Little, Big by John Crowley

You know when you read about a book and you say, “WOW. I’M GOING TO LOVE THIS BOOK.” And then you go to the book demanding that you love it, and start reading it expecting to love it, and then it disappoints you?

My experience with Little, Big is another example of a lesson I’ve tried to learn: never ask anything of a book expect to take you on a journey. Don’t ask that the littlebigcoverjourney have a sudden twist or lots of kisses, or be told in florid language or in choppy sentences. Strap yourself in and trust the author that he or she will take you for a surprise, and don’t complain the whole way there that this is not the scenery you’d been expecting, etc, etc.

But all this is easier said than done. After all, I came to this book demanding that Crowley give me exactly what I wanted: the magic that seems to have grown out of style in “grown-up” fiction.

Little, Big is a sweeping epic tale about the Drinkwaters, a family living in a labyrinth of a house where the realm of the real world and the “fairy” world rub against each other. When Smokey Barnable finally makes it to Edgewood, the house where his beloved Alice Drinkwater lives, he’s just as enchanted and shocked as we are. The lines of reality are blurred in the most utterly delicious way. John Crowley introduces us to a series of characters, each whizzing by the second we start to get attached to them. The story spans generations, and each member of this generation is but one part of the “Tale” the family is destined to tell. Everyone knows about the Tale, but they also know that thinking about it won’t do anything. Their destiny is to live their lives; their lives will culminate in them living the Tale.

This is American Magical Realism at its finest. I can’t explain what makes this book so American other than it is. If Gabriel Garcia Marquez was born in Maine, he would write this book.

‘Love is a myth.’
‘Love is a myth,’ Grandfather Trout said. ‘Like summer.’
‘In winter,’Grandfather Trout said, ‘summer is a myth. A report, a rumor. Not to be believed in. Get it? Love is a myth. So is summer. ‘

Harold Bloom called it a neglected classic. I agree, to a certain extent. It’s an incredibly complex and imaginative and delightful book. I’m sure that if I reread it (this time in print version, NOT a silly kindle version) I would delight in it even more. That said, I found myself frustrated by the way Crowley skimmed over years and seemed to abandon characters and drop strings suddenly. efe4e1f366705b9a89d63a8185c29dbeHe’s a puppet master constantly getting distracted by the most exiting part of the story and forgetting the other puppets.  There’s something endearing, though, in the flawed way in which the story proceeds. Crowley is unapologetic about the dropped lines. It’s almost a work in progress. It’s a never-ending story. A lot happens that we don’t know about, and to that degree it reminds me of the characters being people, not characters, having their own lives. We only hear about some of it. The whole thing has a very To The Lighthouse “Time Passes”  feel.

This is the first time in a while that I’ve felt that what I was reading wasn’t a book but a story, a tale, and a magical one at that. Little, Big will give you the pangs of childhood reading pleasure. Just talking about it makes me want to give it another shot. But this time, instead of coming to the book with expectations, I’ll just let Crowley steer me wherever he and the Drinkwaters are going to go. This time, I’ll be up for the ride.

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