By Ted Gioia

This novel might have been named A Hundred Years of
Solitude…With Fairies, Elves and Gnomes as Companions
.   
But these wee folk prove to be elusive companions,
doing little to disturb the solitude.  Crowley's novel
somehow manages to convey a sense that strange
personages and magical happenings are forever
lingering just outside the purview of the reader. John
Keats may have felt that "unheard melodies" were
sweeter than those made by
actual people; apparently John
Crowley feels the same way
about unseen characters and
unwitnessed events.

Little, Big has much in common
with those sweeping modern
multi-generational family
novels, such as Thomas Mann's
Buddenbrooks, Philip Roth's
American Pastoral, Junot Diaz's
The Brief Wondrous Life of
Oscar Wao, and Gabriel Garcia Márquez's One Hundred
Years of Solitude.  Like the latter saga, this novel even
comes equipped with a family tree for frequent
reference, especially useful given the repeating or
similar names.  It's hard enough to keep Lily, Lilac
and Lucy straight—but there might be three different
Lilacs in Crowley's tale, or else just one, depending
how you interpret the text.  

And interpretation of events is a constant source of
consternation in these pages.  Almost everyone in the
Drinkwater family has a premonition of strange
matters afoot, but without much clarity on the
particulars.  Some of the characters are granted elusive
glimpses of different realms—where animals can talk,
and fairy tale creatures populate the earth.  Others
simply buy into the quasi-Wiccan belief system on the
basis of faith.  

Women are more attuned to the magical realm than
men, and young girls are even more privileged, living
in an enchanted atmosphere where the dividing line
between natural and supernatural blurs and sometimes
disappears.  Even after they grow up and lose this
special insight, the ladies of the clan retain a conviction
that they are all part of a grand Tale—with a capital
T—and that their fates are inextricably intertwined
with this hidden universe.

No, this is not a postmodern device.  You are perhaps
familiar with experimental works of fiction in which
the characters are dimly aware that an author is
dictating their every move and thought.  
Gilbert
Sorrentino has even delivered a novel in which
characters are so irritated at their authors that they
run away from their books and move into a refugee
camp for dislocated fictional personages.  Crowley is
aiming at something larger and less well-defined in
Little, Big.  His characters share a anguished conviction
that their individual and familial destinies are
intertwined with a quasi-mythic narrative.  They fret
about their roles, and worry whether the conclusion
of the Tale is tantamount to their own demise, or
merely the beginning of another, perhaps even grander
narrative.  In place of the familiar postmodern
concerns, Crowley wrestles with the more venerable
issues of faith, fate and free will.  

Yet the strangest aspect of Crowley's book is the
awkward stance of the reader, who is neither invited to
witness the magic, nor wholly excluded from it.  
Little,
Big
thus conveys a unusual, quasi-scriptural tone, in
which a more magnificent story seems hidden between
the lines, never really articulated, yet all the more
provoking for this very ambiguity.

The Tale begins with architect John Drinkwater's
courtship and marriage to Violet Bramble, a young
lady with visions of another world enclosed in this
one:  "The further you go in, the bigger it gets.  Each
perimeter of this series of concentricities encloses a
larger world within, until, at the center point, it is
infinite….Our every movement is accompanied by
these beings, but we fail to perceive them not because
they are intangible but because, out here, they are too
small to be seen."

Drinkwater constructs a large, rambling mansion—
something akin to the famous Winchester House—
with every side presenting a different front façade in
a different architectural style.  Over the next several
generations, his descendants remain faithful to John
and Violet's mystical vision, relying on a host of
unconventional means to stay in touch with the little
people.  Violet's son Auberon is unable to see the
elves and fairies but becomes convinced that he
might be able to capture their image with his camera.  
Others in the family rely on an unusual set of cards,
akin to a Tarot deck, for information on the Tale.  A
few of the men in the family have no communication
with the beyond but, surrounded by so many true
believer, they too become adherents of the faith and
come to comprehend their lives as shaped by the
unfolding Tale.  

