The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 2 December 2019

Little, Big

or, The Fairies' Parliament

by John Crowley

Humans seem to be genetically predisposed toward a susceptibility to the idea that there is a magical hidden dimension to life on Earth. We're a superstitious lot, and that is the basis of much of religion and quite a bit of magical literature and myth. There have always been little half-invisible beings populating our universe. It gives us a feeling we're a part of something mysterious and ethereal. The grit of everyday reality can't be all there is, can it? The stories go back to the very beginning of consciousness. Nowadays, it isn't fashionable to believe in fairies and gnomes, but religion endures, not to mention the recent and abhorrent anti-science fantasies that deny basic reality down to the point of threatening our very lives. But, hey, under the influence of some quality intoxicants, we can be reminded of that feeling that there is something extra just behind the world we have to live with every day.

In Victorian times, there were all sorts of mystical movements, from Ouija boards to seances. Images from that era have defined what we imagine to be everything from fairies to Santa Claus. In this sprawling novel, John Crowley portrays an American Victorian gentleman scholar in upstate New York. He starts out writing a guide to architecture, but as each new edition is released, he adds on further fantastical descriptions of inner universes populated by magical beings. His family is especially attuned to the goings on of Them, the strange and possibly imaginary creatures who live in the woods, in the stream beds, and eventually the White House. We meet young Smoky, who is destined to marry into the family by way of the wispy and wise Daily Alice. He is not really a believer in the magic, but he can't help but be drawn into the mystery when he goes to live the remainder of his life in an odd house made up of front-elevation facades of many different styles and eras. The extended family is comprised of cousins and neighbors whose family names evoke the natural landscape. There is an enduring and mysterious Tale in which they all play a role.

But that Tale remains a mystery to the reader, as well. This is an oddly-constructed story. The mysterious creatures and events live almost entirely to one side, as if just off the edge of the page. Our protagonists are affected by great magical events and talk about the doings of the fairies, but almost entirely obliquely. We read a story that is cast in the light of these mysteries, but not enough light that we quite understand what is really going on. Indeed, many of the characters feel the same way. There comes a long excursion back to New York City, in which one of Smoky and Alice's children goes to reside in a funky communal farming space right in the middle of town. There are hints of further goings-on, but Auberon never quite understands what forces are tossing him hither and yon in the landscape and in love. The sense of time here stretches and contracts as well. This portion of the novel tends to drag a bit, as the reader may feel a creeping impatience with the obliquity of the storytelling. The semi-reality is strangely appealing, though, almost hallucinatory. There comes a great figure rising from the past on the power of the fairies. In an oddly prescient turn in the Tale (this book having been published in 1981), this figure asserts a populist authoritarian power that casts the nation into a wintry darkness. A war between good and eveil is hinted, but never portrayed. And, in the end, we are left wondering if we're experiencing great events or a great hallucination. Is that, perhaps life, itself? Crowley seems to have set out on a grand experiment, weaving the mysterious nature of fairies into a dusky New York landscape across the first several decades of the 20th century. How much the reader accepts and appreciates this vision depends on his or her patience, and maybe his or her experience with mind-altering substances. In the end, we admire the attempt, but, like the characters themselves, we may remain unsure what it is we experienced.

(For this book, Crowley was awarded the World Fantasy Award in 1982.)

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