A REVIEW is small, and some books are very large. Being a family romance with dozens of intimately related characters who love one another deeply, and a fairy tale with Titania and Oberon and a brownie and elves and Mrs. Underhill herself who is sometimes very huge, and a legend about the rebirth of Frederik Barbarossa and his career as president of the United States, and a science fiction novel about the slow collapse of America into another Holy Roman Empire, and a myth about the once and future transformation of this mortal world into something like Eden, John Crowley's ambitious fourth novel, Little, Big, easily defeats any attempt to compress its dazzling intricate riches into a brief summary.
At the heart of the largesse of the book does lie a Tale, all the same. It is the story from 1890 to 2000 of the extended Bramble/Drinkwater family, who live at Edgewood in Washington Irving country north of New York, and who are secure in the knowledge that, by living their lives as fully as possible, they are taking part in -- are in fact the actual substance of -- an enormously long and terribly important Tale whose resolution, as the novel begins, is nigh. The world will change utterly.
It is about 1975. After courting Daily Alice Drinkwater for two years; Smoky Bramble now obeys her command to come to Edgewood, where they will be married. From New York he treks northward into something like but not exactly heaven. Lying at the center of five villages seemingly inhabited mostly by extensions of the family, Edgewood is a huge oak-shaded five-sided dwelling constructed to hold an orrery -- a clockwork model of the universe -- at its heart, and intimations of the Renaissance Art of Memory (along with the Tarot) in its innumerable rooms and complex interlocking facades and duskily seems grounds; but most important of all, Edgewood is that secret place in the Wild Wood where mortal lands intersect with the domain of Faerie, where Little becomes Big, if you step inwards.
Here Smoky will spend the rest of his contented busy life as America declines, the only resident of Edgewood not related by blood to everyone else there, and though we will learn a great deal about the once and future Bramble/Drinkwaters in the 538 pages of the novel, he will remain our mortal center of consciousness. The orrery is broken; he will spend much of his life trying to repair it, finding at last that, properly attuned to the heavens, it powers the house, not vice versa. There will be numerous children needing education; he will teach them, often using as text his father-in-law's newspaper fables about the Wild Wood and Old Mother West-wind and the Green Meadow and the talking animals who live there, in a world of imagination halfway through the portal to Faerie. Though children's author Thornton W. Burgess is not mentioned by name, Crowley clearly intends a homage to him in these passages; the effect is strangely moving.
And Smoky will help Daily Alice raise their four children, three of whom are the Fates or Moirai reborn, with distaff spindle and scissors always at hand as they foretell what is next to happen in the Tale. The fourth child, Auberon, goes to the wilderness of New York, where he stays with relatives, falls desperately in love with Sylvie (a Puerto Rican nicknamed Titania in childhood) and is eventually hired to script the popular TV soap opera, A World Elsewhere, which he gradually transforms into another version of the tale of his family, transfixing what's left of America after the reborn Barbarossa has brought winter to its heart and then himself gone back to sleep for another thousand years.
But I am just hinting at the riches of this dense, marvelous, magic-realist family chronicle about the end of time and the new world to come when Daily Alice finally takes on Mrs. Underhill's mantle and becomes the breathing spirit of Nature animate. Crowley's style has a calm unremitting clarity, and though the text is chock-a-block with parodies and echoes of writers from Lewis Carroll to T.H. White, the ultimate effect is of an uncluttered mature steadiness of vision, with hardly a wrong note, though Barbarossa never quite convinces. Crowley's only substantial problem seems to be how to end the book while continuing the Tale, whose underlying promise is that there is no ending.
His solution has panache.
Never having quite managed to believe in what lay about him like a dance, Smoky dies of his angina, after a good life. Metamorphosis transfigures everyone else; they become the new world; who can tell the dancer from the dance? But before becoming king of the fairies, and plunging once again into eternal sexual imbroglios with his loving Titania, Auberon must terminate A World Elsewhere, just as Little, Big must be terminated. After sending off the last pages, which he can't remember writing, "he thought, laughing, of that schoolboy device he had once used, that last line that every schoolboy had once used to complete some wild self-indulgent fantasy otherwise uncompletable: then he woke up ."
He awakens. He closes the book, which is fiction. He enters the Tale.