Little, Big by John Crowley, is like a nesting doll full of paradoxes: a big meditative book about little things hiding big things; a genre novel where nothing much happens on the surface (like in some realistic novels). It’s made up of small gestures with large emotional meanings; a magical-realist fable and a family saga covering generations in small spaces. As it turns inward, its world grows bigger.
Little, Big was first published in 1981 to great acclaim, nominated for numerous awards and winning the World Fantasy Award. It was garnished and draped in laurels and accolades. No less a critic than Harold Bloom included it in his Western Canon, declared it “the best book of its kind since Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.” A twenty-fifth anniversary illustrated edition is due out soon. I set off into its depths at the urging of one of my dearest Facebook friends.
With some guilt, I’ll admit I failed to fall in love with Little, Big. Is it something with me? (After all, I’m a man who hated—yes hated—Moby Dick.) It might be. Still, after expending serious effort and making it all the way through this exquisitely written novel, I felt more frustrated than moved. And somewhat glad when it was over.
Little Big is a family saga, a magical realist fable remotely reminiscent of the wonderfully crazy Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates, and compared by some to A Hundred Years of Solitude. It starts with the story of Smoky Barnable, a resident of an unnamed city much like New York, who one day sets out on foot from the city into the countryside (resembling New York’s Catskill Mountains) to marry one Daily Alice Drinkwater, a girl he’s met only once.
Smoky is also marrying into Alice’s remarkably eccentric and extended family and, further, marrying into their most unusual world: the gateway to the world of Faeries.
The Drinkwaters live in a fantastical house, called Edgeworth, a mansion amalgamated into several architectural styles including Tudor and Gothic. It was built by the family patriarch on the wonderful idea that within every world exists another world, one that is larger. And as that world passes within, another arrives to take its place. Edgeworth does look different from every angle, both inside and out, its true nature hard to grasp, impossible to define (making it, maybe, a metaphor for life).
The novel covers three generations, with Smoky marrying the one in the middle. The larger overarching story concerns the struggle of the Faeries against their enemies in the upper world, personified by a cartel known as the Noisy Bridge Rod and Gun Club and a charismatic leader known as Russell Eigenblick who somehow becomes President and declares war . . . but it’s unclear against whom.
Meanwhile, Smoky and Alice have three children, including a son Auberon, a tremendously forgiving and patient sort who makes his way back to the City where he moves in with his Uncle George Mouse and falls in madly love with a vibrant Puerto Rican girl named Sylvie. He then loses her, right before becoming a successful writer for a long-running TV soap opera that connects obliquely with the story of his own life, his family, and their world. . . .
If you have trouble grasping on what’s at stake here, come sit by me, friend. Little, Big reads like a realistic domestic novel, with fantastical elements elegantly, carefully woven in alongside the characters’ small detailed gestures and domestic outlook. Even the magic reads like something out of a classic New Yorker story. And like so many realistic novels I’ve read, not much happens. No one, not the tyrant Russell Eigenblick, does much of anything. It’s the interior lives of the characters where the drama happens.
That’s a definite virtue for readers who value that kind of focus. For the rest of us—shallow action fans, like me—Little, Big may seem long and boring, promising a revelation or payoff that it never quite delivers. There seems to be no urgency, no thrill, no suspense. At times, the magic feels buried in detail. It occasionally moved me, but never thrilled me.
If you do manage to finish the book, as I did, it will be due to the simple true fact that John Crowley is a great stylist, a beautiful writer. He reminds me quite a bit of Vladimir Nabokov in the twisting shimmer and gleam of his prose.
But Nabokov also wrote books things happen, even in his most challenging novels. (Pale Fire, for one, contains a grand suspense story among its mysterious trappings). Little, Big, for all its sparkling beauty, failed to set my mind and heart afire.
Copyright 2015 by Thomas Burchfield