Saturday, October 12, 2019

John Crowley, "Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr"

Until I stumbled on this volume in my public library I knew John Crowley only for one book, Little, Big (1982), which for me holds the top place in the category of Long, Weird, Rambling Book in which You are Rarely Sure if Anything Magical has Happened or Not. I honestly had no idea he had ever written anything else. Checking up on him now I see that he has actually published twelve works of fiction, and I think I will try to find some of them.

One of the themes in Little, Big is aging and the passage of time. The second half of the book focuses on middle-aged characters who look back mournfully toward childhood, when it was so much easier for them to experience magic. It was published when Crowley was 40. Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr (2017)  was published when Crowley was 75, and it is mostly a meditation on aging and death.

The central characters are the unnamed narrator, an old man living in the near-future ruins of our civilization, and an immortal crow named Dar Oakley. Or at least that is the conceit, although the narrator hints that maybe he never grasped the speech of this crow well enough to fully understand his story. The story as we are told it concerns Dar Oakley's life as an ambassador between the worlds of crows and humans. Beginning in what sounds like the European Neolithic, he befriends a series of humans, all of them experts, as their societies see it, in death and the realms beyond: a Neolithic shamaness, an early medieval monk, a Native American tale-teller, a nineteenth-century spiritualist. Dar Oakley helps all of these people journey beyond death, and in each case the world they encounter is much what their culture taught them to expect.

Through these stories Crowley explores what people think about death, how they feel about it, and whether it is ultimately a good or bad thing. I loved this. It unfolds very slowly and parts of the book drag, but by the end I found it meaningful and moving. There is also much about myth, storytelling, crows, and people of several kinds. I would not recommend it to everyone but if you are in a reflective frame of mind and not averse to some serious thinking about death, consider giving it a try.

And if you like fantasy that draws heavily on the European mythic tradition, you might take a look at the Mythopoetic Society's awards for fantasy literature. Both Little, Big and Ka won their award, along with Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys, The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye by A.S. Byatt, and Something Rich and Strange by Patricia A. McKillip. I downloaded the whole list and plan to check out all of them.

1 comment:

Shadow said...

"Long, Weird, Rambling Book in which You are Rarely Sure if Anything Magical has Happened or Not."

As good a description as any of Little, Big. I enjoyed it immensely despite the ending that wasn't. You could like that book and still say at the end, "Is that all there is?"

Thanks for the review. I have KA on my tablet. I need to read it, and now I will