John Crowley: Little, Big

Brendan Foreman wrote this review.

Practically by definition, fantasy has often been the most retrograde of all of the current popular genres of literature. It is the one style of writing that is most intent on not only looking backward in time but also thinking backwards in time. The very elements of fantasy — magic, wizardry, sword-play — are absent from most modern sensibilities which is, of course, what makes it so appealing to many of us.

Unfortunately, this often means that the writing style of a lot of Fantasy takes on the feel of 19th century adventure novels: fun but insubstantial. A few writers have tried to drag Fantasy as a genre into the 20th century; even fewer have succeeded as John Crowley has in Little, Big. He has masterfully reworked many stock fantasy themes — the wise-fool wizard, the knight-errant, the enchanted forest, even fairies — into a complex, very 20th century style that can only be described as “Postmodern Fantasy.”

Little, Big is a family saga, chronicling the lives of the Drinkwater/Bramble/Mouse clan, a family with a long history of involvement with a mysterious group of beings, alternatively called “Them,” “elementals,” or “fairies.” Although the novel focuses on the family from the late 1960s to sometime in the late 20th century, Crowley moves back and forth in time to detail their early history. So, while we read of Alice Drinkwater, a member of the fourth generation of Drinkwaters, and her courtship by Smoky Barnable in the 1960s, we also read of the founding of the family some time in the 1890s by John Drinkwater, an avant-garde American architect, and Violet Bramble, the mysterious daughter of a defrocked Anglican priest, a man who is convinced that Violet is the “doorway” to the Otherworld.

The novel eventually settles on the adventures of Auberon, Smoky and Alice’s son, but, along the way, we encounter a myriad of complex, very real yet archetypal characters, all of whom have awkward dealings with Them. The first Auberon, Violet’s son of unknown fathering and a veteran of World War I, who tries in his Edwardian fashion to prove the existence of the fairies through photography.

The patriarch, John Drinkwater, tries to bring the Otherworld into ours by building a gargantuan, patchwork mansion in upstate New York. There’s the wizard, Ariel Hawksquill, whose attempts at manipulating the fairies results in some very harsh lessons. Through it all, these fairies have a plan, what the Drinkwater family calls “The Tale,” a mysterious Destiny, through which the various Drinkwaters, Brambles, and Mouses stumble their way.

Almost from the beginning, Crowley plays the kind of mischeivious games for which fairies are known. He curdles our literary milk by first focusing on Smoky and then making it clear that Smoky is just a minor character in the whole saga and that Smoky knows it. Actually, most of the characters are aware that they are players in a vast story, giving the whole novel a postmodern self-referential feel.

Crowley also keeps switching the mood of the novel from section to section, almost as if each section were replaced by a changeling of the previous section. Starting with the casual, mellow feeling of the first part “Edgewood,” we then encounter the rather forboding mood of the second section “Brother North-Wind’s Secret,” and then the dark, urban fantasy of “Old Law Farm.” Eventually, we end with “The Fairies’ Parliament,” which has the air of quests and high adventure. Each of these mood swings are believable, yet somewhat jarring. Crowley is making complacent reading an impossibility.

Amid all of this trickery, Crowley treats us to some of the most lyrical and beautiful prose that Fantasy has ever offered. He seems to be using his characters as conduits for poetry and musings of life. Sometimes, the language is lofty. Here Alice is comtemplating her role in the Tale while gazing up into the night sky: “… Alice couldn’t tell if she felt huge or small. She wondered whether her head were so big as to be able to contain all this starry universe, or whether the universe were so little that it would fit within the compass of her human head. She alternated between these feelings, expanding and diminishing. The stars wandered in and out the vast portals of her eyes, under the immense dome of her brow; and then Smoky took her hand and she vanished to a speck, still holding the stars as in a tiny jewel box within her.” At other points, the language is hallucinatory and bizarre. Still, it can often be somewhat “down to earth,” as if speaking from a more skeptical frame of mind.

What really makes this an extraordinary book, though, is that Crowley grounds the whole novel to a 20th century aesthetic. The characters are honestly confused with their attitudes towards the fairies. In fact, many of the characters don’t even believe in fairies or are, at least, skeptical of Their intentions. Much of the magic of Ariel Hawksquill turns out to be a sort of highly useful mental discipline. Even the knight-errant of the novel, the second Auberon, spends his adventures as a homeless person in New York City, a perfect modern metaphor for the questing knight. Although no one saves any damsel in distress from an evil dragon, there are plenty of fantastical quests for love. And, although there is no hidden treasure trove of gold, there is a hidden treasure trove of hashish. Through it all, Crowley seems to be trying to write a fairy tale that is true to the 20th century without pandering to sentimentality or nostalgia.

The novel comes to a brilliant yet melancholy end. As is the way with fairies, absolutely nothing turns out to be what it seemed; and thus Crowley has played one final trick on us which makes this whole mystifying tale worthwhile. In fact, maybe that’s the point of this novel: that during the time it took for me to read it, I was as enchanted and manipulated by it as any character in the novel was enchanted and manipulated by the fairies.

(Bantam, 1981; Harper Perennial, 2002)

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