The Little People by MacDonald Harris (Morrow: ($16.95)
If you find infantilism charming, you will love this book. Its counterpart is "Peter Pan": "Clap hands if you believe in fairies." MacDonald Harris has written a tract against sexual intercourse. The reward for chastity is bliss, the bliss of consorting with the Little People.
The Little People are elusive, exclusive woodland creatures who dwell in a National Trust forest in Waldshire, a mythical English county. They sing, like angels or synthesizers, odd mystical lyrics set to eerie harmonics.
The Little People are meant to be enchanting; clusters of delightful words have been reserved for them. A cobweb-and-gossamer vocabulary raises visions of the elegant lady-fairies of Arthur Rackham, the great Edwardian illustrator of Peter Pan and other fantasies. But on acquaintance, the Little People are more like Rackham's nasty root-beings. They are unpleasant: inchoate, misshapen, manipulative, faintly malicious. One man's elf is another's goblin.
Hypersensitive to Iron
Bonner Foley (whose name in phonetic French blends happiness and madness) is a medievalist on leave in England from Johns Hopkins. Edgy and phobic, he is hypersensitive to iron. Bonner breaks down in the Reading Room of the British Museum, when he feels the iron rods of the walls and dome, "a reticulated shape like a bird cage, enclosing him in a contracting network of magnetism. . . ."
Dr. Lovejoy, Bonner's psychiatrist, a man of science, radiates assurance and reassurance: "Iron does send out lines of force, you know. It's a fact of physics." His prescriptions are homeopathic, hair-of-the-dog: Bonner must play with iron filings, magnets and guns.
Fear of iron is the symptom. What is the disease? The diagnosis is crude: He's not getting enough sex. Sex and death, Lovejoy explains, are linked. Bonner must accept his own mortality.
At Byrd Mill, the Boswins' house in Waldshire, Bonner is loved and wanted. Sylvie Boswin wants him for a husband. Her father James wants him for a son-in-law. Stasha, Sylvie's sister, wants Bonner for her lover. So does the girls' mother, Tita.
Sylvie dreads the "wound" of intercourse. Marriage to her, her mother counsels, would be mariage blanc --never to be consummated. Chastity is also the way of the Little People, whom Bonner meets in the wood. Intercourse is " . . . a mortal thing to do, look you, Bonner," says one of them. " . . . it's not a nice thing, is it?" The Little People, though, hold the advantage. They do not have intercourse or children, but neither do they die.
Bonner truly loves Sylvie and marries her. But not until her sister Stasha seduces him does his illness vanish. Then the Little People shun him, because of "what he had done with Stasha."
Gorgeous Prose About Sylvie
Here is gorgeous prose about Sylvie, asleep: " . . . (Bonner) was aware of her fragrance, milk and scented talcum, the odor of a baby. Her features were delicate, her small nose patrician and narrow, her closed eyelids like pink marbles . . . ." Bonner takes Sylvie to the Little People, where we are to believe that they find endless rapture. But there are problems of fiction and fantasy: (1) Bonner and Sylvie are mortal, and so Bonner cannot really know "that she was with him and would always be there." (2) The Little People have asked them to visit, not to stay, and so are not to be "their constant companions." (3) What is to happen to Bonner's physical needs and about his phobia? (4) Why has Stasha been terribly burned? (5) What will happen when Sylvie and Bonner grow old? All stories, of whatever kind, must follow an internal logic.
Most of the human beings in this book are amoral, callous and selfish. The few nice people do not lead whole lives. But if that reflects the sad state of reality, is fantasy the answer? A critic in the New York Times wrote recently about "the queasy land of Fey." Here it is. What fate could be more stunted or horrible than perpetual childhood?
MacDonald Harris has talent and courage. There is no subject more difficult, controversial or panicky than human sexuality. Harris dares write about malaise, deviance, the attractive tug of puerile beauty.
We do not have the option of Peter Pan, who "escaped from being a human . . ." This is not never-never land. These problems are real. To write of them in fantastic terms, no matter how brilliant the intellectual exercise, is to retreat from reality.
. . . Speaking of fantasy, in Harris' text, Byrd Mill is an 18th-Century house of at least two levels and "ham-colored brick." It is arranged symmetrically in an "H" around a high-ceilinged hall, and its double door of oak is "like that of a castle in a movie." On the jacket of this book, Byrd Mill is one-story and white, an American Federal farmhouse in Connecticut with shutters and door painted blue. Instead of standing on lawns, studded with beech trees and sycamores, this Byrd Mill is framed in a cloistral ring of oaks.