totaltopia, by Crowley, and it serves perfectly to introduce any newcomers to Crowley’s particular flavor, while also serving as an appetizer to those awaiting the novel’s banquet.
The book opens with a quietly nostalgic yet cosmic tale original to this volume, “This Is Our Town,” in which the Catholic childhood of a young girl who is lucky enough to see and converse with her guardian angel exfoliates to color human existence. “Prayer is how the world is managed.” Two other excellent stories will be familiar to those who have seen Crowley’s collection Novelties & Souvenirs.
The nonfiction work shows a piercing mind at work, as well as an expansive sense of compassion, as the author investigates the roots and methods of literary futurism (the title piece), Russian “cosmism” (“Everything That Rises”), and the fiction of fellow fantasist Paul Park (“Paul Park’s Hidden Worlds”). The concluding dialogue with Bisson, a signature feature of this series, finds Crowley wryly and gratefully assessing his career and nodding hopefully toward what he feels might very well be his “last full-dress novel,” Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr. What better segue could a reviewer ask for?
Crowley’s new book is something utterly unique when considered within his oeuvre, yet also totally allied to landmark works of his such as Beasts, Engine Summer, and Little, Big. As such, and if it is indeed his “last full-dress novel,” it stands as a worthy summation and knotting together of his eternal main themes: life as story and stories as life; the relations between nature and humanity; the meaning of and transcendence of death; the teeter-totter between social duties and rogue outsiderly freedoms; and the value of families.
The biggest and most obvious category into which the bountiful Ka can be stuffed is that of the “animal fantasy.” In it’s purest form, this sort of tale brings consciousness and language to its nonhuman characters but leaves them in a recognizably natural world — the most famous example of this mode is perhaps Watership Down by Richard Adams, which set the gold standard by not only conjuring up a riveting Homeric tale set within a small parcel of land, but also by creating an entire mythos and culture for its keenly delineated rabbit protagonists, who, while “human,” are never not also animals. A more recent fine example is The Bees by Laline Paull.
With Ka, Crowley provides a new benchmark in the canon of great animal fantasy. His species spotlight focuses on Crows, his hero being one Dar Oakley, who is representative in many way of the traits, predilections, and capacities of his kind but is also unprecedented. Dar Oakley sees more, thinks deeper, is bolder and more contrarian than his fellows. Moreover, he cannot die. Whenever his mortal form is extinguished, he reincarnates in some future era. These characteristics will guide and shape his uncanny biography. But at the same time, Dar Oakley is all Crow, sharing his nature with his compatriots. (This animal nature, especially in the sphere of a Crow’s fancy for eating corpses, is neither glorified nor denigrated but simply taken as evolutionarily correct, without demanding any apologies.) And Crowley — of course, the author’s surname nominates the Crow as his totem — provides unstintingly the details and realities of a Crow’s life. From mating to nesting, traveling to eating, the details of a Crow’s daily rounds are rendered in colorful and extensive verisimilitude.
Of course, given that the reader is inhabiting the mind of a Crow, a place no microscope can peer into, some of the scientifically unobservable details have to be invented: for instance, the four cardinal directions that Crows perceive are given names, and emotional associations and desires and fears are attached to their visible behaviors. But Crowley’s inventions consort so well with what we know of these birds that the reader never feels any artificiality. And just as Adams did for his bunnies, Crowley creates an etiquette and culture and back-story for his birds. Although unlike the rabbits, the Crows are not given to worshipping deities or time-binding with myths, being rather, well, flighty and mired in the present.
So, on this not unimportant surface level we discover a novel full of animal-based adventures, loves, losses, triumphs, and quotidian pleasures, all of them at once “other” yet humanly relatable. Dar Oakley pioneers new territories, helps his tribe, falls in love, and seeks solace for his restless soul.
If this were the entirety of Ka, it would be a plentitude. But there is much more, and it lies in the frametale, and also in the interior tales and philosophical underpinnings.
We open the book with a human testament. Our unnamed narrator is a failing widower living in some near-tomorrow where civilization itself seems imperiled and on the point of extinction. He finds a sick Crow in his yard, nurses it, and learns improbably to communicate. This is Dar Oakley, and we receive the Crow’s autobiography through the lens of the human amanuensis, whose interstitial interpolations occur throughout.
Immediately we are thrust into speculation about the unreliability of our narrator. Are Dar Oakley and his entire story manufactured by this decadent, dying End Times Scribe? It’s an entirely plausible interpretation. In this case, the book reads as the sputtering, last-gasp attempt by a grieving humanity to selfishly re-inspire itself and vainly reconnect with the natural world our species has destroyed.
Valid as this angle of attack might be — and I can foresee future academic papers pursuing it — I cannot endorse it, for it discounts the third layer of the book, which is its resonant, poignant metaphysics. Believing that our human scribe has invented everything undercuts the obvious textual and thematic importance of the supernatural events in the book.
For Dar Oakley is a liminal figure, a psychopomp who can facilitate passage to various underworlds and afterlives. In his extended encounters with various sympathetic humans, from the circa-Neolithic times to the imagined near future, the Crow serves as a kind of flawed Virgil. For although he is conversant with other realms, he is not expert, frequently becoming lost and confused as he seeks in his Crow-like fashion to understand the riddles of existence. This shared vision quest between humans and birds serves as subtext and counterpart to the more mundane activities of the book. Ultimately, Dar Oakley reaches an acceptance and wisdom that the humans can see only partially.
A couple of other aspects of the novel bear mentioning. The nested stories within the main narrative echo such collections of folklore as The Mabinogian or Native American Trickster cycles. There is a cornucopia of stand-alone mini-tales herein that all serve to propel the major themes and plots while they also deliver independent joys. A definite flavor of T. H. White’s The Once and Future King obtains as well. And the Wellsian “history of mankind” panorama which Dar Oakley’s eternal existence allows us to witness has the kind of multi-generational view-from-a-height sweep that a book like Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz also displays.
And although it’s a given with those who know Crowley’s books, I would still be remiss if I did not comment on the sheer agile beauty of his prose. His voice — Dar Oakley’s voice — blends simplicity with complexity, gravitas with humor, sensuality with interiority. Here is a longish passage that I think illustrates all these points.
The Crows don’t remember, and neither do People, when farmers first tried to scare them off by making those false People to stand and stare, bowing a little in the breeze but never changing place. Dar Oakley tells how he’d stand watch and call, Watch out, watch out when one appeared as though suddenly standing up, with big eyes like the bird-costumed specter of the Wolves gang. It was enough to make most Crows stand off a ways from one, the braver ones still snatching a corn sprout here and there behind its back, then taking off . . .
The Crows finally came to delight in the figures; though Crows can’t recognize the many images of People that People make, the use of this one is so evident they can, and it has the effect on their sense of humor that a pun has on some People. They still like to pretend a little fear at first, then go settle on its outstretched arms, and crow in its face — for Crows do crow, in delight at wit and surprise: a sound you’ll come to know if you watch them. As the corn grew high the comical People were propped up higher, or they were left standing and hidden by the yellowing stalks; come late summer when the farmers and the hands, the women and children, came out to cut and shock the corn, the scarecrows fell amid the stalks and waste, lost their heads and hands. Dar Oakley was alone in seeing in them all the gaunt skeletons in his story, the bones of One Ear’s brother, the ragged men on the ground in Na Cherry’s old homeland. He could be startled coming unaware upon one, as though it might lift itself on its skinny arms and turn up its face to him.
Here we have the encapsulated essence of Crowley and this phenomenal book. Love and death, fear and fun, artifice and nature, all holding hands and dancing around some cosmic maypole to the eternal music of the spheres.
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