As
Little, Big proceeds, Crowley's grand ambitions
become increasingly clear, not just in the novel's
expanding mythological and Shakespearian allusions
but even more in the author's bold Hegelian vision
of a dialectic that embraces all possibilities and
eventualities. The fate of an eccentric family gradually
expands into a wild predestined fulfillment of world
history, with everything from the Holy Roman
Empire to modern American democracy finding its
constitutive role in the story.   At points, this novel
seems on the brink of morphing into one of those
feverish books filled with conspiracy theories.  I
wouldn't have been surprised if the Rosicrucians, the
Knights Templar and the Masons had found their
way into a plot that seemingly wants to tie together
everything, no matter how disparate, into a unified,
interconnected narrative.

"I wanted to write novels with the breadth and depth
of the greatest realistic fiction,” Crowley has
explained. "My models were Dickens and Flaubert
and Nabokov—yet with an element of the non-
mimetic, or irreal, or preternatural, whatever the
best word might be."   The shadow of these towering
literary figures can be felt again and again in these
pages, but I am even more struck by the constant
reminders of an even older breed of European
literature—as represented by fairy tales, myths,
legends and folklore.

The very breadth of Crowley's ambitions may
ultimately have limited his readership.  
Little, Big was
nominated for the Hugo and Nebula awards and won
the World Fantasy Award—genre honorifics that may
have dissuaded haughty connoisseurs of literary
fiction from taking this sprawling novel seriously.  
But aficionados of fantasy and sci-fi would hardly find
much excitement in a densely-written book in which
the fantastic creatures and magical doings remain
stubbornly offstage.   Yet if this novel had been set in
South America, I could see fans of the aforementioned
Gabriel Garcia Márquez embracing it as an exemplar
of magical realism.  

Crowley's novel found its most enthusiastic advocate
in literary maven Harold Bloom, who has called it
"the best book of its kind since Lewis Carroll's
Alice
in Wonderland
and Through the Looking Glass."  "I have
read and reread
Little, Big at least a dozen times,"
Bloom writes, "and always am startled and refreshed…
So perpetually fresh is this book, changing each time I
reread it, that I find it virtually impossible to describe,
and scarcely can summarize it. I pick it up again at
odd moments, sometimes when I wake up at night
and can't fall asleep again."

That’s high praise from the esteemed Yale professor,
and especially so when one considers how brazenly
Crowley abandons the tenets of realist fiction, the
dominant paradigm at the time this novel was first
published.  John Updike won the Pulitzer Prize (for
Rabbit is Rich) when Little, Big came out, and the
trailer park realism of Raymond Carver was in the
ascendancy.  Gritty, minimalist writing was the rage,
and misty, amorphous literary fantasies such as
Little,
Big
could have hardly been less aligned with the
literary zeitgeist.  But more than three decades have
now passed, and the blurring of the boundaries
between fantasy and highbrow fiction has become as
influential in our own time as Updike and Carver
were in the Carter-Reagan years.  

From
Little, Big we can trace a path all the way to the
current-day urban mysticism of
China Miéville and
Neil Gaiman, or the 'little people' of Haruki
Murakami's
1Q84.  A whole sub-genre of "magical
city" novels has gradually emerged on the center stage
in the world of highbrow fiction, from Mark Helprin's
Winter's Tale (published just two years after Crowley’s
book) to Jonathan Lethem's
The Fortress of Solitude and
Chronic City.  Today the hybrid of fantasy and urban
realism that seemed so peculiar when
Little, Big was
written, can stand proudly alongside the historical or
psychological novel without need for shame or
excuses.  With the benefit of hindsight, we now know
that Crowley's novel, a work that was almost
uncategorizable when initially released, actually set us
on a path that many creative storytellers are still
exploring in our own time.  Or, rather, it was just a
path when Crowley cleared it; today, it's more like a
well-traveled literary highway—and one that still
draws us on with the wildest and least predictable
scenery.
THE YEAR OF MAGICAL READING
Little, Big
by John Crowley
Click on image to purchase
The Year
of
Magical
Reading
(click here)
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
Welcome to my year of magical
reading.  Each week during the
course of 2012,  I will explore an
important work of fiction that
incorporates elements of magic,
fantasy or the surreal.  My choices
will cross conventional boundary
lines of genre, style and historical
period—indeed, one of my intentions
in this project is to show how the
conventional labels applied to these
works have become constraining,
deadening and misleading.

