Little, Big: Donna Bowman's comments
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.
During what's now called my tween years, when I would have been in middle school if such a thing had existed in my area, I read C.S. Lewis' Chronicles Of Narnia over and over and over. My favorite was the book in the series that's probably considered objectively the weakest entry: The Last Battle. I couldn't tell you anything about the first three-quarters of the book, the plotted part where Narnia is under siege by evil Muslim-like people from an evil Arabia-like land to the south, and where the kids threaten to grow up and stop believing in it, and so on. What I read it for was that last 25 percent—when Peter, Edmund, Lucy, and the other characters who've appeared during the previous six books go to the real Narnia, Aslan's country, where they will live forever, "and where each chapter is better than the one before." The description of the characters' entry into Aslan's county was so thrilling it nearly made my heart stop. Upward and inward! they sang out as they flew ever deeper into its marvelous secrets, and I pictured them leaping like salmon, going home at the same time as they were going on a never-ending adventure.
Even at the time, I knew there was something tremendously unsatisfying about this ending, this portrayal of heaven and eternal life in God's presence as the absence of conflict and the end of storytelling (although Lewis insists that's not the case). I responded viscerally to the fulfillment of the promise made to these characters and their attainment of the highest goal; I've always been deeply moved by aspirational art and by the longing for a transcendent realm. But most versions of that realm are problematic because they are essentially static, a wish for escape from the vicissitudes of mortal life, a desire to rest completely satisfied with every want fulfilled. I can't help but mourn the closure, the triumphalism, the retreat of that vision into a weak imagination content with banishing earthly ills.
And that's why Little, Big might just be the perfect book for me. I read it with my heart in my throat half the time, worried about whether these characters knew what they were doing as they muddled through a world dappled with light and shadow, and my brain racing the other half, piecing together the hints and clues about how this City differs from our New York, or for what purpose Russell Eigenblick has been brought to power. And then, when I got to the end, when Lilac returns to lead them all to The World Elsewhere for the summit meeting, when they set off on that journey or pondered maddeningly whether they were meant to set out at all, I knew it. This was what I had been looking for all those times I read those last chapters of The Last Battle. Here it was—heaven without eternity, transcendence without omnipotence, an end without answers to all the questions, in fact with some of the questions revealed as really, really stupid questions to begin with.
After I shut the book, I wept for about 15 minutes. I'm getting tears in my eyes typing. I know that won't make sense to some of you, but let me tell you why. This was a book about the way we want things to be but fear they are not. Will we let our aspirational desires or our fears win out? I want the world to be full of unseen magic. I want there to be forces behind the scenes that are tending the stories, forces that can't make things come out right, but who can hope along with us and help us shape the plot, although in a different mode of action. I want there to be an architecture to existence that we can learn to read, yet still be haunted by the elusiveness of its keystone. I want my children to grow up in a world where we're not entirely left to our own devices, where someone is watching over us, and we can be in touch with that someone from time to time. I want there to be a Somewhere where some of it Sometimes makes sense, even if it's not the stuff we most want made sense of. Yet I don't want it all to be finished before it's begun, the end already present in full and guaranteed, like a needle slipping through the grooves of a record. That's just lazy and smug and naive.
Are my desires similarly tainted? Are they just me wanting to be a child again, going back to a time when Mommy and Daddy were taking care of things even though they couldn't always do it perfectly? Maybe. Quite possibly. But Little, Big made me feel the fragile beauty of my wishes, and made me realize how stunningly unlikely it is that reality reflected them, and yet how desperately I want them to be true. I want to live in The World Elsewhere not because it is perfect, but because it isn't. Because it sails serenely or turbulently on beside our own often-beautiful existence, and might just pass us by and not hear our cries for help, or might trail a line for us to grab. Because it represents the complexity and contingency that I know, deep down, is the hallmark of all true things, yet offers a few anchorages in a different sea of knowledge and perception, to grab onto and ponder and interpret through the lens of the place we came from and that we can never fully abandon.
My unconditional love for this book is all bound up with the vagaries of who I am and where I came from. But I don't think it's entirely without foundation in objective literary qualities. On that subject, I'll just say that after the first 20 pages or so, it was clear to me that I was in the hands of someone with an artistry so singular that I would not be able to detect a misstep even if he should commit one. I know that my fellow readers are not going to agree with me on this point, so I want to explain if I can. The only way Crowley could have screwed this up, to me, is if he broke his own rules, if he set foot outside his own map—a map I don't have possession of, but a map I'm absolutely trusting that he does. I could not detect any such fissures in the text, but you have to understand that I had given myself over to it long since, and the error would have had to have been monumentally jarring to break the spell.
I wish I could turn right back to page one and begin again, picking up all the scattered breadcrumbs that I couldn't see the first time. Alas, other books are piled by the bedside. But I will return—I think I will have to—to linger over those tearful moments of self-realization and feel that clarity return to my own dreams.