Considering John Crowley: Beasts

Striking front cover, appallingly unrepresentative back cover blurb

As with The Deep, John Crowley’s second novel, Beasts, was received with critical fervour when it appeared in 1976. And as with The Deep, I find myself far less convinced than the luminaries that welcomed this work.
Beasts is, like its predecessor, firmly a genre novel, though Crowley leans much further towards SF than fantasy, setting his story against a background of a future America in which a protracted civil war has resulted in the country being divided into ten large Autonomies and several smaller ones, not merely bringing an end to industry and advancement but putting it into reverse.
It’s a (contemporaneous) hundred years into the future whose dimensions are spelt out to us in the first chapter by a convenient old magazine with convenient articles, read by Loren Casaubon, who is not the protagonist of this book.
It’s something of a clumsy step, though Crowley handles it with his customary elegance of prose. Loren is one of those who have welcomed the reversal of Progress, the return towards an older, wilder, more ecologically sane American continent. When we meet him, he’s just starting a mission, cut off from ‘civilisation’ to reintroduce four fledgling peregrine hawks into the wild. It will demand care, attention and time.
But not a great deal of action, it seems, which is a trait in Crowley’s fiction overall. As we progress, we will see that not a lot necessarily happens in his books, though it will always happen with great and elegant prose and, as he finds his footings, nobody will care that nothing’s happening.
For now though, Crowley uses Loren and his handy magazine to set up the world of the 2070s, though notably in a mainly impressionistic fashion, descending into hard detail only where the ensuing story will tread. This means a direct reference to the Northern Autonomy, led by Dr Jerrell Gregorious, and to the USE (elucidated only once as the Union for Social Engineering).
The USE are to be our baddies, which is signalled near the end of the chapter when, remotely through his superiors, they force the closure of Loren’s project as unnecessary, requiring him to abandon the fledglings to death when he is forced to take up a role as tutor to Gregorious’s children: needless to say, Loren rescues one of the hawks.
The USE are an arm of the former federal Government, still alive a decade after the civil wars, and out to re-establish itself as the true Government. It is unsurprising, given that this book was published in the immediate aftermath of Watergate, that they are manipulative, ruthless and quasi-fascistic.
But that’s not all that Loren’s magazine sets up for us. Despite the SF trappings, Beasts is intended to be more of a beast-fable. During the past century, Man has indulged in gene-splicing, creating hybrids. First with two separate forms of tobacco, then moving on to Man itself, combining human genes with those of beasts, those these experiments have almost always failed. Only in one aspect, the grafting together of men and lions, has the science succeeded. Earth now holds a race known as Leos, human/lions, capable of breeding themselves with genetic fidelity.
And immediately in chapter two, Crowley introduces a Leo, named Painter, who is the true centre of his story. There’s a change of scene, of setting, of purpose and of characters, heralding an approach that I think works against the coherence and comprehension of the story: each of the book’s eight long chapters focus on different people, in different scenes, with much of the ‘action’ of the story raking places in the interstices between such chapters.
Thus chapter 2 introduces Painter, who is moving north towards a rendezvous with a government counsellor, but who is seen through the eyes of Caddie, a young woman who is ‘indentured’ – effectively a slave – and who is sold to Painter. Caddie introduces us to the notion that the Leos are inherently fascinating, inspiring human devotion, or perhaps it’s just that Painter is. Because this is where the book, intially absorbing despite the blatantness of its infodump, starts to slide away from me. Caddie couples with Painter, unnecessarily surrendering herself into an even greater slavery than she already suffered, and becomes a part of what will grow into an entourage. The government counsellor turns out to be another successful hybrid, albeit a limited, sterile one, in the form of Reynard, a human/fox and, naturally, a manipulator/plotter.
Then it’s back to Loren, tutoring Sten and Mika Gregorious and co-training Hawk. Reynard turns up to meet Gregorious, ahead of a reuinification conference, manoeuvring Gregorious into a position that ensure his assassination, enabling Reynard to become Sten Gregorious’s counsellor. Elsewhere, Painter’s pride of Leos turns up at the Genesis Preserve, an area of uninhbited wilderland kept pure undr the direction of Meric Landseer: when the USE seeks permission to go in and capture them, it’s refused but they go ahead anyway, and Meric travels to find the pride himself, falling under Painter’s spell.
And it just starts to diffuse all sense of narrative coherence dissipating. We jump from place to place, person to person. We follow the mind of a dog, a pack-leader who accepts Painter as his pack-leader (as good a metaphor as any for the whole direction of the book, and a good deal more explicable). Somehow or other it’s about Painter, whom everyone wishes to serve. Crowley elevates him because the Lion is the King of Beasts, and the mystical effect Painter has on humans is to make them more or less worship him, though Crowley gives no reason for why Painter deserves this veneration, other than the fact of what he is, and the oppositional effect of USE, which wants him imprisoned.
And Painter’s in and out of jail, captured, escaped, recaptured and rescued, but too often at a distance, seen from afar instead of close at hand, where it might be too inescapable that all he does is exist. Painter doesn’t do anything, he has no aims or intentions, he simply is, and at this early stage in his career, Crowley isn’t good enough, for me at any rate, to make that stick.
I’m not fascinated by Painter, I’m not under his spell, and I’m not held by the machinations of the frankly dull USE as they scheme and squirm towards power that only ever seems to satisfy themselves and not to have any effect on those they are meant to lead. Nor does Beasts have an ending, a point of resolution. It merely ends, with Painter rescued, with Reynard killed and cloned, with the cast drawn together but without a sense of what they plan to do next.
As with The Deep, I’m left cold by this book, which doesn’t seem to know what it wants to do. Yet it’s intriguing to measure that appraisal against later works, including one coming up in the near future, where much of what I’ve said to describe this as a failure would be equally applicable to books that I regard as an almost total success.
But first there’s one final ‘prentice’ work to consider, but one which marks a staging post on the way to the work that made Crowley into a major writer.

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