Monday, June 1, 2015

Sometimes we don’t entirely understand - Little, Big, somewhere in between

When I started reading Little, Big (1981) twenty years ago, I wondered if John Crowley had written the novel as the result of a dare, or losing a bet.  Fantasy novels did not have as many fairies back then as they do now.  Things have changed.  Anyway, I was close to right:

It also offered a challenge: could I get readers to take seriously these very standard Victorian fairies as beings of power and scope? So it was a moment of hilarity and also alarm or apprehension, which only made the hilarity richer — could I bring this off?  (from the Perpetual Crowley Interview).

The book is about an extended family, the Drinkwaters, and their house (Edgewood) in the Catskills, roughly.  The women of the family believe in and see fairies; the men of the family struggle along as best they can.

“Sometimes we don’t entirely understand,” Doc said, as though it were wisdom he had arrived at after some cost.  “But we have out parts to play.”  (Book, Two, Ch. I, “Responsibilities”)

A surprising amount of the book takes place in New York City, in a grim version of Manhattan that perhaps now seems dystopian but was at the time merely New York in the 1970s, the “Drop Dead” era, accurately described.  Now there are books that are written to fit something called “urban fantasy”; Crowley’s book is, retrospectively, an early example of one of those.

The Drinkwaters are part of a larger story involving the fairies, something like this-world agents or avatars of fairy powers.  Since this is a fantasy novel, I can just take this as something like fact, however indistinct.  The characters spend a lot of time worrying about, or ignoring the problem of, free will and predestination.  Do I have a destiny, am I part of a larger story, that sort of thing.  Some of the characters are sure, others have doubts.  The fantasy device allows Crowley to highlight the theme.

This is what Dolce Bellezza, who suggested a Crowley readalong, writes about, that and the unconventional domestic arrangements of the Drinkwater family.  Most of the novel, setting aside the tarot cards and talking storks and perpetual motion machines, is domestic fiction, a soap opera that in a parodic move supplies material for a television soap opera within the novel.  I wonder if Crowley is parodying some of the domestic fiction of the 1960s – Updike or someone like that – but I do not know that literature so well, and likely never will.  There is a strong whiff of the 1960s in the ethos of the book, its family something of a religious cult living in a communal arrangement.  One character even ends up, thirty years ahead of his (our) time, running an urban farm while hopped up on magical hashish, except now the farm would be in Brooklyn, not Manhattan.  It is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.  Parody, again.

The domestic scenes, especially some of the big parties, remind me a lot of Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding; other parts are more like William Faulkner’s The Hamlet.  Maybe the closest analogues are Vladimir Nabokov's Ada and One Hundred Years of Solitude, all novels, like Little, Big, that demand family trees.  With  Gabriel García Márquez, Crowley shares a century, more or less, of action, characters who share the same name – multiple Auberons, multiple Lilacs – and in some ways an ending.  Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series uses this ending, too.  I am not sure that this particular story can have a different ending, other than “that schoolboy device he had once used, that last line that every schoolboy has once used to complete some wild self-indulgent fantasy otherwise uncompletable: then he woke up” (Book 6, Ch. IV, “Storm of Difference”).

Metaphorically, I mean.  Depends on who the “he” is who wakes up.  Crowley actually ends the novel with “once upon a time.”  There, that is what I need for tomorrow’s post.  I knew if I kept on I would find it.


  1. And also, isn't there something about the ending circling back to the beginning? The way out of Edgewood is the way back, or so I understood, and I likened it to North Wind's Secret: after Winter comes Spring, after this generation comes the next. You know, a circle of life kind of thing.

    That's what I thought of the end, as a whole, at any rate.

  2. Yes, definitely. If the fairies move inward and are replaced by the extended Drinkwaters, someone needs to move in from one world out to replace them. The story begins again - has already begun - "once upon a time."

  3. Phew! I'm glad my interpretation was "correct". I've wondered about the meaning of Brother North-Wind's Secret, I mean there was a whole chapter dedicated to it, and yet to me it points to the cyclical nature of Story. Life.

  4. That is how I think of it all. If not a cycle than perhaps a spiral, circling but also moving.