One thing that literary critics and scholars generally agree on is that reading for character is one of the most naive forms of reading. It's how we begin reading, after all: we learn about the prince and princess, learn that some cruel magic is keeping them apart, and we read on (or pester our parents to read on) to find out if they will find each other, and happiness. As we get older and read more, our interests widen. We start to take note of style, metaphor, theme. We look at novels for what they tell us about the society in which they were written. The truly adventurous wander off into the weeds of experiment, where reading for character may not even be possible.
Despite all that, for most of us non-scholars, character is still what binds us to novels, drawing us back and convincing us to give over such large portions of our lives to imagined realities. From Tolstoy to chick lit, we see in created characters our own lives, our own friends, refracted, adapted, made over, made strange--and we learn about how life is lived outside of our own subjectivity. We surrender to a new reality, suffer through characters' vicissitudes and agonize over their decisions. And when we close the book, the best of them stay with us, expanding our world of acquaintance, shifting ever-so-slightly the way in which we see the universe.
All this was brought home to me with particular force Wednesday night at KGB Bar in New York. I was there, alone, to see John Crowley read from the long-awaited final volume of his Aegypt tetralogy, which he began all the way back in 1987. Aegypt is complicated, multi-layered, hard to describe, centered around a couple of years in the lives of a group of aging hippies and new agers living out the '70s in a small town in the hills of New England--but it also wanders into late-1950s Appalachia and Renaissance Europe, explores alchemy and magic, cults and werewolves, and tells the stories of Elizabethan mage John Dee and Renaissance scholar Giordano Bruno. Crowley employs all these disparate elements to answer such seemingly simple--even childish--posers as, "Why is the universe the way it is, and not some other way?" and "What if the past was different at one point from what it is now?" and, most poignant, "Why could the past not be different from what it is? Why can I only do, and never undo?" Ringing changes on these questions with a master's skill, Crowley has created what is essentially a single 1,500-page novel of ideas, fantastic and surprising and compelling.
I've not yet read the final book, Endless Things, choosing instead to re-read (and reacquaint myself with) the earlier volumes, which have reminded me that for all the architecture of ideas underlying the books, the heart of Crowley's story remains the characters he has created. Damaged and tentative, and uncertain about what they want in life, they still somehow retain a hope that they will someday come to understand the manifold workings of the heart. The ideas, fantasy, and history are anchored and made palpable by Crowley's realistic--and generous--depiction of his characters; concern for them is what drives our appreciation of the whole.
At KGB, Crowley demonstrated that he knows that. As he took the podium in that dark, red-walled bar, a thunderstorm washing down Manhattan outside, he announced that he would be reading about a wedding--and all of us in the audience smiled, for we had been waiting for this wedding, hoping it would happen despite obstacles, and now we rejoiced in the event as if these characters were our friends, taking pride in the choice they'd made and glad that we'd seen them to this point.
Were we responding like naive readers, taking these characters as if they were real people, their happiness as real happiness? Possibly. But in that setting, in that crowd, the scene was magical, the wedding the result of paths and turns and switchbacks, dropped strands and lucky breaks, the way real weddings can sometimes be--and the joy was undoubtedly, entirely real.
Crowley, in front of all of us, worked the magic for which he'd been laying the groundwork for twenty years: for one brief moment, his imaginary community drew all of us strangers together, and the power of fiction was made manifest. There's not much more an artist can hope for than that.