Little, Big

Little, Big
by John Crowley, 1981
Reviewed by Tanya B. Avakian

Any visitor to Boston’s Readercon will overhear a fair share of references to Little, Big. That in itself begins to tell you something about John Crowley’s masterpiece, but it isn’t in any way definitive of it. It is that rare intellectual fantasy that can also be enjoyed as a story without any interpretive work at all. It is a story, like many others, about a man who marries into a rich and eccentric family and finds his life turned upside down, with plenty of magical fun ensuing. As a fantasy narrative this one is hard to beat, one way of accessing all four of Farah Mendlesohn’s methods for introducing the fantastic into everyday life as detailed in her Rhetorics of Fantasy: portal-quest, immersive, intrusion, and liminal. The marriage is the portal into the otherworldly; the great house in which the in-laws live provides the immersion; the fantastic events to which their lives are heir intrude upon the mundane perspective of the newcomer; and the state in which the magical family lives is liminal, presenting an appearance of normality that masks the goings-on behind the scenes. Little, Big becomes unique when one considers it as a story, not a trope: for it works very well as a story. This distinguishes it forever from many other books which it superficially resembles and to which it has been compared. It has, for instance, been likened to Joyce Carol Oates’ Gothic pastiches, but one is apt to care about Crowley’s characters long after one has forgotten Oates’; it bears more resemblance to Oates’ great inspiration in Alice in Wonderland. One can spend a couple of days with Little, Big and enjoy it on no other level than that of delicious prose and incident.

Yet to tell the plot of Little, Big does not tell very much. This is also true of the Alice books, laden with happenings though they are. Like Alice, Little, Big is almost entirely made up of incidents, some of which have an allegorical significance (though seldom a complex one) but most of which seem designed to amuse, enthrall, or bewilder without necessarily fitting into a master plan. It is possible to analyze the book, page by page and image by image, to come up with meanings as in a gloss on a lyric poem. It is even tempting, since Crowley’s prose is so lovely and his gift for episodic narrative so delightful that his books beg to be analyzed in this way. But for our purposes it seems more useful to pay attention to the fact that such an analysis can be made without applying it to the story. The book-as-lyric is ultimately more interesting for its implications than its contents; the contents themselves stand on their own. With the subtlety of the other world, Crowley tricks us into paying attention to the details of what goes on within, when the most important thing the traveler needs to remember is that he really is in Faerie: he got in, somehow; while in he must obey the rules; and for his own sake he will eventually need to get out.

Or not. As a twentieth-century fantasy, Little, Big is most subversive in creating an enchantment that does not need to end. People get lost in it, but they don’t always come to bad ends; people even lose their bearings and their hold on reality without becoming evil and causing harm to others. The most sinister figures, Ariel Hawksquill and Russell Eigenblick, are decidedly of the outside, “real” world for all their magic power. There is no heroic journeying that does not turn out to be a cul-de-sac, and yet those trapped here do not seem to be unhappy because of it. When they aren’t happy it is for the same sad and silly reasons as those of us in the real world: they do foolish things, misunderstand and then understand too late, clutch at trivialities, grieve for the wrong reasons, generally waste time, and fall in love.

But while it is another temptation to observe that Crowley’s Faerie is just real life, as he hints by making an analogy with a soap opera (“Pollsters asked viewers why they liked the bizarre torments of the soap operas, what kept them watching. The commonest answer was that they liked soap operas because soap operas were like life”), it is I think a mistake. We are told that the spell under which Crowley’s characters exist is not of this world. The otherness of Faerie is built into the narrative structure in a clear way: the encounter and resolution that are climactic in other fantasy novels here represent the beginning of all the action and are, at the same time, irrevocable. To accept the terms of the story’s beginning is to commit to an elaborate power game that resolves inconclusively. Crowley trumps the question and would seem to deflate the drama by making the seduction happen at the very beginning. The destabilizing influence of magic within the story must thus be understood as if from within. Faerie is a place where magic is not a symbol for power: it is the form power takes, but even saying that is too simple. It is the place where power itself can exist as an entity, rather than the feats performed by power; it is the native ground of an entire dimension of existence. The life in Faerie consists in all the aspects of our relationship to power. Crowley’s characters all lust for power quite literally, pursuing it and serenading it like troubadours. And also like the troubadour, they do so in order to submit to it rather than take it for themselves; submission, indeed, is the prize for which everyone in Little, Big is competing. Submission to power confers the privilege of dreaming. The price on this privilege, and it is a heavy one, is that the dreams themselves will serve the aims of power, though they also subvert it: the only real freedom in Crowley’s world is conferred by the anarchic nature of the dream.

