Little, Big by John Crowley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
My feelings about this book are deeply conflicted
For the first 260 or so pages I had difficulty reading this book. It had elements I liked: fantasy, mythology, realism, and a little magic (but not so much that it unfairly dominates). But at the same time it was excruciating. Long descriptions of muddled musings, excruciatingly oblique foreshadowing. I planned the biting 2 or perhaps 3 star review I would give, ultimately comparing it to Gormenghast. Like that one, this book broods. A great deal more happens than in Gormenghast, however the mood and attention to atmosphere feels far more important than anything that's happening to the characters, or that constitutes a plot.
The first 200+ pages were a struggle to read. I tried everything. I brought to work. I read an interlude on the T. I put it on my night side table, and then in the bathroom, trying to find the right setting, the right space, and maybe temperature to settle in. But I couldn't find it
I noticed the change around the start of "Book Four: The Wild Wood," though I'm sure it started a little before that. Gradually things started to happen that seemed to matter. Whereas the beginning of the book seems most concerned with the reader's understanding of a bizarrely complex architecture and genealogy [I kept returning to Grady Tripp in Wonder Boys, who writes 1000s of pages of a never ending novel and, for one chapter, writes only of the bloodlines of horses], the center of the book is a story of love and loss, which is simultaneously the same story you've read/experienced before, but with a special newness. There are many other stories interwoven, but for me this was the most important story, in fact, really the only story I cared about it.
And, while it's still excruciating and oblique at times, once the the machinery was set in motion the book moved much faster, and I even came to understand that without those first 200+ pages I would not have had the necessary pieces and momentum for book to ever reach a satisfying conclusion.
When I was a little boy I used to go across the street to where my 2nd grade teacher, Ms. Heemstra, lived with her cat, Radar. She and her cat were both very tolerant of the curiosity of little boys, they even encouraged it. Whenever I went I asked her to show me her cuckoo clock. She would dutifully wind it so that after a minute's wait the bird would pop out. I was very excited, while Radar was disinterested. Over time I came to have an understanding of how the clock worked. I realized that it was "clockwork," some intricate machinery, and not magic which propelled the bird forward for my amusement. But to me it was as good as magic. The older you become, the more you learn, the more things lose this sort of magic. But of course at the same time, other things gain it.
As I read this book I was continuously torn by two conflicting impulses: the desire for more magic and the desire for magic-less clarity. In a lesser a book I'd say this is a major flaw, but I think this conflict forms the heart of, and maybe genius, of Little, Big. In the presence of one, we want the other, but in fact in order for our stories to matter they need to marry both, and I think this book accomplishes this feat.
However, as with Ms. Heemstra's cuckoo-clock I tend to prefer smaller machinery, and I can certainly think of stories (for instance: "Vanishing Acts," by Kelly Link) that make me aware of the same things without requiring over 200 pages of winding.
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