You would think that writing an acknowledged masterpiece, Little Big, would put him more squarely in the center of the literary map, but his latest book seems to have dropped into the world with very little fanfare. It seems a shame on the one hand, but on the other, deliciously like his art -- a secret door to pass through that not everyone is able to see.
Ka is the story of a crow, Dar Oakley, and the Ymr that is in ruin is our own world, the world of People. The narrator of the novel is an old man, living on after the death of his wife in a brink-of-apocalypse future that seems depressingly familiar. The environment is poisoned, his own days are numbered, all seems ready to collapse. But he rescues a sick crow from his backyard and learns that this is no ordinary crow. Little by little, they learn to communicate, and the epic story that unwinds is Dar Oakley's -- an immortal creature who has witnessed human history from the time of Pre-Christian Europe to these last gasping days in which it seems possible that humans have almost managed to extinguish themselves.
Dar remembers when he first saw humans, back before crows had names (he is the first to have given himself a name, a custom that later crows eventually took up). He tells how he entered the realm of people, how he unwittingly stole the gift of immortality from them, and how he established special connections with only a few over his long life -- a span which brought him from the Old World to the New World of America. Dar is able to enter into the realm of the dead and return. He has died many deaths, but resurrects, and each time he carries with him the accrued memories of his former lives among Crows -- and People.
Crowley's novel is magical, but it isn't just entertaining fantasy. It is a story about the stories we tell ourselves -- how we bear to live and think to die. It's about the deep mystery of language. Dar is just alien enough from the human sphere to offer observations that are both disturbing and poignant.
In the aftermath of the Civil War (one of the Great Dyings he is witness to), Dar is able to see the struggling dead souls, still murmuring their last thoughts before dying, still wandering, unable to rest because they were never claimed or were buried unknown.
Pity. He felt it in his breast and in his hooded eyes when at dawn he roosted to sleep in hiding. He had no name for it because he was the first Crow ever to feel it within him. Pity for them in the awful complications of the lives they built for themselves, laboring as helplessly and ceaselessly as bees building their combs, but their combs held no honey, he thought. Useless, useless, and worse than useless, needless: the labor of their lives, the battles and deaths, and all their own doing.
I would recommend Crowley to any serious reader, but especially if you are a fan of Michael Chabon, who counts Crowley as an influence. I also think of George Saunders and Cormac McCarthy.
Ka is a book of wonders -- both funny and tragic, profoundly moving and deeply humane. And you'll never look at a crow in quite the same way after reading it.