Little, Big is not a postmodern novel, though it has some of the characteristics of the genre and Crowley’s moral concerns may anticipate those of the postmodern novel. While not everything in the book makes sense, or is easily appreciated without assuming a self-conscious artificiality of both realistic and fantastic content, there is no tongue-in-cheek. The events of the novel are presented with a transparent gravity that is at once matter-of-fact and impossible to reduce to one or another interpretation. One can discern extraneous influences upon Crowley’s own intentions — his Catholic background and interest in Gnosticism, and the obvious literary influence of the Alice books — but in order to understand the story, one has few options other than to accept that what happens in Crowley’s world happens as it’s told. Eldest son Auberon really does fall in love with a mysterious Puerto Rican girl named Sylvie and is sent on a frustrated quest for her, like Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited or the potter in Ugetsu Monogatari. Ariel Hawksquill’s magic works as it would in the real world, as an unpredictable, often destructive force, rather than as another way of talking about something of which the novel’s structure already is symbolic (although this is just what it is). Russell Eigenblick really is bad news. What saves Little, Big from postmodern as-iffery is its overriding concern with power. One of the many stock fairy plots employed here, that of the changeling, resolves in a deceptively anticlimactic epiphany about the changeling’s true nature: “And I can not believe my eyes: because as it sits there it’s reaching into the fire… and picking out, you know, glowing embers: picking them out, and popping them into its mouth… And crunching them… Ca-runch. Ca-runch.'” No postmodern novel would dare to be that funny, or to make no bones about a moral statement regarding something whose existence is artificial: “Now listen, man. I don’t know if I was crazy or what. All I knew was that this thing was evil: I mean not evil evil, because I don’t think it was anything, I mean it was like a doll or a puppet or a machine, but moving on its own… Dead, but moving. Animated. But evil, I mean an awful evil thing to have in the world.”

William Golding explained the image of the dead airman in The Lord of the Flies as symbolic of folk nationalism: a corpse animated by winds and worshiped by savages. For all Crowley’s gentleness, there is something of this revulsion before history in Little, Big. The judgment is pronounced with the lightest of touches and in the most seemingly innocent guise. Though it is written as though it took place about at the time of publication, sometime in the late seventies or early eighties, it often reads as the subtlest of parodies of one of William Kennedy’s Tammany novels, with period touches from the same time. Several of the characters become obsessed with an old-fashioned children’s story in which nature is given the moralizing, paternalistic personifications of Thornton W. Burgess’ “Old Mother West Wind series.” The story borrows the characters of Old Mother West Wind and the Three Little Breezes from Burgess. In the post-Donna Haraway world, nobody is likely to read Burgess without irony; the presence of his characters in Little, Big are like a shot across the bows, telling us that while this book may seem quaint, its debts to an earlier time are self-aware and ironic.

