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 want the world to be full of unseen magic,” Donna wrote in her Little, Big commentary yesterday. “I want there to be forces behind the scenes that are telling the stories.” Me, too! But I didn’t find them in “Little, Big,” beginning with the central myth on which it is hung, the Tale.
Like Smoky, I was charmed by the Drinkwaters’ rural wonderland – for the first eighty pages or so. Then I started to feel the void left by the absence of new information: The notion of The Tale, and fate controlling the lives of the Drinkwater-Brambles’ descendents, is reiterated so often I began wondering if the family legacy was actually a kind of fundamental amnesia. The Tale was always brought up, but never expanded upon; always hovering over, but never described. The Drinkwater-Bramble clan is always surprised to find out what has happened, suggesting they were just as clueless as I about the workings of the Tale on their lives. My interest picked up briefly with Auberon Barnable’s decision to move to The City, himself echoing August’s abortive exploration into forging his own path while his relatives sit in their magic house, only to sink again as Smoky’s son went back to Edgewater after all. Later on, when George Mouse tells young Auberon that he believes he’s Sylvie’s dad as well as her former lover, Auberon’s reaction is to take it as confirmation of the Tale, and then there’s kind of a giant shrug. What’s a little incest when the fate of the entire planet is at stake? I realize that after the bleak world of “Blood Meridian” it seems almost silly to pause over a crime George Mouse isn’t even positive he committed, but that world is explicitly committed to moral meaninglessness. At what point does knowing there’s a mighty Tale that governs your life absolve you of all responsibility for your own actions? But more on that in a moment.
The more references that were piled on to the framework of the Tale, the less I wanted to take stock of them. What are we to make, for example, of Sylvie returning to young Auberon in the end and covering his head with horns? Any English major worth his salt would recognize such an obvious cuckolding, but is it the realization about his uncle which constitutes that cuckolding — and why, considering it predated his relationship with Sylvie? (I also got distracted every time the character Fred Savage appeared, but I’m prepared to take full responsibility for that. Damn you, “Wonder Years”!)
The reference that gave me the most pause was to Alice in Wonderland, less directly correlated with Alice Drinkwater’s life (though she did genetically eat the cake and end up tall!) than in the creepy conflation of magical powers being attached to pre-pubescent girls or women who are described as childlike. This connection is made first with Auberon Drinkwater closely examining pictures of his naked sisters and reflecting on a life of taking pictures of his prepubescent female relatives naked – to see the fairies, you understand. (Daily Alice later tells Smoky that this happened to her and Sophie too.) The family was practically founded on this Dodgsonian difference: John Drinkwater is attracted to Violet because of her powers, and despite the 25-year age gap; he first touches her “paternally, but felt a thrill as though some current ran through her hand to his.” I don’t know exactly what it all means, but it bothered me.
When Lilac confronts her about how to find the place for the Fairies’ Parliament, Sophie describes what she’s lost as “all her childhood’s certainties… the sweet unreasonable air of wonder she had once lived in.” I began to question whether I had lost that sweet unreasonable air of wonder myself. Donna, you talked about the spell that the “Chronicles of Narnia” put you under, and I dwelt in those marble halls too, and in Diana Wynne Jones’ Time City, and at home with Meg and Charles Wallace in Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quartet. I never found an entry into Crowley’s magical world, but I didn’t assume, as Zack said the dearth of evidence might lead to, that it was all a big joke.
It was just never enough for me to be told that the Tale was “longer and stranger than we can imagine” (Violet) and that “no gesture any of them could make was not a part of it” (Alice), as something that “can’t be resigned” (Sylvie talking about Destiny, the same dance by another tune). Without any clear sense of that Tale, this book is boring and repetitious almost from the beginning. Dear readers, tell me I am not alone out here.
To answer your questions, Zack:
- I liked the sense that the modern world was going along without them, to a point; then I wondered whether it was also part of the Tale we were never told that the Drinkwaters and their cohorts would have to abjure more modern conveniences.
- I didn’t necessarily need more of a sense of story to be satisfied, although that surely would have helped; the Marquezian dimensions of some of the digressions suggested as much. In particular, I wanted to know much more about Ariel Hawksquil’s place in this universe and the Artificial Memory she was trying to build, and later, about Smoky’s orrery — both machines that suggested the awesome power to make sense of Crowley’s sprawling universe or decipher the tale, and both concepts that were dropped before I could really get a clear hold on them. (Philip Pullman’s alethiometer in the Golden Compass series owes a major debt to Artificial Memory.)
- Not surprisingly, given my impatience with the Tale untold, the ending failed to give me any closure. After presiding over some intriguing scenes of group-think and modern fascism, Russell Eigenblick is literally put back to bed. Smoky is cast as a martyr because he has devoted his life to bringing about the end of a Tale in which he did not figure.” But what exactly _has_ he been doing out there, anyway? If the Tale is so persistently thrumming its way through the lives of his family, then going along with it can’t also be construed as an individual act of nobility.