Building Blocks and Knitting Needles: Little, Big Again

I’m having one of those afternoons where everything I’m made of seems to come apart and lie there spread out on the carpet for me to rummage through like plastic pieces from three dozen different building block sets I’ve been accumulating since I was three. And the turning world rolls a sunbeam across the whole angular mess and up the wall and then gone, and I sit here trying to get back to what I was doing—writing, trying to get the legos back up into their towers and buttresses and balustrades—but all I can do is keep pulling them down, turning them over, thinking This is what I am.

So I’ve been reading Little, Big. Probably not the safest thing to be doing in this kind of mood.

Some books are so good they drive me back to the blank page with sticks and lashes, shouting, “You can do this, you have to do this, do it!” Other books, better books even than that, make me stare at the page and feel the world rusting, shouting, “You’ll never do that.” This afternoon, Little, Big seems to have made its way into a third, still more rarefied and elite subcategory, whose members, if I really wanted to depress myself, I could probably count on two hands: books that are a distillation of existence—of everybody’s existence, but of mine in particular—books that maybe happen to come at the right time and be about exactly the thing that occupies me at that moment in my life, or else maybe they’re always like that for everybody, because they are what life is about. Books that seem to know me better than I do.

“Kill the fatted calf,” Momdy said, the only one there to whom the phrase would have occurred. “And fricassee it.”

Every few pages, something like this leaps right up off the page and stabs me with a white-hot knitting needle. Then there’s a lull, a chance for me to catch my breath and quiet my bawling. Then it happens again.

They stared at each other wildly, all questions, no answers; and at the same moment saw that. Smoky clapped his hand to his brow. “But how could you have thought I… that I… I mean wasn’t it obvious I didn’t know…”

“Well, I wondered,” Auberon said. “I thought maybe you were pretending. But I couldn’t be sure. How could I be sure? I couldn’t take a chance.”

“Then why didn’t you…”

“Don’t say it,” Auberon said. “Don’t say, Why didn’t you ask. Just don’t.”

“Oh, God,” Smoky said, laughing. “Oh, dear.”

Auberon sat back on the floor, shaking his head. “All that work,” he said. “All that effort.”

This stuff is taken out of context, obviously, which probably deprives it of the power to do whatever it’s doing to me. Consider yourself lucky. But I suppose the force of the impact comes from that it’s archetypal and it’s real at once. It’s saying something universal, using ancient forms, but doing it simply and intimately, without barely even having to draw on the ancient or the universal at all, because it’s been building up a mountainous reserve of all it could ever need for the past four hundred pages.

This is why novels win over short stories in the end. On most any other day, I never would admit that. There are many, many short stories I’ve read that fit into tier one and tier two: they drive me to write, they drive me away from writing, they drive me back. But in tier three—I don’t want to have to count what’s there on my two hands, and I hate to admit it—but none of them are short stories.

I guess I just thought I’d gotten past the point where this kind of thing could bite me. Thought I’d taken enough classes in psychoanalytic theory and read more than enough fantasy and metaphysics and aged enough to make me immune.

Not so.


      1. You’re right—I wouldn’t want to make myself immune. Yeah. I am relieved, actually, to find that a story can still do this to me. I just thought I was beyond it.

      1. I kind of stalled in the middle of the Aegypt cycle. I think it is as amazing iin most ways as Little, Big, but it’s not quite as personal. The Translator is very different in form, but is my second favorite of his books because it completely changed my relationship to poetry.

        I also like Moonwise by Greer Ilene Gilman. It’s completely different but makes me feel kind of flayed, but, um, in a good way. I note that Small Beer is publishing the “sequel” to that book soon. I keep meaning to sign up for it in advance, as my housemate already has.

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