No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Friday, February 11, 2011

2011/05: Beasts -- John Crowley

If there had been more of a man's soul in either Sweets or Painter they would have seen the partnership they had entered on as astonishing, the adventures they had as tales at once thrilling and poignant... They remembered none of this; or if they did, it was in a way that men would never be able to perceive. (p.113)
Set a century in the future -- though it was published in 1976, and that future's now closer and less probable -- Beasts takes place in a partitioned America greatly changed by another civil war. Genetic modification has produced various enhanced animals and chimerae. The leos are 'half man half lion'; there are dogs engineered to have greater intelligence, and there is Reynard, the sole representative of his kind, a fox with the power of speech and with an intelligence that's at least as great as the average human's. It is, however, not human intelligence; nor are the emotions experienced by the protagonist Painter, a leo, human emotions.

The story's told in eight chapters which often have only an oblique, allusive relation to the major events. (We don't always get direct accounts of pivotal scenes, such as Sten and Mika's humanitarian mission). Each chapter focuses on a single character -- though viewpoints may change -- and a particular aspect of the human : beast relationship. Caddie, a young woman working in a bar, is purchased as an indentured servant by Painter; Loren lets his falcon fly and watches for its return; Meric, in an enclave where humans attempt to live without touching the earth, watches the leos come south to poach; Reynard arranges a martyrdom.
"He is King of Beasts. Or Pretender, anyway. But that never applied to men, did it? Men are Lords of Creation." ...
"I suppose ... a person could stop being a Lord of Creation. Surrender that. And be a beast." (p. 36)
Painter's a Messianic figure; there are frequent references to the life of Christ, with Reynard comparing himself to both Judas and Barrabas. But if this is any one character's story, it seems to me that it's Reynard's: Reynard, with his inhuman intelligence and animal cunning, his unique nature, his lack of conscious planning which seems (but ultimately, I think, isn't) at odds with his foresight.

Crowley's prose is stunning; he coins words, scatters startling images almost incidentally, and makes his non-human characters both credible characters and credible Others.

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