Little, Big, by John Crowley (2 of 2)

Instead of reading Little, Big a third time, which I’ll happily do in the future, I focused my attention on the first book, chapter one. Guess what I discovered? The novel starts in the early summer, not in the fall. There are no autumnal tints on the leaves, no dry rustlings on the ground, and no autumnal scents in the air, either. But I did discover a few clues to Crowley’s wonder-wielding powers. Like all good magic tricks, they allow readers to see a lot more than is actually there. Autumns instead of summers, for instance. 

Here’s the opening passage.

On a certain day in June, 19—, a young man was making his way on foot northward from the great City to a town or place called Edgewood, that he had been told of but had never visited. His name was Smoky Barnable, and he was going to Edgewood to get married; the fact that he walked and didn’t ride was one of the conditions placed on his coming there
at all.

That’s a nice, pleasant passage, isn’t it, like daydreaming while reading. Because I don’t know the proper terms of literary analysis, I’ll speak with complete and utter confidence about matters of which I have little or no understanding. Granted, it’s not as hip and cool as “Mitchell’s prolapsed arm,” but it’ll do. I give you: the “smudge,” and I count six instances of a Crowleyian smudge in the passage above.

First, there’s the ellipsis in the date, “19—.” Of course there’s a big difference between 1901 and partying like it’s 1999. By smudging out these decades, the reader is permitted the freedom to create open-ended expectations about the cultural and technical milieu of the fictional world he’s just entered. There’s the “City.” It could be San Francisco or New York or London—or none of them. The use of a title case noun, moreover, confers a kind of über albeit hazy significance to Smoky’s point of departure, and allows Crowley to name it without identifying it. Of course, there’ s the name “Smoky,” a wonderfully descriptive smudge, suggesting weightlessness, insubstantiality, and evanescence. We can see in him a young man or a ghost or a chap in search of an identity. Next, there’s a “town or place.” While a town is always a place, a place isn’t always a town. My backyard is a place. So which is it? A town or a place? Is the “or” a conjunction or a disjunction, or maybe a little bit of both, depending on how you want to look at it. Smudge. Then there’s “Edgewood,” which unlike “City” is identified by descriptively naming it, a lot like “Smoky.” As readers learn fairly quickly, Edgewood is a place (or a town) of edges, boundaries, and thresholds, a place near a wood where transitions happen. The fabular is right there, just beyond the edge that separates this side from that, here from there. Lastly, there’s the condition that’s placed on Smoky’s arrival, the fact that he walks and doesn’t ride (a skateboard, a bike, a moped, a car, a bus?). This final smudge, like a penumbra, invests the passage with a wavering sense of the irreal or mystical or prophetic.

Care to share your take on mood in Crowley? Please. I’m all ears.

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3 Responses to Little, Big, by John Crowley (2 of 2)

  1. Colleen says:

    This novel didn’t terrify me at first. Indeed, I recall that this opening scene made me feel…hopeful, about what I have no idea. But as people disappeared who knows where I began to see nothing but monsters behind those fuzzy boundaries and shifting doors. You can arrive somewhere in Little, Big but true escape felt impossible by the end; hence my terror. But I think I’d have to re-read it to say anything more specific.

  2. Terrify? I never felt that, although I can see the source. When the change comes in this book, there’s no going back.

    My metaphor for Crowley is peripheral vision. Something is moving to my left – I turn – nothing out of the ordinary. Wait, now it’s on my right.

    The Aegypt books provoke a similar feeling. What once was, is it gone, or somehow still here?

    I’m leafing through the book, now. I had completely forgotten that a chunk is called “Brother North-Wind’s Secret”. The novel must be full of allusions to George MacDonald. Although.

  3. I haven’t read this book but I do like your new literary term of “smudge”. I think you have something there, Kevin! I liked the para – it has the sort of tone that often gets me in. The effect of the “smudge” is twofold for me – it mystifies it all, adds a little haze and distance so that it could be fable; and, somewhat related to this effect, it universalises it, by not being overly specific.

    Sounds like a book I’d like, but who knows if I’ll ever get to it.

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