by John Crowley (William Morrow & Co., $24.95)
IF ONE career can exemplify the weirdness of literary life in America, John Crowley's can. Since the late 1970s, he has worked the shadowy terrain where mainstream fiction shades off into outright fantasy. He has won his share of heavyweight literary awards, and the critics have been fairly lavish with their praise (Harold Bloom is a great fan). But the critics have not had much success conveying the peculiar virtues of his quirky imagination and lapidary prose to their readers, and said readers—who anyway tend to prefer their fiction clearly labeled as to genre—have, for the most part, given his work the pass.
Apart from a loyal few, that is, for whom Crowley is almost as much a legend as his notorious namesake, the turn-of-the-century satanist-magician Aleister Crowley. And for some of the same reasons: Crowley the novelist writes about a world recognizably our own but existing in parallel with, and in intermittent contact with, another world governed by different rules than our own—a realm our ancestors would have referred to as faerie.
If that word makes you gag, you get a glimpse of what Crowley's up against in finding readers. Little, Big, his most successful book to date (if just managing to stay in print can be called success), is an ambitious, sprawling family saga about four generations occupying an architect's folly of a mansion in upstate New York. From the start of the novel, it's clear that something funny's going on. However, for a generation of fantasy fans raised on the more robust special effects of Dungeons & Dragons, Crowley's version of the supernatural can seem rather bloodless. And the more literal-minded fictioneer may balk at completing a family chronicle nearly as long as Buddenbrooks upon discovering that a mysteriously vanished collateral relative has turned into a carp.
For the most part, Crowley's books have sold poorly and gone rapidly out of print, but for those whose spot he hits, he's the next thing to an addiction. First editions of his early work sell for hundreds of dollars on Amazon.com and eBay, and 1,500-odd pages into a tetralogy (Ƨypt, Love and Sleep, D歯nomania) about late-medieval magicians and the Catskills in 1979, die-hard fans can't wait for the fourth and final installment.
THEY'LL HAVE to, at least for a while. Crowley has gone—so at least his latest publisher devoutly hopes—mainstream. His new novel, The Translator, unfolds in the aggressively drab setting of an American prairie university during the missile crisis summer of 1962.
It recounts the experience of a young female student who becomes emotionally dependent upon and finally collaborates with her professor, a Russian poet famously exiled by Krushchev. And despite the pedestrian setting and real-world temporal background, The Translator is unequivocally romantic in tone. You can see why Morrow is betting the farm that it will be Crowley's breakout book: No one could read it without being reminded in passing of high-toned love stories like The English Patient and Snow Falling on Cedars.
The resemblance may be in more than the beholder's eye: In this book, Crowley seems to be actively trying to rein in his penchant for letting the arcane erupt into the ordinary. But for a reader familiar with his earlier work, The Translator displays his abiding fascination with finding hidden meaning in the patterns of coincidence. The reader discovers that young Christa Malone is not the only translator referred to by the novel's title, and that her translating the poems of exiled poet Innokenti Issayevich Falin from Russian to English is only part of another mysterious translation taking place, in which the crafting of poetic metaphor on a page can divert the course of history.
What will readers who loved Captain Corelli's Mandolin make of Crowley's attempt to follow fellow "magic realist" Louis de Berni貥s into best seller-dom? As one who has always enjoyed his elaborate yet sensuously specific way of writing, I can savor his application of the same creative engine to material so rigorously circumscribed and admire his courage at imagining himself this time out into the timid but clear-seeing soul of a 19-year-old Catholic female college freshman.
Will readers not attuned in advance to Crowley's shamanistic worldview find resonance here? I can't say. But Morrow clearly believes enough in the commercial potential of The Translator to reissue a number of his earlier works simultaneously: three early "science fiction" novellas—The Deep, Beasts, and Engine Summer—in an omnibus volume titled Otherwise and Little, Big. The latter is particularly welcome to me: I will no longer need to loan out my own dog-eared copy, nor will I have to resort to dire threats to get it back again.