One that is not is the novel’s racism, probably less obvious when it was published than today but still unpleasant. Sylvie is a textbook stereotype of the Latina as hot-blooded, unintellectual, and very sexy. “It was no wonder, he thought, that she was so sexy, when all the world was boys and girls to her. In the language she had been born into there were no neuters… Without ever knowing he did so, he adopted for life her standards of beauty, could even feel himself drawn to the lean, brown, soft-eyed, strong-wristed men she favored.” Crowley’s descriptions of Spanish Harlem are larded with too many images of “exotics” to represent an accident. Seen in this light the novel may have a serious structural flaw, in that the love affair between Sylvie and Auberon is easily its most sustained, dramatic and internally plausible episode and yet may not be redeemable. The best argument for its partial redemption is that this is how Auberon sees Sylvie and other people of color. It is not an impossible defense, given that the central theme of Little, Big is glamor in its old sense of illusion. The point of the Sylvie-Auberon story is in its aftermath, when Sylvie has left Auberon and he is hopelessly searching for her. Little, Big is the story of a series of aftermaths, not tragic in the classical sense but some very pitiful; and thus it is not Sylvie who really is chaotic and primitive but the plot in which she figures — the dream, which is to say Auberon’s dream. Performing as Auberon expects, she flees him, leaving him to a world of his creation that he has not populated with real people. Crowley might have got away with this had Sylvie or another person of color ever become a real human being; they don’t. (In fact, Sylvie is probably not Puerto Rican at all. She has a brother named Bruno, thus becoming recognizable at once as a version of Lewis Carroll’s heroine in Sylvie and Bruno.)

The antithesis to Sylvie is Ariel Hawksquill, “greatest mage of this world.” Where Sylvie lives entirely in the moment, Ariel is a practitioner of the Art of Memory. Ariel Hawksquill is the one character who is never enchanted and cannot be. She is entirely interested in taking power; it is unlikely that she has ever imagined there is any Wille zum Macht involved in submitting to it. She is never seen through the eyes of another, in contrast to Sylvie who never is seen otherwise; she is a center of egotism that provides the last third of the novel with a narrative force that is, for once, all story. Jolly, fiercely intelligent, impatient with nonsense, she is a kind of Margaret Thatcher of magic who — in one of Crowley’s greatest triumphs of characterization — is also heroic and likable. (Given that she comes in when the story must wrap itself up, one could see her as a personification of the tenth Muse: the deadline.) She it is who is aware of the real threat afoot in the world, a dictator named Russell Eigenblick. She is his equal and knows she will be his match. Men in Crowley’s fiction are questors who remain paralyzed through much of their quest: women, elusive observers who masquerade as objects of pursuit and save the day once they are caught. Ariel may be bad news, but she gives her life to stop Eigenblick, in a scene that comes as a shock.

It is not an accident that Little, Big is almost entirely without violence; the one or two episodes of brutality at the end are described with insidious gentleness. Its dark quality is achieved almost entirely by allusion: the inhabitant of Faerie remembers what it would mean to leave. Yet he or she must also accept a price in staying, having become one of a people who have to make the decision that Umberto Eco’s narrator does at the end of Foucault’s Pendulum: in worshipping Malkhut, Kingdom, the final sphere of the Kabbalah representing the real, battered world, the questor comes to the end by looking at life around him and deciding, with grace, “This is it.” Were that to happen in Faerie, its people too would eventually have to set about living real life. It’s a unique answer to the problem of narcissism as posed by all supernatural fiction: Try to get out, and you may well lose your life; stay anywhere, real or not, and you will have to start living. The weirdly painless description of Ariel’s death gives an idea of what this might feel like in the other world: “She had never given much thought to what in fact might happen to her mortal body, its soul securely hidden, if fatal things were done to it… A shot was fired, she turned to run again, unable to tell if she had been struck or only shocked by the noise. Struck. She could distinguish the warm wetness of her blood from the cold wetness of the rain. Where was the pain?”

Needless to say, Little, Big is opposed to the America of Progress. It is also opposed to Utopian America, and represents the point at which the Sixties generation found themselves at the beginning of the eighties. Some of the events and attitudes found in it are prescient of the neoconservative movement. But Crowley goes Thomas Pynchon and Joyce Carol Oates one better: he dares to take the “Wonderland” school of American epic and turn it on its head by taking it on face value. If this is what America would be like if it really were Faerie, it bears little resemblance to our actual reality and instructs more by its difference than its sameness. It is this which keeps John Crowley from being defined by Tolkien’s approval of fantasy as escape, as taken up somewhat melodramatically by Ursula K. Le Guin in The Language of the Night: a real-life escape from the tyranny of an unbearable world. After the temptation of allegory, this is probably the other temptation to be avoided in reading Little, Big — the conclusion that because it is about real life, its message is that real life is so corrupt we must while away our lives in dreaming (like Mary Daly’s feminists in Gyn/Ecology, for instance). Crowley’s delicate grotesquerie does not much resemble Le Guin’s Taoist/cultural feminist warnings against action in the masculinist sense, any more than it resembles Tolkien’s development into an English Solzhenitsyn preaching the dangers of modernism. Many characters in Little, Big take just this road of action and technology-worship and nothing too awful seems to happen: even Ariel Hawksquill gets her comeuppance at once horribly and yet described in a way that makes it sound as if she is about to have a pleasant dream. One of the features of Faerie in folklore is that weapons do not work there.

