Little, Big (1981)


A curious title with an implied “and everything in between.” Close, far; natural, supernatural; rational, irrational—and everything in between, represented throughout the book by the Germanically-capitalized Somehow, is what one encounters once the title page is turned. John Crowley has appropriated the fantasy novel and made it his own. He has razed the boundaries between literary and genre fiction, chastening my former distaste for fantasy. In Little, Big everything is alive, everything possible, and what is perceived by the adult reader as bad is yet good when viewed through the eyes of a child.

This is my first experience of John Crowley but it certainly will not be the last. A remarkable writer and enormous intelligence, he has written not only this extraordinary work of literary fantasy, but also numerous historically-steeped books (Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land and the Ægypt tetralogy) and documentaries. Like all great writers he seems to have absorbed everything written from the Epic of Gilgamesh to the present day. And out of this love of reading and heady study come flourishes of the author through his characters: “Books! Opening with a crackle of old glue, releasing perfume; closing with a solid thump. He liked them big; he liked them old; he liked them best in many volumes…” (231).

The book reads like something Borges and Marquez would produce had they collaborated. As with Borges, at the center of the novel (though the center be everywhere and the circumference nowhere) is a seemingly infinite house (à la Danielewski’s House of Leaves) that parallels memory. The Edgewood house is many houses in one, with many fronts and backs, and many rooms and floors. Ariel Hawksquill, who has mastered the ancient Art of Memory (cf. the book of the same name), ponders the “everything in between” the rigid system of a theater of memory and the Heraclitean liquidity of human memory wherein unconscious shifts could produce new things: “…what you didn’t know arising, spontaneously, surprisingly, out of the proper arrangement of what you did…” (383).

As for the similarity with Marquez, aside from the properties of magic realism, Crowley gives us a multi-generational story that warrants a genealogy tree in the beginning of the book. I couldn’t hold back an empathetic laugh when the younger Auberon exclaims, “‘How do you keep all these people straight?'” Though Crowley’s genealogy lacks the compounded complication of multiple names that Marquez and Tolstoy present, there is enough familial secrecy to rival the fictional soap opera in the book.

My complaint with most fantasy novels (including the big one appropriated by HBO at present) is that, if you’re going to have me read your work for five hundred pages or more, you must guarantee one of two things: (1) mastery of language; or (2) provocation of thoughts. In other words, the writing must be nearly poetic, as that of, say, Updike or Nabokov; or the ideas presented must be striking as those of a Borges. It cannot simply be one treacherous adventure after another just to advance characters along a timeline. And it also cannot just be one attempt at shock value after another. Crowley, thankfully, gives us both savory language and complex thoughts.

The novel could rightly be considered, as Harold Bloom does with Moby-Dick, a giant prose poem. Indeed, there is a Virgil of sorts and a Beatrice of sorts. And the writing is constantly in the mode of modern poetry: “He saw the ruffled curtains move in the rose-odorous breeze. He listened to the dust-mop dog sigh in his dreams” (22); “…the screen [of the door] potbellied below from years of children’s thoughtless egress” (28); “While the moon smoothly shifted the shadows from one side of Edgewood to the other….” (96); “…[the letter’s] backside pimpled with hard-struck punctuation….” (166); “…a voice as precise and dry as parchment page” (199). In these few examples Crowley exhibits a precise hand at metaphor and simile, at seizing our thoughts with a sudden flash of another world come to life on the page. He even defies such sage writing advice as “don’t use adverbs” with the conjunction of the perfect and the strange: “George Mouse shuddered vastly” (198).

The use of parallax, which is explicitly mentioned in its context of astronomy, is employed in the manner of Joyce’s Ulysses and subsumed in the manner of a game two sisters play:

Sophie’s face kept constant, growing, the eyes widening, freckles expanding, a planet, then a moon, then a sun, then nothing at all visible except the onrushing map of it, the great eyes starting to cross at the last moment before their two noses rushed vastly headlong together to collide silently (65).

Without a syntactical break on the break, or any other visual cue, we will see the same object from two different characters. This device gives the narrative a cinematic quality that implies motion. And beyond standard perspective parallax between two characters, Crowley extends the method to describe the shifts that occurs when things are viewed first from afar and then close, which also seems to be where he grows most poetic:

In her hair Smoky noticed something, a tiny flower, or a jewel made to look like one; he looked closer and saw it was a snowflake, so whole and perfect he could count its arms and tell its parts (163).

But this isn’t to say that Crowley’s book is devoid of story or even its own brand of shocking moments. Indeed, there are many, many stories (some that would take took long to tell) and the episode “Solstice Night” gave me chills far into the night hours after reading it. Little, Big is a rich tapestry of characters, longings, conventional wisdom (“don’t long for things”; “what makes us happy, makes us wise”), secrets, alternative history (complete with a Hegelian zeitgeist), and, above all, a meditation of childhood (i.e. paradise) lost.

Within the variations of the themes of time and space, memory and reality, is a long commentary on childhood. The underlying question—indeed the one that burned in my own mind—is not written until well into the book (around page 403 of the William Morrow paperback): Are fairies real or are they just stories made up to amuse or explain things to children? All through the novel, there are characters who represent a child’s way of thinking and those who represent an adult’s way of thinking. Childhood is a time of resilience and zeal. Adulthood, with its longings and its questioning, is a great big letting-go of childhood, expressed with razor-burn sensitivity at the close of the book:

The world is older than it was. Even the weather isn’t as we remember it clearly once being; never lately does there come a summer day such as we remember, never clouds as white as that, never grass as odorous or shade as deep and full of promise as we remember they can be, as once upon a time they were (538).

Little, Big invites us to remember the once upon a time, to decide how to look at things, what to think. With Ariel Hawksquill, we can decide whether or not to trade in the ancient art of memory for the modern utilitarianism of the filing cabinet.

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