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Book Review : Questing for Meaning in a Mythic Land

May 04, 1987|CAROLYN SEE

Aegypt by John Crowley (Bantam: $17.95)

Mankind has five basic needs, the hero of this book, Pierce Moffat, thinks: food, shelter, clothing, love and/or sex, and meaning. But for Pierce's purposes, and the purpose of the author, the first four needs are purely incidental. What is the point of our extended lives if there is no meaning to them? And what is the point of factual truth, for that matter, if there is nothing mythic attached to it, and to all of us?

The reader is allowed to decide, in the first paragraph, if this is the kind of narrative he'd like to go on with. There is no false advertising here, no starting off as one kind of story and ending up as another: "There were angels in the glass, two four six many of them, each one shuffling into his place in line like an alderman at the Lord Mayor's show. None was dressed in white; some wore fillets or wreaths of flowers and green leaves in their loose hair; all their eyes were strangely gay. They kept pressing in by one and two, always room for more, they linked arms or clasped their hands behind them, they looked out smiling at the two mortals who looked in at them. All their names began with A."

Signing On for Quest

That there are other worlds, and beings within other worlds, that they may look at our jagged bit of eternity and we may look at theirs, that--even--they must stand in line, or choose to, just as we; all that is implicit in this first paragraph. We are introduced to Annael, Annachor, Anilos and Agobel before we meet Pierce Moffat, signing on to go with him on his quest, to find the other, better, more meaningful world, that mythic shadow that is, for instance, to all of us, what Aegypt (lost land of codes and Gypsies) is to plain Egypt (land of sand, camels, rug merchants and dubious plumbing).

There are the facts, the author suggests, and then there is the "good stuff"; the meaning, and the yearning within evolved human beings that keeps them looking for the meaning.

First, the facts. Pierce Moffat has lived through the '60s and the '70s in Manhattan. The '60s, in his view, have shut down the Age of Reason; have brought into his seeking mind "Relativity. Synchronicity. Uncertainty. Telepathy, clairvoyance, gymnosophists of the East levitating, turning their skins to gold by thought alone." Pierce has come to see those bands of what we remember as "hippies" as part of the great caravan series of old, a continuation of humanity's great quests through endless time.

Dropping acid confirms Pierce's thoughts: "It was no metaphor, or if it was a metaphor it was one that was so intensely so that the tenor and the vehicle of it, not identical, might just as well have been."

But Pierce's life in the '70s has turned evil and sour. His drug of choice, cocaine; his woman a demanding drug dealer he only names Sphinx. And, as a teacher, he's losing it. His students no longer want to know his "secrets," and in fact he may be running out of secrets to impart.

Then, by a series of "accidents," Pierce takes a bus out to the country, to a pretty town called Blackbury Jambs, out on a bluff between where two rivers intersect, where you can see three "states" at once (yes, on the "fact" level, they're New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but you'd better look closer than that), and where the town itself exists on two planes.

One of the most engaging characteristics of this novel is that the "real" stuff is so beautifully delineated: Pierce meets an old buddy named Spofford who has withdrawn from urban complexity to become a shepherd. Spofford is in love with a nice woman named Rosie, who eases her way through a lengthy and mean-spirited divorce by reading the historical novels of an obscure writer (who once lived hereabouts) named Fellowes Kraft, who was, in turn, obsessed by a Renaissance Italian thinker named Giordano Bruno, who was burned for heresy by the Dominicans for his assertions that the Earth was not only round, but that the universe was all one: "It was all alive, all alive, from the bottom of the sea through the air to the heavens, the stars altering the four elements, the elements the body, the body the soul."

So it's a good thing for his spiritual search that Pierce Moffat got off the bus at Blackbury Jambs. But it's also a good thing for the reader that Rosie's tedious ex-husband is so beautifully portrayed as tedious; that a throw-away character like Rosie's divorce lawyer is wonderful in his wanton expenditure of emotion on behalf of his clients, that Rosie's ancient uncle is so sweetly put together, that all of small-town Northeastern life is so glowingly presented.

The author makes us see the mysteriousness, the "meaning," in deserted summer houses along the river, in moonlight rowing excursions, in the simple change of seasons, in summer afternoons playing croquet.

Into the Deep Past

It seems to me that perhaps the deep past might have been more beautifully imagined, with just as much originality; tales of the boy Shakespeare, or the Arthurian material, are not as gripping here, perhaps because we've read so much of these times. But we've never heard of Pierce's quest, or this floating town of Blackbury Jambs, where the town astrologer has the universe down pat; where the neighborhood baby sitter practices astral projection--there's some extraordinary storytelling here.

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