In the 20-odd years since publication of the magisterial "Little, Big," John Crowley's fiction has been among the most ambitious, brilliant and nuanced -- and sentence by sentence, most imaginative -- ever published in this country. Let us get this unhappy matter out of the way right now: The main reason Crowley's body of work has not been widely ranked with that of, say, Don DeLillo or Salman Rushdie has to do with an inaccurate perception of its relationship to genre. "Little, Big," a work that challenges its readers at every step, is a fantasy novel in the way "War and Peace" is a historical novel (although it is a fantasy novel, all right). The as-yet-unfinished four-novel sequence beginning with "Aegypt" and representing the heart of his achievement, resists classification altogether even as it expands on "Little, Big's" themes on its way toward an original, ultimately tragic vision.
A similar ambition and originality propel "Lord Byron's Novel." In the longest of the book's embedded layers, "The Evening Land," Crowley channels the lively, freewheeling style of Byron's journals and letters to give us -- in a muscular early 19th century prose bristling with dashes, exclamation points and italics -- the novel the busy lord never paused to write. Try this, from Chapter 1: "Thereupon the world and the night gave a sort of shudder, as a shudder may pass over a calm sea, or a horse's flank; and like a building fallen around him in an earthquake, the night fell away in pieces, his sleep shattered, and he awoke. He had slept, and dreamt! And yet -- most strange -- still he found himself on the track to the watchtower, which stood ahead...." In that Gothic tower, our former sleepwalker, a Scottish nobleman remarkably named Ali, finds, strung up by a rope, "a form like a man's -- face black, eyes starting from their sockets as they stare upon him, black tongue thrust out as in mockery." He has come upon the corpse of his murdered father, a vicious rakehell bearing the ironic title of Lord Sane.
"The Evening Land" whirls merrily on, to an account of Ali's Albanian childhood, his adoption by a "Pacha" and surrender to his real but mad father, false imprisonment, rescue by a "zombi," the slave trade, misadventures in London society, a mysterious doppelganger and much else. Now and again, our hypothetical author wearies of his task and laments the difficulties his characters pose both themselves and him. Throughout, the novel-within-a-novel is pitch-perfect Byron and always engrossing, in the old what-happened-next manner.
However, it is the two other narrative layers, which interrupt, explain and reflect on Byron's hitherto lost whiz-bang, that give "Lord Byron's Novel" its powerful emotional resonance. Immediately after Ali is swept up by the Pacha -- whereupon Byron grandly announces, "I shall here break my page, and rest my pen" -- an unexpected, almost shockingly abrupt tonal update drops us into an exchange of e-mails between literary Alexandra Novak, newly arrived in London, and her lover, Thea Spann, a mathematician who is organizing a website honoring female scientists.
The long-estranged daughter of a brilliant and scandalous father, Alexandra is in London to ferret out information about Byron's abandoned daughter, Ada Lovelace, a scientist and mathematician close to Charles Babbage, the inventor of a giant calculator called the Difference Engine. (To assist Babbage in the creation of his next project, the Analytical Engine, Ada has worked up the first usable computer program.)
Through a series of comic encounters that are examined and puzzled over in the lovers' vibrant e-mails -- Crowley gets the women's quirky, idiosyncratic voices down as ripely as he does Byron's -- Alexandra succeeds in acquiring a trove of previously unknown Lovelace papers, among them (maddeningly) a lengthy run of pages covered with random numbers. It is a kind of manuscript, but one that rejects interpretation. Thanks to Thea's patient cryptographic efforts, the women discover that Ada, who when dying of cancer had been ordered to burn her father's novel, had instead translated it into a numeric code that she trusted a more evolved version of the Analytical Engine to one day decipher.
The dying Ada's voice, lambent with deep-running emotional currents, emerges from the annotations to her father's manuscript to form the novel's third and most crucial narrative layer. Beneath the wind-whipped Byronic sizzle of "The Evening Land" and the charming, headlong tension of Alexandra and Thea's investigations glows an increasingly moving awareness of the depth of the father-daughter relationship, however painful or imperfectly resolved it may be. With his characteristic insight, delicacy of touch and distilled purity of language, Crowley concludes Alexandra's "Introduction" (placed at the end of the book) with her conviction that "[Byron's] voice did reach into [Ada's] heart.... [H]is voice reached into her heart, as it would have done, I believe, whether or not she had ever found the novel that here follows." *