David Ross (dyvyd) wrote,
David Ross

Another Slice of Crowleycake: Engine Summer

I have just put down John Crowley's novel Engine Summer, and want to toss out my thoughts quickly while still under the spell of the book.  It may take more than one reading to grasp some of the subtle lessons in the book related to "knowing" and "being" -- even though they are explained eventually to the reader's satisfaction, it is with the caveat that such simplifications may be useless.

What a progression of works, what a tour-de-force, a dessert tray, a celtic knot of utopian/dystopian visions is presented in the compass of Crowley's first three novels, from The Deep, to Beasts, to Engine Summer.  I have them bound together in the Perennial Edtion called Otherwise. As a set they complement each other well, and in a strange way may all be the same future sliced differently through varying viewpoints and characters.  The Deep is dark in a dystopian well of artificiality(of men, angels, worlds), but offers at least some rays of hope.  In Beasts we find less artificiality but a science of altered species and the interactions between them and men. Finally, in Engine Summer, we have all of the above and more. 

So much more.  Engine Summer almost reads as a collection of all possible futures: those returning to nature, those going deeper into technology, and those that mix the two.  I am surprised that it does not have nearly as large a status among his novels as Little, Big. I think it is to sci-fi novels equally as revolutionary as Little, Big is to the fantasy tale. 

The Sci-fi elements in Engine Summer are experieced as though they are indeed fantasy elements by many of the characters of the novel.  The reader knows well the culture of the "angels" and enjoys sorting out how the past has been altered, forgotton, mis-understood and re-described through the eyes of the protagonist Rush that Speaks.

Speaking of "fantasy," there is a certain "fantasy-like" quality to John Crowley's writing, that especially after Engine Summer,  seems to permeate whatever he writes as part of his personal style, rather than the attempt to write in any particular genre. What is it that those who really like John's writing get out of it that is not available in other writers?  In trying to define that I will be as imprecise as possible, because I think there is a certain calculated imprecision in the writing that keeps things fresh, and uncertain-- uncertain to the point of being on the very edge of fantasy and not caring when the words bump over the line or how much.

Indeed it is impossible to pin down rules for how the style works.  I have never seen a word or phrase that did not appear perfectly in phase with the entire text of a Crowley work.  Everyone can have a diction failure.  I could think of lots of ways to make those sentences bog down and sticky-up like a glue pot, or sound as wrong as a naked man in a New Year's Day parade in Chicago, but JC manages to always avoid such unseemlyness from cover to cover.  And yet the sentences are always restless, surprising, making unexpected loops or pauses, not flashy really, but somehow more like living thoughts-- a mind thinking-- than narrative. The style can fall down, get up, apologize or not, bend over backwards, do flips, fly, or land on a spot no bigger than a fly spec. Because it does almost everything and anything with an unerring breeziness, there can be no failure of it.  Only if it stopped doing what it does and became boring, could you ever notice.

The style is not dense. It is really rather loose-- or perhaps flexible. Sometimes it feels organic, like yeast growing.  Yet as easy as it seems at first to read, it challenges the reader constantly.  The words are simple enough, but the missing bits in the looseness keep one scambling to make sense.  Usually there are options for this sense-making so you hold the possibilities open in your mind as you read, ready to look for more clues as to which is most correct.   So, matter, stuff, ideas collect as you swim through the text.  Like a whale feeding on krill, you are hungry, you have a lot of tale wagging to do to get your stomach full, to make up your mind about what the meal all means.

Or, we can say the style is like a sponge-cake.  The first bite is ok, but the delicate flavor does not overwhelm. It invites another bite, and one feels light and airy and never quite full.  But the taste grows stronger, and the complexity of the cake is revealed as it is eaten.  There is much is in the cake that can finally be tasted-- far more things than expected-- and the voids are part of the taste.

Or, I had a theory once that a single sentence of great importance had been broken up and its parts inserted in other sentences thoughout the book.  Somehow the reader's mind picks up these bits, not knowing they are bits but reserving them, and then in the final pages-- whammo-- the final bit of the subliminal sentence falls into place..  The bits lock together.  The neon sign lights up. You get a huge message moment, and then look at the sentence you were reading in disbelief and see it contains only ordinary words that would have no effect at all had you not experienced the earlier ones. Well, music is like that too, but just realizing it is not profound unless you can do it too.

Getting the stuff out of JC"s writing requires a little effort on the part of the reader, and yet he is both helpful and benign. He is revered by his readers I think for the great respect he shows them in his writing. The reader feels a certain triumph having fully consumed a nice slice of Crowleycake, digesting it, and knowing why it was good, and having found, as many know,  it is even better that St. Bea's Bread!

Tags: artificial intelligence, john crowley, sci-fi, writers and writing

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