Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The unstructured magic of Little, Big

with 2 comments

Over the past few years, there have been few contemporary novels I approached with such anticipation, aside perhaps from Cloud Atlas, as John Crowley’s Little, Big. Harold Bloom, who praises dead authors effusively but is much more restrained about recent fiction, has famously called it one of the four or five best novels by any living writer, and the consensus seems to be that this is one of the greatest fantasy novels of all time, and certainly one of the best by an American author. Earlier this week, then, after a long, leisurely reading process periodically interrupted and resumed by other commitments, I finally finished it. And while I admire it greatly, my reaction is more complex and ambivalent than I expected, which is perhaps fitting for such a strange, pointedly elusive novel.

First, a word about structure. I love structure, perhaps because I love the movies, which depend utterly on structure for their power. Structure, at its most basic, is an author’s arrangement of narrative elements into an overall whole, which often coincides with plot, but can also reflect a different sort of logic. At its best, a novel’s structure describes a shape—a pyramid, a circle, a series of spirals—that the reader can stand back and admire, something like the Borgesian conception of the divine mind. As a result, I respond strongly both to perfectly structured conventional novels, like Coetzee’s Disgrace, and to novels that make an unusual structure seem inevitable, like Gravity’s Rainbow, in which the author’s engagement with form becomes a character in itself. And, perhaps inevitably, I have trouble enjoying novels that seem deliberately unstructured.

At first glance, Little, Big has the appearance of intricate, almost obsessive structure: six books, twenty-six chapters (half the number of weeks in a year or cards in a deck), each with its own smaller divisions. On a deeper level, however, it seems designed to provoke, then frustrate, our expectations about a conventionally shapely novel. It begins with a leisurely account of the lives of several families in an imaginary New England, hints at the existence of fairies, then abruptly skips forward twenty-five years, alternating languorous descriptions of rooms and scenery with breathless events barely glimpsed or left entirely offstage. The novel’s technique, like that of House of Leaves, is one of implication, postponement, reticence, full of clues, but no answers, with small vivid scenes that promise to break out into a larger narrative, but either remain isolated in the gorgeous swamp of language or fade decorously away.

Reading Little, Big, I was reminded that an unstructured novel is something quite different from a structureless one. Structurelessness in itself is a narrative choice, and if such a work states its intentions early on—as in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life—it can be as satisfying as any conventional story. The reason why Little, Big often feels so frustrating is that it constantly knocks on the door of structure, only to shy away. It’s an uneasy hybrid of the shapeless family novel and conventional fantasy, with its supernatural events, prophecies, and air of intrigue, and the two elements push endlessly against each other, which can be exhilarating, but more often exhausting. To attribute this to artistic confusion or laziness, as certain commenters have done at the A.V. Club, is to give Crowley insufficient credit: every paragraph of this novel testifies to his intelligence and skill. But it’s fair to wonder if he intended to inspire such bewilderment in many, if not most, readers, while also inspiring rapturous joy in a few.

Little, Big, then, is precisely what its reputation suggests: a cult novel. And while I can’t quite count myself as a member of that cult, I’m at least one of its sympathizers. There are wonderful things here: the dense but lyrical language, the reappropriation of Rosicrucianism and Theosophy, and many of the self-contained set pieces, like George Mouse’s encounter with the changeling, which is a perfect little horror story in itself. Above all, there’s the evocation of a fantastical New England and the family home, Edgewood, which I can’t help but associate with my strong feelings about looking for a house of my own. I may not read Little, Big again—its five hundred pages remain as daunting as before—but I’ll certainly be reading in it for the rest of my life, because there’s magic here. And it’s more magical, perhaps, in that you’re forced to dig for it, without the reassuring map of structure, and always with the promise of finding something more.

Written by nevalalee

September 1, 2011 at 9:41 am

2 Responses

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  1. I rarely reply to comments like this — there’s a kind of noblesse oblige involved and everyone’s opinion about a book is valid for a reader anyway, and trying to change it is like trying to explain a joke that hasn’t been got, or has failed anyway. Your response to the book is intelligent, perspicuous, and generous, and I am in no sense challenging it. But I would like to ask a question in relation to your considerations of structure. It seems to me (and seemed as I was writing it) that the book is, and I feared possibly to a fault, overly structured: not only by the very exact correspondences between the two realms (lying over each other like triangles, or “infundibula” as Dr. Bramble puts it), but by the advancing of the story, which is derived from one of the most cleverly structured of all fictional narratives, Farad ut-Din Attar’s “The Parliament of the Birds.” Do you know the work? I hope not, in a way, because if you do and still find the book lacking in structure, you may be perceiving something I can’t. Anyway thanks for the open-minded attention you have paid to the book.

    John Crowley

    September 1, 2011 at 7:07 pm

  2. I haven’t read Parliament of the Birds, but I’m familiar with the story, mostly because Jorge Luis Borges discusses it in several of his short stories and essays. And I agree that the poem, at least the little I know of it, sheds a lot of light on Little, Big, particularly the ending. Oddly enough, although the connection is clearly made in the novel, and it’s a very useful reference point, I’ve rarely seen it mentioned in online discussion of the book. (In particular, I suspect that some of the bewilderment I saw at the A.V. Club might have been lessened if it had come up in the comments.)

    Looking back, I think my occasional difficulty with the book’s structure came, paradoxically, from the moments when it seemed most structured, at least on a narrative level—that is, in its tendency, which I assume was intentional, to pick up and drop narrative threads that promised to lead to greater clarity, only to be absorbed again into the novel’s fabric. These moments of localized structure had the effect, at least for me, of making the novel feel less structured than if it had no structure at all, if that makes any sense.

    I suppose that the upshot, to which most writers can relate, is that the structure a novelist sees in his own head is often very different from what the reader experiences in real time, especially at first reading. But your response has definitely made me want to give it a second look.

    Needless to say, I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on this. Thanks so much for writing!


    September 1, 2011 at 8:02 pm

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