REVIEW: LITTLE, BIG
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John Crowley: Little, Big
– March 27, 2021
John Crowley is sorely underappreciated in the literary world. At least by my experience. I have never once seen one of his books read in a class. This not by everyone, though. Harold Bloom considers The Solitudes, the first book in Crowley"s Aegypt quadrilogy, so good that it should be part of the U.S. literary canon. (To note, The Solitudes was originally called Aegypt, so you will see it under both titles.) Little, Big, however, might be Crowley"s most famous book. NPR did a short review of it in 2014, so it has not completely disappeared from the landscape. (I am not much for that review, though, except for how much it is pushing the book on people.)
And the book is not little. It is big. Well, in my Perennial edition its 500-odd pages, but of very dense text. And it reads much larger yet. But it is worth it. It begins as the story of one Smoky Barnable, and how he enters by marriage the Drinkwater family, a odd family that lives in an isolated, very large, and on its own odd house. But the book is about more than Smoky. It is actually about the family, and goes back four generations — and forward one — in the telling of the tale of that family and the strange things that happen to it. And that tale is, in itself, wound up in The Tale — a tale on a cosmic scale in which the family plays an important role and of which they are barely cognizable, that involves the whole of New York City and the United States (though, those two geographic areas are mostly only implied), and their near demise under the dictatorial rule of an undying king.
The book is absolutely fantasy. Perhaps it might be called urban fantasy; though, really, the Drinkwater mansion is outside the urban realm. It is often called magical realism. (The NPR review calls it that.) If it falls within that category it is the apex of that kind of writing. It is absolutely not genre writing — and I have questioned if magical realism is a true genre or just a loosely defined set of traits. (And as such I have no problem with Little, Big being called magical realism.) It is magnificently written, endlessly creative, and, as one might expect with Crowley, very intelligent. The paragraphs where we first meet Grandfather Trout (actually a fish, though once a Drinkwater, though nobody knows that) is just wonderful writing. Perhaps the best passages in the book. (Which may be unfortunate for how early on they appear.)
In honesty, not all of it worked for me. The long story of Auberon in New York became for me a bit too long. I grew tired of the search that I knew — any reader knows — would never come to fruition. But, that could just be the varieties of reading experience. I am sure other people found it pathetic (in the good way, as in pathos). But that is just one part of this book of many storylines: the daughter that is not the daughter but a changeling (and the story of the actual daughter among magical forest critters); the fortune telling woman who sees the coming of the king and all it means; Smoky"s life among the Drinkwaters, first as the newcomer, then as their leader; and of course the house, how it came to be, and what happens to it. Which is a piss poor survey of all that goes on in this book, when it comes to it.
On the literary side, Little, Big does ask a question: it is creative, it is inventive, it is fantastic. But for all its narrative complications and imaginings — and the at times luminous writing &mdash -- does it yet fall under the critique of it being only narrative, and thus not rising to the level of literature? Does it lack the ideational resonances — the mythic, symbolic depth — of true literature? Little, Big is in no way genre fantasy. It does not follow the rules and demands of genre fantasy. (Indeed, at the simplest level, it is far more intelligent.) But that does not mean that the book is true literature, and is but a very well written, very imaginative novel. And I should correct myself immediately: I said "but a very well written"; but that "but" is betraying. Indeed, considering how little fantasy is "very well written" — how little fiction is "very well written" in the nature of this book — that is to say giving effort to it being not merely narrative prose, that is to say very well written as opposed to being merely very cleanly written, it is saying a lot to praise Little, Big for being what it is, even if it does primarily operate — on the ideational level — in the factual.
My own conclusion is that no, Little, Big does not rise to the level of true literature, of being both materially beyond the basic needs of the communication of a narrative and ideationally written to function within the symbolic mode of thinking. It is the first, but is not the latter. At least, not by my reading. (I am willing to listen to argument otherwise.) But, still, if you are a person interested in fantasy that rises above genre fantasy, that shows what can be done beyond the mediocrities that usually define the genre, this is a good place to go. It is an excellent book. And if you are willing to call as "literature" books marked by their material sophistication, even if ideationally they are mostly factual, I can live with that. Though I reserve the term "true literature" — and "true poetry," two terms which may be wholly interchangeable — for that greater endeavor.
Definitely worth chasing this down. A wonderful pool to swim in.