Little, Big: Zack Handlen's comments
I’m at something of a loss here. I finished John Crowley's Little, Big last week: last Sunday, in fact, after a marathon day of reading that left me exhausted and unable to sleep. Some books are best enjoyed that way, I think. Not parceled out in polite, easy-to-swallow chunks, but devoured, until one is so engorged with prose that it’s hard to see anything else but words—until, you suspect, were someone to get close enough, they’d see prose printed across your eyeballs like watery tattoos.
So that was fun, no arguments here. Oh, I’m certain I missed some of the novel’s subtler points, and I can’t seriously argue with someone who’d rather take their time wading through a story this immense, but for me, it’s the plunge forward, that sickening, all-encompassing rush that comes from hours of sitting in the same spot turning pages and living somebody else’s dream. It’s probably not very healthy; I find that when I come back to reality after such an experience, I’m somewhat seasick, as though I have to get land-legs back for my mind. But I love that sensation.
Like I said, though, I’m at a loss, because how in the hell do I talk about such an experience? I’m on my third paragraph, and I’ve yet to actually get into any detail, yet to introduce the Drinkwaters and the Mouses, and Edgewood, and the fairies, and everything else. I’ve never been big on book clubs—I don’t object to them philosophically or anything, I just don’t join many, partly because I don’t like having my reading dictated to me, and partly because, well, what’s the point of talking about this? What’s the point in trying to tie down to words such a deeply personal experience, an experience that can’t help but seem shallow and silly when you analyze it? Little, Big is not the best novel I’ve ever read, it doesn’t even crack the top ten, but it’s rather grand, and there’s nothing I could say about it that Crowley himself hasn’t already covered years ago. But let’s try anyway, because c’mon; as far as book clubs go, we’re pretty much in a best-possible-world type situation here, right?
Little, Big takes a while to really get started. Plot-wise, it doesn’t really become interesting till the latter half, when Auberon makes his for-better-and-for-worse trip to the City; until then, we get lots of incidents, some great sequences (like the fate of the original Auberon, a man doomed with a surfeit of love), and oodles upon oodles of atmosphere. Some books assault you with story, but Big keeps its plotting around the edges. From the occasional mentions of “the Tale,” it’s clear that something is going on, and that there is definitely a purpose behind all this meandering, but Crowley plays it close to the vest, trusting that readers will be enthralled enough in the world he’s created that they won’t mind if an actual point takes a long time in arriving.
That world—largely Edgewood, with the time in the City as distant second, although you could make the case that the City is somehow just an extension of the original house, what with George Mouse’s innovations—takes bit and pieces from other sources, old mysticism, legends, and myths, then jumbles them together enough so that while everything’s somehow familiar, it’s never predictable. That familiarity is another way to keep the reader’s attention when new characters and larger twists are introduced; it gives you the illusion of safe ground even when you aren't actually standing on anything. The prose style is elegant, lucid, and evocative. Again, we have an author who could make a more conscientious reader than myself reach for the dictionary every few sentences. I found it was better to let it all wash over, myself. Even if I didn’t get the specific meaning of the words, I could understand the sound of them.
And there are fairies, too. This is more in the mold of Jack Vance fairies, or the kind from the Brothers Grimm and Shakespeare; they are creatures whose acts bring beauty and cruelty to the world, even while their motivation and behavior is utterly inscrutable. Crowley gives us just enough understanding of them (including some time in Mrs. Underhill’s head) that you can feel safe in assuming it isn't entirely one big joke. I have my suspicions as to some of the things that happen near the end of the story, but—here’s another drawback to doing a book club, and such a wide-reaching one at that—I’m reluctant to share them, because I don’t want to look like an idiot. I had to make myself go first here, because if I didn’t, I end up just agreeing with what everyone else said, because, well, I’m kind of a coward.
Here I am, though, and I’ll risk it, before we get into the standard topics of discussion. There’s a lot going on in the ending, but I think primarily it’s about the fairy creatures who organize and prank the lives of Daily Alice and the others arranging their successors. Crowley’s conception of an endlessly retreatable universe, a place where the further in you go, the more there is to see, suggests an infinite series of circles within circles, and I think the fairies, given the condition of the modern world, are retreating inward before they die off completely. But before they can do that, they need to find someone to take their place, so order remains as it should be. That’s why the need to recreate, at least somewhat, ancient conditions, and it’s why Smoky, right before dying, has his vision of a world that contains everything it could possibly contain within it. Nothing is ever lost here. It just gets smaller. (But Smoky still dies. Does that mean he’ll be forever in that final moment?)
Anyway, enough of that. I’m curious (and that’s one swell thing about book clubs, at least, getting to hear from other people what dreams they had): what did you think?
- I kept being surprised by mentions of the modern world. The narrative feels so timeless (and, as such, seems like it should be happening far in the past) that whenever a car or a television got mentioned, it was like finding something rude written on a church pew. I appreciate the effect, but I sometimes felt like it was sort of a cop-out; either give us some kind of modern world, or dodge the issue altogether.
- Was there enough story here to satisfy? The book often feels like all the concrete parts have been edited out; we’re just left with a series of digressions and character moments. I think that works—at the very least, I never felt like I wanted more exposition—but I can see it being frustrating.
- There’s the Art of Memory: making a house in your head and using symbols to keep track of your life. Could the Edgewood house be a physical version of this? Could the people inside be as much symbols as people, representing things that only make sense when put in context with each other?
- What did you get out of the ending?