Friday, July 20, 2012

John Crowley; Little, Big (1981)

The thing about Little, Big is, it's kind of indescribable.  Oh, it's easy enough to say what it's "about" in outline: it's the chronicle of a large family living on a rural estate in upstate New York that is felt to be close to Faerie over the course of a century or so.  I could even relate some specific things that happen over the course of the novel: a photographer obsessively tries to capture evidence of faeries' existence.  A young man goes to the big city to seek his fortune.  Another man is transformed after making a foolish wish.  A magician creates architecture of memory.  A young girl is taken and replaced by a changeling.  I could go on.  But really, there's no point.  It would be woefully inadequate in terms of giving you any real sense of the thing; as anyone who's read it would attest.  The title refers specifically to the notion that Faerie is kind of a ring, and when you get deeper into it--to places by rights be smaller--it actually gets larger; on a more general level, it refers to the characters lives and contrasts in perspective between big and little.  And that's about the best I can do as far as describing it goes.  The plotting is complex, allusive, and deft, like the orreries that figure into the narrative.  It's by no means Ulysses or anything, but there are definitely things to miss (not, however, that this will ruin the novel for you).  I will just say that it would not hurt to be passingly familiar with both A Midsummer Night's Dream and Attar's Conference of the Birds.

What else can I say?  I can say that it's long; longer than its five hundred thirty-eight pages would indicate.  This is partially because there's just so much crammed in there (the resemblance to One Hundred Years of Solitude in that and other regards is noted), and partially because, while not difficult per se, it's definitely a book that demands your attention, and demands to be read at its own stately pace.

I can also say that it's beautifully written.  That the last chapter gets very deeply into "I'm sorry; I must have something in my eye" territory.  That I cannot remember the last time I read something as good.  Also, that I want to give Crowley a big ol' hug.  Perhaps that would make him uncomfortable, but there's something intimate about the relationship between reader and writer with the text itself as intermediary, so I think it's an occupational hazard.  Though, for what it's worth, I've never felt this particular impulse about any other author.

"The greatest fantasy ever written by an American," says a blurb on the back cover from Washington Post Book World.  That sounds right to me, although you should keep in mind that most of the fantasies written by Americans that I've read have been terrible Dungeons & Dragons novels.  But this may be misleading, as it's really nothing like most of what is sold under the marketing label of "fantasy."  This explains many of the inevitable baffled and irritated negative amazon reviews, and it shows the limits of boxing fiction in like that, inevitable though it may be.

On a personal note, it's books like this that remind me why the teaching of literature is an important thing.  I know, I know; nobody cares; in the future it's gonna be all for-profit business schools and why the HELL did I think this would be a good idea?, but the fact remains, novels like this are, for me, a quite vital component of life, and if I hadn't had a few really good teachers, this would all be completely closed off to me.  And the fact that now it's not really, really matters.

I once had a teacher who was very, very convinced that the purpose of a literature class should be to inculcate in students a sense of social justice; to read books that could be used in that way, and to teach them accordingly.  I don't disagree that this has value, but at the same time, I don't think the vague "expand your mind!" panaceas that are used to justify English teaching in general are completely worthless.  You probably WILL become a better, more empathetic person if you read more great books (I kinda wince as I use that phrase, but there you go), but I don't think that's all there is to it--or, to put it another way, I don't think the value that you accrue from it is wholly of a sort that will aid "society" in any tangible way.  I know it's a thing that I probably SHOULDN'T say, given our current, highly toxic, results-based rhetoric, but I will anyway: it is very unlikely that English classes will help you in the workplace in any way.  They might just save your soul, though.

("Pfft--whatever; who cares about that?  Your purpose is to be a cog in a machine!  Your personal edification is irrelevant!"  And isn't it cute that the people saying things like that invariably style themselves ardent anti-communists?)

You can read an interview type thing with Crowley about the book here, though I wouldn't recommend doing so without having read the book first.  At that same site, you can also buy a super-ultra-deluxe limited-edition for a mere ninety-five dollars.  Don't get me wrong; from the sample chapter provided, I am sure that it's breathtakingly beautiful, and if any book deserves such treatment it's this one, but I dunno--given that this little/big dichotomy is so central, there seems to be a certain irony in this.  You buy a regular copy of the book for twelve bucks on amazon, and you're getting a really big experience for a quite modest price.  Thematically resonant!  You pay ninety-five bucks, and it's big price; big experience.  The tension is gone.  Which isn't to say that I WOULDN'T love to own a copy of the special version, for when I reread the thing (and believe me, I'm going to at some point), but still…


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