A response to John Crowley’s The Solitudes

I just finished reading Crowley’s The Solitudes with great relief.  I haven’t hated a book so much in a long time, but I felt obligated to read it for the reading group I belong to.  From the first page, I struggled to get interested in the work, rereading the first 30 pages or so two or three times and still not able to enter it emotionally or intellectually.  The clumsy ungrammatical sentences (lots of comma splices) and clunky phrasings made him lose credibility with me from the start.  Here are some examples of bad sentence structures:

“Literal-minded, deeply stupid from man’s point of view, strong children able thoughtlessly to break the ordinary course of things like toys, and break human hearts too that were unwise enough not to know how much they loved and needed the ordinary courses of things, such powers had to be dealt with carefully.”  Huh?

“In the useless, vacant spaces of time that litter every life, in waiting rooms or holding patterns or—as on this particular August morning—when he sat staring out the tinted windows of long-distance buses, he often found himself mulling over possibilities, negotiating tricky turns of phrase, sharpening his clauses.”  He didn’t sharpen these clauses enough for my taste.

More:

“Next he wished for an income, not burdensomely immense but sufficient, safe from the fluctuations of economic life, requiring next to no attention on his part and not distorting his natural career:  a winning lottery ticket, along with some careful investment advice, being more the idea than, say, having some book he might write thrust magically onto the best-seller list with all the attendant talk-show and interview business, awful, whatever pleasure he might have in such fame and fortune spoiled by his knowledge that it was fake—that would be selling his soul to the devil, which by definition works out badly; no, he wanted something much more neutral.”

He has a tin ear at times.

I love well-constructed sentences.  I also like it when writers defy grammatical rules to come up with interesting rhythms in their sentences and paragraphs, jolting the reader out of his/her usual way of perceiving.  But many of Crowley’s just seem artless.

Given that The Solitudes is the first in a series, it needs to be compelling in order for the reader to want to push on.  As I’ve made clear, it wasn’t for this reader.  His main premise—there is a shadow history we’ve lost that needs to surface again, a more ‘magical’ way of understanding the universe—gets overdone, and there is nothing that’s really fresh in this viewpoint.  He’s borrowing what other earlier writers have said, including Hermes Trismegistus and Plato.  For someone who hasn’t delved into this literature, Crowley’s book could be interesting.  But for those of us who explored new age thinking in the 60s and 70s (and later), it’s old stuff.

The main characters feel like ciphers the author has created to advance his ideas.  Still, Crowley has a gift for description and dialogue. He can write. His most successful sections were the ones with historical figures whose lives he managed to enter and convey on the page, in particular Giordano Bruno, an Italian philosopher and spiritual alchemist who was burnt at the stake by the medieval Church.  These pages engaged me the most.

Mostly the narrator sounded like a pretentious windbag who was so in love with his words that he’d lost his critical ability, though he did put words in the mouth of his main character, Pierce, that summed up my feelings about The Solitudes:

“For it wasn’t a good book at all, Pierce supposed, considered as a book, a novel; it was a philosophical romance, remote and extravagant, without much of the tang of life as it really must have gone on in the world—as it really had gone on if you meant  this world, this only one in which, metaphors aside, we all have really and solely lived in….”

He gets the last word.

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