But it would be a mistake to say that if Crowley’s attitude toward American reality is perhaps more accepting than Le Guin’s, his didacticism is any less serious. An answer to such an implied criticism would be that by virtue of his generation, he has earned a different form of escape than those earned by Tolkien and Le Guin, for each of whom the only escape from a reality defined by power is dreaming. As a member of a dispossessed religious minority, Tolkien had more reason for thinking in such terms than some of his contemporaries; while Le Guin’s love for Virginia Woolf’s contemplative anarchism (“As a woman, I have no country… my country is the whole world”) makes some sense for a person coming to Abbey-style radicalism late in life. For Crowley to take on the persona of a British Catholic or a feminist born in 1929 would be factitious. It is not factitious for him to write as something of an historian. In Europe, the past is everywhere, as tangible in the form of thousand-year-old buildings as in the new buildings constructed on bomb sites in London or Warsaw. This is so even as one knows most of the people who saw this past are gone. In European America, the past is near in the opposite sense: most of it has always been within the memory of someone still alive. This makes it at once very vivid and very vulnerable, threatened as any one human life is by the passage of time and of the memories in which we have some immortality. Crowley’s theme is the the tenuousness of the human hold on the North American continent, a tragedy in which the races’ history is arbitrary to the same degree and in which they thus share equally (perhaps a questionable conceit). When the American mind turns from progress to conservation, it turns to a solicitude for the past that contains a real element of hopelessness. It may be this hopelessness to which Crowley is giving due in the never-named melancholy of Little, Big.

Thus Little, Big is indeed a political novel. Its political project may be a gentling of the American spirit by virtue of accepting that American existence is hopeless. The City on a Hill will not be built. For Crowley’s generation this was a message the Tolkien-reading left needed to hear quite as much as the right. (If swords don’t work and thus don’t need to be laid down, money doesn’t work and thus doesn’t need to be repudiated.) The left too has had to give up the idea of home. Though nobody in it ever quite gets out of Faerie, one puts down Little, Big with a curious sense of euphoria and liberation. It is the liberation one feels upon giving away the world. Loss is the inevitable result of all those “house” stories — from Brideshead Revisited to The Haunting of Hill House — where a house becomes an object of desire: loss of desire as in Brideshead, loss of self as in Hill House, or loss of the house itself as in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Oates’ Bellefleur or Yukio Mishima’s Temple of the Golden Pavilion. Crowley ignores all these options for getting rid of the house and its spell, perhaps because he is primarily concerned with people, and breaking an inanimate spell by any of these means risks hurting people if not liquidating them (as happens in all of the above novels). His renunciation is embedded in submission to the “house,” trumping its power of keeping the magic forever just out of reach, and giving it a death blow in the awareness that a house, like all physical entities, is mortal. In all its intertwined stories it charts the progress of a love affair with story, from rapture through disillusionment to acceptance of the loved one’s mortality and one’s own, replacing the desire for seduction with what the Welsh call “hiraeth” and the Russians call “life-gladness”: a melancholy so deep that it amounts to joyfulness, or likewise a joyfulness that does not require happiness. In such a setting happiness, the real homely thing, is the most radical of all. The irony is that like America, Faerie is so huge that one cannot escape it by traveling unless one is very privileged; the rest of us must be content with that most un-American of moods: happiness, absent pursuit. Those who wander are lost, and they are probably lost forever. But it’s not so bad.