Friday, June 04, 2010

Little, Big by John Crowley

The universe was telling to me read this book. It's been recommended to me so many times over the last few years by so many people whose opinions I respect that I just couldn't go another day without reading it, so I ran out and bought it.

That was over two months ago and I still haven't finished it. It's a strange book. I've never read John Crowley before and had no idea what to expect. For all the people who raved about the book, no one ever really talked about what it was about, or what happened, or maybe they did and it didn't stick in my mind, and when you read the back cover you're like okay, okay, okay, but then you're still not sure what kind of novel you're standing in line to buy. And that feeling has followed me through my reading experience. I'd be enjoying the book, but when people asked me about it, I found myself oddly tongue tied. It's about this guy, Smokey, who marries this girl Daily Alice who lives in a five-sided house, each side done in a different architectural style, and seemingly more vast on the inside than the outside, and somehow a portal into another world or dimension, for some characters. And the story is so big, like family saga big, because we keep getting stories of Daily Alice's ancestors and their encounters (or lack of encounters) with "them" the people in the other world, (who I thought of as elves), and the history of the house. It was really hard for me to get a hold on this story. I'd feel like I had a pretty strong handle on it, and I'd feel involved, until I stopped to think about it a little harder, and then it all would slip away and get foggy. It's like when you're figuring out a new piece of music and you just have to trust your fingers to know what to do and where to go and if you try too hard you'll lose it altogether.

Because of this quality, I'm reading this book very slowly. So slowly that I've finished eight other books since I've started it (Robert McCammon's Mr. Slaughter, John Hart's The Last Child, Ron Rash's One Foot in Eden, Michael Connolly's The Closers, Kathryn Stockett's The Help, Dan Simmons' Hyperion, A. Lee Martinez's Gil's All Fright Diner, and Steig Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). All of which are fabulous books that were page-turners for me and easy to understand. I was surprised when I was supposed to be surprised. With Little, Big I was more or less in a continual state of surprise or raised eyebrows. The characters never reacted like I expected them to. I couldn't adjust to their world. This led me to a philosophical question: was the author thwarting my expectations on purpose, or was I bringing my commercial expectations to a book where they just didn't apply?

The best way to describe my experience of this book is through movies. So many movies have the same narrative arc. The main character wants something. People tell them it's unattainable. Their family and friends are not supportive, or indifferent. The person does it anyhow, against enormous odds and multiple setbacks. Then you watch a movie like Once, which is about a Scottish musician working as a Hoover repairman. He wants to record an album. He doesn't have any money, but he teams up with a Czech pianist, and gets some guys off the street to play drums and backup and whatever. His dad, instead of being a nay saying asshole, is supportive. The studio guys are skeptical, but quickly won over by his talent. I kept waiting for the scene where they'd steal his album and screw him, but that didn't come. In the end, he made this beautiful album. Nothing really went wrong. I spent the whole movie full of anxiety, waiting for the axe that never fell.

Which is how I feel reading Little, Big. Is it just me, or does the author keep setting me up for something bad to happen when nothing bad does? Smokey has to jump through all these hoops to marry Daily Alice and I'm thinking, this whole book is going to be about him trying to marry her and things are going to keep going wrong and they'll never get to spend their lives together... but they actually get married pretty quickly and have four kids. Then Smokey sleeps with Daily Alice's sister and I'm thinking okay, the shit's gonna really hit the fan now, but Daily Alice is fine with it and the situation is diffused. I guess all these characters just have bigger things to worry about, like those elves that never get explained.

People who have read Little, Big: I need your encouragement. I'm half way through, and while the writing is incredible, I'm losing steam. Should I finish this thing?