Wrapped Up In Books is The A.V. Club's monthly book club. We're currently discussing this month's selection, John Crowley's Little, Big, in a series of posts to be followed by a livechat some time on Friday. We'll announce the time, and our next two selections, shortly.
I went into the Wrapped Up In Books reading of John Crowley’s Little, Big not knowing quite what to make of it—and I come out very much the same way. I had never heard of the book or its author prior to its nomination as the first reader’s choice entry in our enjoyable little book club, and although it bore the Harold Bloom seal of approval, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. Fantasy has never been a favorite literary genre of mine, and modern fantasy even less so. (I also started reading it early, and finished it ahead of my A.V. Club cohorts—which now works against me, since some of the details are beginning to fade. I beg your indulgence for anything I get wrong below.)
Little, Big ended up being, for me, an incredibly frustrating reading experience—which is not to say an entirely negative one. In fact, on balance, I’ll tentatively say that I think the book was a good one, and I’ll definitely say that it was a pleasant surprise, and wasn’t bad in any of the ways that I had expected it might be. Indeed, it confounded my expectations at every turn—which proved to be both a boon and a vice, because a lot of the things I liked about it were things I don’t normally care for in books, and a lot of the things I disliked about it were things I normally champion. Its flowery, elaborate prose style is a perfect example: anyone who knows my tastes in literature knows that I’m a sucker for decorative, ornamental writing, which Little, Big has in abundance. What’s more, it features the kind of elaborate, erudite style that I usually fall for: Crowley is clearly an extremely knowledgeable writer, and from the very first pages, he throws around anastrophes, catachreses, and metonyms like he’s afraid he’s going to run out of them.
All of which is usually endearing to me, especially since I’m the last one to worry about plot if the prose style is taking good care of me. But because there was so clearly Something Magical lurking behind the next corner, it got to the point where I was ready to yell “Get on with it!” to our hapless hero Smokey Barnable. For a 525-page book, Little, Big seemed to take an unconscionably long time to get started, and when it finally did, I was feeling more annoyed than enchanted. Which brought me to another point of contention: I’m all for metafiction, and I even count as some of my favorite novels works like Nabokov’s Pale Fire and Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, books where the artificiality of the narrative and the fictional nature of the story are key elements to the storytelling. And yet there are times—Neil Gaiman’s Sandman is one, and Crowley’s Little, Big is most certainly another—where the "We are all part of one big Story called life" element seems so overplayed and obvious that I want to say, "Well, all right, cowboy, what else you got?"
Luckily, Crowley’s got a lot else. Once things really get going, and we’re finally introduced to the Mouses and the Drinkwaters and the often breathtakingly unique world in which they live, he manages to pull us right back into the narrative. In fact, that’s when, just as I had earlier been put off by elements that normally appeal to me, I began to see a lot of value in elements that usually do nothing for me. Setting is everything in a fantasy novel, and the fact that so few writers do it well accounts for much of my general dislike of the medium; Little, Big’s Edgewood, however, is nearly perfect in its evocation of another world that resides just near enough to our own to be familiar, but far enough away to be fantastic. In a thematic and descriptive way, it reminded me a lot of Mervyn Peake’s Castle Gormenghast, but tonally, it couldn’t be more different. I’ve so often been disappointed by urban fantasy, and the attempt to integrate modern settings and mores with fantasy tropes, that I was downright shocked at how well Crowley carries it off here. While the initial characterizations of Smokey and Daily Alice got on my nerves, their overall narrative arc was so winning and well-done that by the end, it was impossible not to care for them as much as the story does.
The shocks didn’t end there, by any means, nor did they get any more comfortable, which is why, here at the end of our encounter with Little, Big, I’m not quite sure where I stand with it. Allusive references can make a good book great; Joyce’s Ulysses, the greatest novel ever written, is built on an fierce framework of them. But Little, Big’s references to Sufism, Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, and Barbarossa seemed decorative rather than essential; I kept expecting them to provide a deeper level to the narrative, but most of the time they just seemed to be hung up on the walls of Edgewood to give us something pretty to look at. But Crowley refused to let himself get lost in standardized genre tropes; the book took so many unexpected and disturbing turns—from Smokey’s death to hints of incest to the absolutely bewildering switchback into future dystopia—that I ended up respecting the effort even when I was somewhat disappointed with the execution. Every time it would turn shallow where I wanted it to be deep, it would almost immediately offer depth where I expected nothing at all.
That doesn’t mean I absolutely loved the book; I’m still really trying to sort out my feelings about it, and at the moment, it’s being forced to compete with Thomas Pynchon, a battle nobody’s won in my lifetime. But usually, when a book takes a turn into territory I don’t like, it keeps heading in that direction and never comes back. Little, Big, on the other hand, veered all over the map, and refused me the comfort of letting me know where it was going, for better or for worse. I respect that a lot, and I suppose it’s a testament that the next time I went to my local bookstore after finishing it, I picked up another novel by John Crowley.
To a few of Zack’s questions, in brief:
• As I mentioned above, I rather enjoyed the discursions into the modern world that Little, Big offered. I usually dislike that sort of thing, since it takes you out of the narrative, but I think Crowley carried it out with such skill that I would have even enjoyed a bit more of it.
• Again, I’m usually the last person to complain about a thin plot, but here, it bugged me more than a little. Not only did the narrative take a while to get going, but once it did, it often seemed like it didn’t know or care where to go. When your prose style is strong enough, you can get away with this—goodness knows I’ve defended any number of my favorite authors with that very statement—but here, though Crowley was clearly intending for the book to be carried forward on his poetic prose, I just wasn’t feeling it, so the lightness of the story was always felt.