Fellow readalongers, how are you faring with Little, Big? How far are you? Are you enjoying it?
I have decided to write a post for each of the six books which form the novel. Here are my thoughts on the first...
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 him coming there at all.
As I read the opening lines, I was reminded of my struggle the first time I encountered this novel: what is going on? Where and when are we? How do I read this? This first paragraph shows us a pattern that is repeated as we continue through the book: it sets forth to destabilise, to give us information and yet somehow render it meaningless. For instance, when is this story taking place? ‘On a certain day in June’ is precise and helpful; ‘19—’ is not, not really. It plays on the old literary convention of using a dash to disguise a name, date or place, and hides as much as it tells. Then we’re told that Smoky ‘didn’t ride’, which implies to me that people are still frequently travelling on horseback, yet as we read further we find this is a world of telephones and computers and cars and motorways. (Or have I misunderstood ‘ride’ in this context? )
Smoky is an odd name for a hero; we soon learn it’s not his real name but it’s the only one we’re given. He is called Smoky because he’s so anonymous, like all the Barnables, although from his mother (who deserted him as a child) he has inherited ‘a streak of [her] concreteness: an actual streak it seemed to those who knew him, a streak of presence surrounded by a dim glow of absence’. This streak perhaps suggests possibility. He’s leaving a decaying, unnamed City for a place, Edgewood, which isn’t marked on the map he has, yet is using to guide him. And he is travelling under ‘conditions’ which seem pretty arbitrary: he must walk, he must not buy food and he must beg or find places to sleep, not pay for them. Arbitrary, but magical, and dictated by ‘the cards’, the tarot that Great Aunt Cloud reads and reads.
Other characters have odd names too, some of which – Alice and Timmie Willie, Ariel and Auberon – allude to literary figures, others of which are very suggestive – Lionel Mouse, Violet Bramble, Nora Cloud (and perhaps they are literary figures I just don’t recognise?). Looking at a family tree at the front of the book, I think that I can see an urban ‘side’ – Mouses and the Townses – and a rural one – Drinkwaters, Woods, Dales.
While Smoky is walking towards, he hopes, Edgewood, we learn in a series of flashbacks about his early life and his brief meetings with the girl who will become his fiancée, Daily Alice Drinkwater. On one occasion, she tells him how she first knew she would marry him, when she stepped inside a rainbow and heard her dog speak his name. Smoky is sceptical:
‘A fairy tale,’ he said.
‘I guess,’ she said sleepily. [...]
He knew he would have to believe in order to go where she had been; knew that, if he believed, he could go there even if it didn’t exist, if it was make-believe. [...] He searched himself for that old will, long in disuse. If she went there, ever, he didn’t want to be left behind; wanted never to be farther from her than this.
This passage seems to be saying that a story, a fairy tale, is not just a series of sounds or words, it is an actual, physical place. And conversely, that physical space is not what you think it is.
‘See, it’s a house all fronts. It was built to be a sample. My great-grandfather [...] He built this house to be a sample, so people could come and look at it, from any side, and choose which kind of house they wanted; that’s why the inside is so crazy. It’s so many houses, sort of put inside each other or across each other, with their fronts sticking out.’
[...] He looked where she pointed, along the back front. It was a severe, classical facade softened by ivy, its gray stone stained as though by dark tears; tall, arched windows; symmetrical detail he recognized as the classical Orders; rustications, columns, plinths. Someone was looking out one tall window with an air of melancholy. ‘Now come on.’ She [...] led him by the hand along that front, and as they passed, it seemed to fold like scenery; what had looked flat became out-thrust; what stuck out folded in; pillars turned pilasters and disappeared. Like one of those ripply pictures children play with, where a face turns from grim to grin as you move it, the back front altered, and when they reached the opposite wall and turned to look back, the house had become cheerful and mock-Tudor, with deep curling eaves and clustered chimneys like comic hats. One of the broad casement windows (a stained piece or two glittered among the leaded panes) opened on the second floor, and Sophie looked out, waving.
I try to imagine exactly how that all works, and I can’t. The house doesn’t seem to be governed by the physical laws which shape ordinary houses. The house is like the story Alice told, it’s a space but a different sort of space. Crowley is constantly disorienting us, showing us the strangeness, asking us to open our minds to new possibilities. He writes about insubstantial heroes, impossible houses, lives dominated by tarot, rainbows you can step inside. And we haven’t even reached the first Elf yet. (We have, however, encountered a talking fish.) How do we read this? We are constantly being wrongfooted, offered a different logic. And yet, there is just enough play on the familiar to keep us from bewilderment. And lovely writing. If a story is a place, this is a place where you want to stay. Thank goodness it’s a long book! I have hours of pleasure ahead.
If you are participating in the readalong and have posted, please put a link in the comments so we can read your thoughts too!
(István Orosz is a Hungarian artist who is known for his ‘impossible objects’ and anamorphoses, pictures which appear distorted until you look at them from a particular angle or through a special mirror. All the pictures in this post are by him: The Pergola, The Well (1998) and an untitled work of 1989 from his Hungarian Wikipedia page. His website is here.)