In its earliest days, storytelling almost
always partook of the magical. Only
in recent years have we segregated
works arising from this venerable
tradition into publishing industry
categories such as "magical realism"
or "paranormal" or "fantasy" or some
other 'genre' pigeonhole. These
labels are not without their value, but
too often they have blinded us to the
rich and multidimensional heritage
beyond category that these works
share.  

This larger heritage is mimicked in
our individual lives: most of us first
experienced the joys of narrative
fiction through stories of myth and
magic, the fanciful and
phantasmagorical; but only a very
few retain into adulthood this sense
of the kind of enchantment possible
only through storytelling.  As such,
revisiting this stream of fiction from a
mature, literate perspective both
broadens our horizons and allows us
to recapture some of that magic in
our imaginative lives.

The Year of Magical Reading:

Week 1:
Midnight's Children by
Salman Rushdie

Week 2:  The House of the Spirits by
Isabel Allende

Week 3:  The Witches of Eastwick
by
John Updike

Week 4:  Magic for Beginners by
Kelly Link

Week 5:  The Tin Drum by Günter
Grass

Week 6:  The Golden Ass by
Apuleius

Week 7:  The Tiger's Wife by Téa
Obreht

Week 8:  One Hundred Years of
Solitude  by Gabriel García Márquez

Week 9:  The Book of Laughter and
Forgetting by Milan Kundera

Week 10: Gargantua and Pantagruel
by
François Rabelais

Week 11: The Famished Road by
Ben Okri

Week 12: Like Water for Chocolate
by
Laura Esquivel

Week 13: Winter's Tale by Mark
Helprin

Week 14: Dhalgren by Samuel R.
Delany

Week 15:  Johnathan Strange & Mr.
Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Week 16:  The Master and
Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Week 17:  Dangerous Laughter by
Steven Millhauser

Week 18:  Conjure Wife by Fritz
Leiber

Week 19:  1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Week 20:  The Hobbit by J.R.R.
Tolkien

Week 21:  Aura by Carlos Fuentes

Week 22:  Dr. Faustus by Thomas
Mann

Week 23:  Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Week 24:  Little, Big by John Crowley

Week 25:  The White Hotel by D.M.
Thomas

Week 26:  Neverwhere by Neil
Gaiman

Week 27:  Alice's Adventures in
Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Week 28:  Fifth Business by
Robertson Davies

Week 29:  The Kingdom of This
World by Alejo Carpentier

Week 30:  The Bear Comes Home
by R
afi Zabor

Week 31:  The Color of Magic by
Terry Pratchett

Week 32:  Ficciones by Jorge Luis
Borges

Week 33:  Beloved by Toni Morrison

Week 34:  Dona Flor and Her Two
Husbands by Jorge Amado

Week 35:  Hard-Boiled Wonderland
and the End of the World by Haruki
Murakami

Week 36:  What Dreams May Come
by Richard Matheson

Week 37:  Practical Magic by Alice
Hoffman

Week 38:  Blindess by José
Saramago

Week 39:  The Fortress of Solitude
by J
onathan Lethem

Week 40:  The Magicians by Lev
Grossman

Week 41:  Suddenly, A Knock at the
Door by Etgar Keret

Week 42:  Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

Week 43:  The Obscene Bird of
NIght by José Donoso

Week 44:  The Fifty Year Sword by
Mark Z. Danielewski

Week 45:  Gulliver's Travels by
Jonathan Swift

Week 46:  Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

Week 47:  The End of the Affair by
Graham Greene

Week 48:  The Chronicles of Narnia
by C
.S. Lewis

Week 49:  Hieroglyphic Tales by
Horace Walpole

Week 50:  The View from the
Seventh Layer by Kevin Brockmeier

Week 51:  Gods Without Men by
Hari Kunzru

Week 52:  At Swim-Two-Birds by
Flann O'Brien
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at
www.twitter.com/tedgioia

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to reviews)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José
Blindness

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt
Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light



Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute


Links to related sites
The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter


SF Site
io9
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction


Disclosure:  Conceptual Fiction and
its sister sites may receive review
copies and promotional materials
from publishers, authors,  publicists
or other parties.