The Long View: Little, Big

The book reviewed by John here is now old enough that its fantastical future has become alternative history.


 Little, Big
By John Crowley
Perennial (Harper Collins), 2002
First Published 1981
538 Pages, US$15.95
ISBN 0-06-093793-9

"'Paracelsus is of the opinion,' Dr. Bramble told the theosophists, "that the universe is crowded with powers, spirits, who are not quite immaterial..."

Any novel with sentences like that is likely to have all kinds of remarkable things in it. Certainly "Little, Big" does. In addition to the fairies, there are Upstate New York architectural follies, the return of Frederick Barbarossa, the collapse of the United States, a theory of fiction, and that clockwork perpetual-motion machine in the attic. Perfectly sober social history joins seamlessly with talking animals and a small cottage in the woods that is unaccountably roomy once you get in the door. Like any good fairy story, the book makes the uncanny a present reality, even though the modes in which it is presented are obviously fantastic. Nobody does this better than John Crowley.

"Little, Big" has a plot, though it is obscured by its entanglement with "The Tale," the thread of fairy history that increasingly impinges on human affairs in the 20th and 21st centuries. The novel is built around the marriage and family history, past and future, of Daily Alice Drinkwater and Smokey Barnable. They wed, apparently sometime in the 1970s, at Edgewood, the Drinkwater family's rambling, indeed protean, old mansion. The house shares the name of its community, which is located somewhere in the wilds of northern New York State. There is an actual Edgewood two hours north of New York City, but this house and neighborhood are clearly on the edge of something more esoteric than a tract of the Catskills.

Edgewood was built in the late 19th century by one John Drinkwater, a prominent and ingenious architect specializing in country houses. He married Violet Bramble, the daughter of Reverend Dr. Theodore Bramble, an Anglican priest who theorized about fairies from the pulpit until he lost his rural English parish. Violet, however, really could contact faeries. The Drinkwaters' house (which, among other things, was designed to present different historical styles, depending on the angle of view) soon became the center of a woodland community of genteel mystics.

We get a good measure of fairy lore, and even more lore about the study of fairies. Fairy pictures are much in evidence, as well as speculation about whether fairies have any native form, or any inherent will, or are just occasions for projections of the human mind. Some of the researchers devise complicated descriptions of the fairy realm: Dr. Bramble, for instance, memorably describes the Otherworld as "infundibular." By that he meant, to the slight extent he was willing to be understood, that it consists of worlds nested within worlds; the more deeply a world is nested, the larger it is on the inside. Crowley does not neglect to have a character observe that this is pretty much the way that fiction relates to the common world.

In any case, it is not theory that creates Edgewood, but an attitude toward reality that is perfectly real. We see it in this portrait of two of the Drinkwaters' neighbors, well-to-do people from the City who came to Edgewood to pursue their metaphysical interests:

"They had been members with John of the Theosophical Society; they were both in love with Violet. Like John's, their lives were full of quite drama, full of vague yet thrilling signs that life was not as the common run supposed it to be; they were among those (it surprised Violet how many they were, and how many gravitated toward Edgewood) who watch life as though it were a great drab curtain which they are sure is always about to rise on some terrific and exquisite spectacle, and though it never did quite rise, they were patient, and noted excitedly every small movement of it as the actors took their places, strained to hear the unimaginable setting being lifted."

This sense of expectancy is, perhaps, closely related to what C.S. Lewis called "Joy," and to what the Welsh call the "hiraeth." Something else that is quite real is that it often eventuates in religious conversion. However, in this book Crowley displays the same dismissive distaste for Christianity that marks his later ones. (We are told that the Church has virtually ended for lack of a Second Coming). What does happen is that the teacup religion of 1900 becomes the basis of a new culture. The Mormons are not mentioned in the text, but like them, the increasingly immiserated descendants of the genteel theosophists gradually become a people. At the end of the Tale, also like the Mormons, they set out for a Promised Land.

The process of immiseration is particularly interesting, because we have here yet another instance of a novel set in the future that has become alternative history. To preview the early 21st century, the author simply extended for a generation the economic doldrums and political confusion of the time the book was written. By the time that Auberon, the son of Smokey and Alice, goes to the City to seek his fortune, the City has changed utterly from the day his father left it, because it had ceased to change. We are told that the waves of fashion had become a mere trickle, and the tides of enterprise had become a still bog. New York really was not designed for stasis, and neither was the country as a whole. Nothing works as it once did, and every attempted remedy miscarries.

The real power in the country is exercised, informally, by a group called the Noisy Bridge Rod and Gun Club. They often consult with the greatest magus of the age, who inevitably turns out to be another Drinkwater cousin. They do not take seriously her warnings about the persistence and resurgence of the Holy Roman Empire. We are not told in any detail about the accelerating unraveling of the wider world, but it seems reasonable that exurbanites might turn into peasants under such conditions. Well, almost reasonable.

"Little, Big" manages to bring the Tale to a close without waxing eschatological. This is harder than it sounds, since one of the qualities of fairy stories is that they flow into each other, with no absolute end. Auberon, working in what may be the last days of television, finds himself faced with a similar problem when he has to write the final scripts for a long-running soap opera:

"How does a tale end that was only a promise of no ending? In the same way as a difference comes to inhabit a world that is otherwise the same in all respects; in the same way in which a picture that shows a complex urn alters, as you stare at it, to two faces contemplating each other...He fulfilled the promise, that it wouldn't end: and that was the end. That's all."

What relevance this may have to Crowley's continuing Aegypt series remains to be seen.

"Little, Big" has a wonderful autumnal feel to it. It is infused with a relaxed, whimsical, twilight state of mind that is conducive to entertaining fairies, at least as a hypothesis. This is the kind of book one can't recommend highly enough to the people who like this sort of thing. They are surprisingly numerous, and they don't all live in the neighborhood of Edgewood.  

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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Little, Big
By John Crowley