Notes on Literature: On John Crowley’s ‘Little, Big’

This set of thoughts was prompted by Professor (of Mathematics at the University of Wisconsin) Jordan Ellenberg’s post (over at his wonderful blog, the whimsically named QUOMODOCUMQUE) on John Crowley, Little, Big, and Engine Summer. He has this to say:

[Little, Big is] a beautifully written and grand fantasia about fairies, architecture, and (I think) the decay of urban America in the early 1980s, when it was written. Around page 400 I started wondering how Crowley was possibly going [to] wrap up all the mysteries and stories in a satisfying way; and he didn’t, quite. When I complained to Steve about this, he told me that I should have read Engine Summer instead, because it’s small and perfect. So I did — and it is!

There’s some lesson here about short novels. Many of the ideas in Engine Summer reappear in Little, Big, and you can see why; in the earlier book things are done so gracefully, so concisely, and with so much left unmentioned that Crowley must have felt he hadn’t exhausted the material. And he hadn’t; there’s lots of terrific stuff in Little, Big that the shorter book doesn’t have room for. But grace, concision, and the presence of the unmentioned are serious virtues, not to be lightly discarded. This might be even more true in science fiction than elsewhere.

I have not read Engine Summer…yet. I must. And I will. However, I have read Little, Big and in my opinion it’s a near-perfect literary miracle. Hence, while I understand Prof. Ellenberg’s conclusion, I don’t agree.  I understand because I admire concision too, and take immense pleasure in reading perfectly constructed / plotted / orchestrated and satisfactorily wrapped up works of literature. If I ever write a full-fledged work of fiction, it would possess all of these virtues. This, I believe, is a matter of innate or near-innate temperament. I come from a family of predominantly analytical people: a physicist dad, a mathematician aunt, a civil engineer granddad, and assorted other engineers in the family, the kind of people who either analyse (deconstruct / break things down into basic components) or synthesise (construct from basic components). This also serves to explain, in a sense, the way I write about literature.

However, over the years, as a reader, I have acquired a sensibility capable of appreciating the ambiguous, the ambivalent, and the unresolved; and also, rambling, sprawling, digressive, poetic narratives. These are virtues too…when employed with care. And these are virtues that Crowley skilfully and abundantly imbues Little, Big with. The way I see it, he makes use of four kinds of narrative technique:

  • He tells.
  • He shows, but doesn’t tell. (Grandfather Trout, Auberon’s Photographs.)
  • He neither shows nor tells, only hints at. (Architecture of Country Houses)
  • He doesn’t hint, show, or tell. He evokes. (Edgewood, The Fairies Parliament)

For instance, the attitude of the Drinkwater family towards the Fairies is ambivalent at best; and that of the Fairies towards the Drinkwaters, gloriously ambiguous; the narrative is inspired by Alice in Wonderland, fairy tales, and European Folklore; it touches upon concepts of memory, identity, and architecture; the mechanics of tales and storytelling; the aesthetics of the Tarot Deck, Art of Memory, and the clockwork of an Orrery; and, in the last hundred pages or so, it hurtles towards a denouement that, in retrospect, seems inevitable; inevitable, but still inexplicable. How do you make sense of something like that? Something you know is inevitable, but are unable to explain? But that’s the way it is and that’s precisely why Little, Big is a masterpiece. And not just a book, a world.

This entry was posted in Books, Links and Quotes, Musings, Notes on Literature, Notes on Reading, Notes on Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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