Like a squiggly eye-mote, an idea has been floating around in my head for several weeks now. An idea for a great and extraordinary post. Problem is, I’m not capable of pulling it off. I’m not literary critic enough for it. And I’m certainly not poet nor novelist enough for it. But like a young boy who, playing with his toy truck in the sand, suddenly perceives that one day he will die and, pausing only briefly with a sharp pang of mortality, quickly picks up the thread of his play and makes deep rumbling engine sounds, I too will do my level best to make clear what I think is absolutely amazing in John Crowley’s Little, Big. And if I don’t provide a half-way decent answer to my question, which I’ll get to in a moment, maybe someone else—you?— will, prompted perhaps by my spectacular failure. That would be an amazing thing.
Once upon a time
Every reader’s experience with a book is different. But I suspect that if you’ve read Little, Big, it profoundly affected you at the level of mood, and not just any mood, but the kind of warm, sweet, hopeful nostalgia that overcomes you when reminiscing about your childhood in an autumn from the long ago—its neighborhood trees, with their burnished copper-colored leaves, massing in the streets and in the gutters of the street; the sweet odor of burning birch and almond, like incense; the chilly night air that finally, after long hours of play, seeps into your body, your face and your hands and feet, and chases you home where it’s pleasant and warm; and the friendly windows that wink at you as you run by, thrilling at the sound of your own feet smacking the ground. Yes, a pleasant nostalgia just like that.
In Little, Big, Crowley creates a cosmology of people, fairies, and worlds within worlds, which is at once palpable yet mysteriously remote and always slightly beyond reach. It’s an uncanny world he creates, one that is, as he terms it in an interview, “ambiguous and never-fully-plumbable….”
How does Crowley do it? How does he evoke it? That’s the question.
I looped the book in 2009 with precisely this question in mind, and found to my astonishment that I couldn’t identify a single, general technique whereby Crowley works his magic. But things don’t just happen. Ever. There are causes to be ferreted out, trapped, identified, discussed.
But more on that in the next post.