The Little, Big readalong continues, but some of us are not doing terribly well. I forgot that this is quite a busy time of year for teachers, and my reading time and brain are being eaten into by making and marking tests and final exams. I’ve only just finished Book 2. Still, I feel that Little, Big itself doesn’t mind: it’s a leisurely book.
In fact, this post has been prompted by a discussion on Frances’ blog of the style and pace of Little, Big, a discussion which I’m too late to join. Frances wrote, noting Crowley’s liberal hand with the comma:
I can’t match my own reading rhythms with the cadence of the author’s language here. [...]True that the book is a comma convention but shouldn’t that actually dictate cadence, the pauses in thought, emphases? Are those pauses so frequent that the text is way out of sync with my personal preference in reading speed? Is this a deliberately paced novel that is pushing back against a greedy consumer?
Teresa and James B. Chester suggested in the comments that Crowley was deliberately trying to slow the pace. But Frances was unsure: ‘The author’s voice, I think, is unique enough that I can’t hear it in a compelling way in a consistent way and I feel less attached to the text.’
So there seemed to me to be two things going on here, a slowness and an alienation, and I have felt them both too. How and why is Crowley creating them?
(Egon Schiele, Woodland Prayer, oil on canvas, 1915; found here)
The slowness derives from both Crowley’s style and his narrative. I notice the narrative particularly because I’ve been reading a lot of children’s books to my daughter recently, and they are driven by ‘what next?’. What will Lucy find through the wardrobe? Where is Mortimer? Can Judy and Mrs Judy save the Shop in the Tree? Little, Big isn’t motivated by this in the slightest. I find I’m not troubled about what will happen next to Smoky or any of the Drinkwaters: they aren’t obviously menaced by anything or in conflict over anything. There is nothing which can really pose a menace: death itself is just another form of transformation or a stepping through a door. And we know that everyone is part of the Tale, foretold in the cards. Everyone reacts to this by becoming quite passive and aware of their unimportance as individuals. They exist to contribute to the Tale and are rather like figures in someone else’s dream. This creates a distance between them and us, the readers.
Crowley also works hard to disorient us in terms of the narrative’s structure and his language. He bends the passage of time – sometimes a few minutes passes between sections, sometimes many years, and we only find out by the bye. He plays with emphasis. What might be a background detail in another novel, a change in the weather, is described carefully, in heightened, intense language:
The previous week’s snow had not cleaved to earth, it was a night’s fall only, the rain returned heavily the next morning and George Mouse went sloshing off in it hollow eyed and confused, having caught, they all thought, Sophie’s bug. The rain continued like unassuageable grief, flooding the low broad lawn where the sphinxes decayed mumchance. Then the temperature tumbled, and Christmas Eve morning the world was all iron-gray and glaring in ice, all the color of the iron-gray sky where the sun made a white smear only behind the clouds. The lawn was hard enough to skate on; the house looked like a miniature house for a model railroad, set beside a pond made from a compact-mirror.
Crowley chooses to place this not at the beginning of the scene but in the middle. When you start reading this section of the book, ‘Agreement with Newton’, it isn’t immediately clear why the characters are ‘speeding’ and ‘sliding’ around. (Nor what Newton has to do with it.) It’s a puzzle to be worked out, and while you’re working it out, you’re being kept apart from the characters again, apart from immersing yourself in the world of the novel. And archaic and unusual language trips you up. ‘Mumchance’! A nice choice of word, conveying not only that the sphinxes are silent but that they are somehow part of a show or a stage set, an idea of artificiality picked up in ‘miniature house for a model railroad’ and ‘a pond made from a compact-mirror’.
(Piet Mondrian, The Gray Tree, oil on canvas, 1912; found here)
Crowley bends time and physics; he elevates small details and he also plays around with scale. The house is ‘miniature’, but it is also, as we know, many houses in one, perhaps a physical impossibility. Characters participate in this play. In Book 1, Smoky felt his one self held an ‘infinity of possibilities’ and many different characters, yet he believed that Daily Alice could contain him. Now Daily Alice experiences something similar:
Daily Alice couldn’t tell if she felt huge or small. She wondered whether her head were so big as to be able to contain all this starry universe, or whether the universe were so little that it would fit within the compass of her human head. She alternated between these feelings, expanding and diminishing. The stars wandered in and out of the vast portals of her eyes, under the immense empty tome of her brow; and then Smoky took her hand and she vanished to a speck, still holding the stars as in a tiny jewel box within her.
She is little and big. The novel contains the little and the big, the detail and the grand pattern. We find ourselves trusting to this, as the characters do. But all the time, Crowley seems to be showing us things differently, wrongfooting us and making us work, as if he’s saying, ‘Look, look. See things differently.’ We have to see things differently if we are to accept this story.