A Magick Life: A Biography of Aleister Crowley – Martin Booth

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When reviewing a biography there’s always a temptation to review its subject. I’ll get that out of the way by saying that I think of Aleister Crowley, the most famous occultist of the last century, a complex and obnoxious man with too much money. One source Booth cites, whose name I cannot remember, described him as “genius gone wrong”. Well, if you’re running around referring to yourself as The Great Beast 666, I’ll warrant that something has gone wrong with your life. Despite all that, I have a soft spot for occultists because nobody expects me to take them seriously.

My main difficulty in reading biographies is the lack of dialogue. All we ever get are summaries of complex events drawn from primary sources like interviews. Somehow this makes reading more of an endurance feat than it normally is. Booth’s loquacious and sometimes tangential prose makes the biography readable, but even then I was averaging fifty pages a day.

There was particularly chilling moment that I know plan to rip off for a story. Crowley grew up in a very Christian family, and as his mother lost her wits after her husband died she called her son a beast. Familiar with Revelations, he internalised that title which in turn set the course of his life. Such a cruel thing to call a child.

Booth’s thorough research means that this biography is vital reading for anyone interested in Crowley’s life, either for reasons of personal gratification or if they need to know about the man for some project. As biography is a genre I take little pleasure in, I cannot recommend this book to be read for fun.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – David Eggers

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This is a real book.

The main reason I was so excited to read Egger’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was that extracts from the book were used in the readers for two of my creative writing course. Specifically, the highly idiosyncratic preface and Egger’s description of his mother’s terminal illness were used. I have written one or two essays on those portions without reading the entire novel, hence my excitement.

The main story concerns Eggers taking guardianship of his brother Toph after the death of his parents, later working on ambitious magazine called The Might. It’s very nineties, but only in a way in which those who were in their twenties in the nineties could appreciate. Eggers talks a lot about The Real World, not so much about Pokemon. Although Toph does play a Sega Genesis, and later a Playstation.

I’m not sure if ‘novel’ is the correct way to describe this memoir, even a fanciful one like Eggers’, but the metafictional devices he uses are certainly memorable. Characters frequently call out Eggers on the self-serving nature of his narrative, such as the casting director of The Real World who gets him to admit that she never asked the questions he described and that they are the perfect launchpad for another of his wall-of-text monologues. A composite character called John, an addict, refuses to die so that Eggers can become a better person. The most bombastic scene of the novel is a bipolar fantasy in which the roof of Eggers’ hometown church is lifted by the hand of God while an angelic choir sings and his mother laughs.

Through these self-reflexive moments, Eggers seems to ask the reader whether his less admirable qualities can be ameliorated by his constant acknowledgement of them. To which I answer that the constant acknowledgement doesn’t help the situation.

I enjoyed this book because it took post-modernism as far as it could without becoming unbearable, although I totally understand how others could by put off by all that. And even though Eggers isn’t always the most sympathetic entity, his adventures are still engaging. Without robots, aliens or time travel A Heartbreaking Work managed to interest me all the way through – which is just a long way of saying this is a worthwhile book.

Harry Potter and The Methods of Rationality – Eliezer Yudkowsky

Here’s the fan fiction I’ve been promising to review for quite some time, Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. The premise is that Harry’s aunt Petunia married an Oxford academic, who instills within the orphan wizard a passion for the scientific method and a taste for science fiction. Harry’s rationality plus Hogwart’s magic and intellectual laziness can only result in spellbinding chaos. You can download the book in a number of formats from its website, although I preferred to remove the blank spaces between paragraphs from the Kindle version using Calibre.

I’m not willing to divulge any further story details because they’d be spoilers. Suffice to say that I love what Yudkowsky’s done with Lord Voldemort, and how he’s taken characters who functioned as little more than extras in the original novels and given then distinctive personalities. Oh, and Snape’s comic potential is also explored. The story is great, but I refuse to tell you anything about it.

Yudkowsky’s fan fiction has a clear didactic mission, disseminating his vision of rationality among the Potter fandom. Only rarely does the story’s educational aspirations overshadows the fun, although that is just my subjective opinion. He also refers to his own website, so good on him. Educational fiction for those who consider themselves adults is a very interesting idea. Possible stories I’m imagining in this vein include a variation on Dan Brown’s tired formula where all the clues are based on actual history, or a Douglas Adams knock-off where the hilariously tangential rants refer to QI factoids. Fiction that teaches is an idea worth stealing.

A particularly interesting idea from the beginning of Yudkowsky’s fan fiction is the idea that we should take children seriously. Harry finds it particularly frustrating when his adoptive parents talk down to him. I can’t help but assume that this element is autobiographical, and wondering whether Yudkowsky has any children or how seriously he’d take them if he did. Either way, genuinely respecting children as human beings could well be a vaguely revolutionary idea.

This is a long book. Before writing this review I was wasting my life away on TvTropes where I learned that this fan fiction is longer than the first five Harry Potter books. That’s understandable – long fan fictions are intended to be read as serials, not as monster novels. Never stopped me. Besides, Harry Potter fans are used to devouring mammoth tomes, and I expect that most are proud of their ability to do so.

Long story short, I believe that Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is a seminal moment in fan fiction due to its blatant didactic-ism, humour, length and all-round awesomeness.