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.

Considering John Crowley – The Deep

John Crowley’s first published novel, The Deep, was published in 1975. He had written an earlier novel, based on the Wars of the Roses, but this was never completed. The Deep was marketed as an SF novel, and hailed with great praise by such as Brian Aldiss and Ursula Le Guin. But whilst I am usually prone to respect her opinions, I can’t share hers or Aldiss’s enthusiasm for this book.
If we’re going to talk genre, The Deep, to me, is properly a work of Fantasy and not Science Fiction. It is set in a fantasy world, of armies and Kings and magic, a world divided by the competing claims to kingship of two opposing factions. It’s a world that, early on, is said to exist on a pilar that is founded on the Deep, and this physical structure is confirmed at the book’s end.
Into this world, Crowly introduces one SF element, in the form of the Visitor. The Visitor – who will go on to subsequently be given the titles of the Secretary and the Recorder, titles which identify the three parts into which the novel is divided – is a made thing, superficially human but neither male nor female. Damaged at the outset by a skirmish between the Protectors and the Just, the Visitor progresses throughout the book towards the Revelation that he/she/it was been made by Leviathan, who has made the world of the Deep.
For what reason? There, for me, lies the great failure of the book. It uses the trappings of conventional fantasy but only to pay lip service to them. Rule of this world lies at first with the Blacks, a rule that the Reds are determined to challenge. There is an ancient feud between them with the throne at the heart of it.
But that’s all there is. The names are flat and prosaic: indeed, they put me in mind of Draughts (or more appropriately for an American author, Checkers). Crowley uses the tropes of fantasy but in an abstract form that denies any underlying form of passion. Everybody’s name incorporates the element of their faction: King Little Black, Black Harrah, Red Senlin, Red Senlin’s Son, Fauconred, etc.
It’s an approach that might work if the intent were satirical, to undermine the tropes by presenting them in such an elemental, anatomised manner, but whatever Crowley’s purpose here, he at least needs this story to be taken seriously, and this careful removal of any kind of human context doesn’t serve.
Indeed, Crowly takes pains, after adopting this schematic approach, to avoid actually depicting the cliches one would normally associate with the form.
It also makes it easy for the book to slide out of the head, leaving it untouched. It’s only a couple of weeks since I finished re-reading it, yet it’s already impossible to remember what it was about, what it meant, what end it reached. A couple of moments only: King Little Black running, shrieking a warning as he eavesdrops on the Queen rutting with her lover Black Harrah, but not what he’s warning against: the vaguely Mervyn Peake atmosphere of Little Black’s mad and ultimately fatal escape from imprisonment, but not which character he frees to go with him.
The Deep fails to spur the imagination and fails to hold the memory, and to me that makes it a complete failure. As such, I am at complete odds with those who welcomed and praised it, and who professed to see a skilled depiction of the complexity of human nature, and many deep levels. I don’t think I’m an unintelligent reader, but in this respect I see nothing in this book to recommend it, except the quality of Crowley’s prose.
He’s a very thoughtful, very stylish writer, almost to the point of mannered in some instances, and we’ll be seeing with later books how he can create an atmosphere, invest in a level of finely-observed detail, that will irresistably hold a reader’s attention irrespective of the actual content of the story.
The evidence is here that Crowley possessed that quality from the outset, a lucid, almost limpid prose that seeks to fill up the senses. Crowley’s on the right track alright, but at this apprentice stage it’s far from enough to hold. There is insufficient weight or body to either the events or the characters for the prose to form a musculature that absorbs attention. It’s pretty, but is it art? as the old saying goes and, for The Deep, the answer from me has to be no.
Frankly, it’s not a book I’d keep if I had it as a solo volume. After Crowley made it big with Little, Big, and confirmed his quality with Ægypt, his first three novels were reissued in an omnibus volume, as Three Novels. So, if I wish to keep any of Crowley’s early books, I must keep all of it.