Only once before, I think, have I finished a 500+ page book and discovered I could not easily describe what it was about. (That was David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.) But it has just happened again, with the odd faerie-tale Little, Big by John Crowley.
I chose the book on the strength of multiple recommendations (and it won a World Fantasy Award) but I didn’t truly understand what I was getting myself into. Now that I’ve turned the last page and had some time to reflect, I still don’t fully understand it. Little, Big is… well, it’s a story about several generations of a family who live in a large and architecturally changeable house on the border between middle America and an abstracted faerie-land. (Possibly the physical border, but more likely the metaphysical.) The narrative shifts around among this large familial cast, showing blurry snapshots of their lives and hinting at their intersections with the faerie realm. Oft-referenced is “The Tale,” which is some grand and ancient story about the fate of faerie-kind, half-glimpsed by the characters, which they freely admit they don’t quite comprehend.
I choose words like “blurry” and “half-glimpsed” quite intentionally; almost nothing in this book ever comes quite into focus. With some rare exceptions the faeries in question are only implied, never seen, and though one of them gets some late chapters as a point-of-view character, the humans don’t truly come face to face with them. For the first two thirds of the book there is no clear plot in evidence, and though a larger story starts to emerge near the end, the author keeps it very purposefully abstract. One of the few sureties one can take away from the book is that the characters themselves are never able to clearly articulate what’s happening around them. Some accept that fact while others fight it, but the layer of gauze draped between them and the story they inhabit is not only obviously intentional, but is also positioned carefully in front of the reader as well.
The characters themselves, while numerous, are more setting than cast. They are pieces of the world, cogs in a mysterious machine, but their inner lives are something of a sidelight, a means to an end. Readers who want serious emotional investment in complex characters will be disappointed.
So, Little, Big lacks a clear plot or traditionally enjoyable characters, so obviously I’m not going to recommend it, right?
The star of the book is the language. Oh, the language! Crowley’s sentences, his word-painted pictures, are things of absolute beauty. For all that adjectives are given suspicious frowns in articles about the technical crafting of narratives, Crowley delivers a master class in their use. If graded on how often I wished there were someone nearby to whom I could read an exquisite sentence or paragraph out loud, Little, Big would be near the top of my all-time list. I may have been in a constant state of confusion, but it was an utterly enchanting confusion.
And the atmosphere of the story is hypnotic. Reading the book is like being transported bodily into a gorgeous piece of abstract art. The short sections are individually captivating, even if emerging from them left me blinking in a daze, wondering where I was. A slow reader at the best of times, I spent twice as long finishing Little, Big than I expected, because every sentence, every metaphor, demanded close attention. The book is over five hundred pages, and none of them ought to be skimmed. (In fact, often the story would lull me into a kind of daydreamish state, such that I went back and re-read paragraphs that I wasn’t sure I fully recalled.)
Finally, the physical book (at least, the version I bought from Amazon some years ago), alongside its language, is served up in a charming olde-tyme package. It features unusual graphical flourishes at its numerous section breaks, and a font evocative of the 18th century. It is all lovely, truly.
Should you read it? That depends on what you want out of your reading hours. If you do decide to take the plunge, my advice is that you not waste your time trying to clear away the smudged and shimmering glass that will obscure your view of the story’s detail. I’m quite sure it’s there for exactly that purpose.