Sunday, January 30, 2011

My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales edited by Kate Bernheimer

I'm a well known fairy tale fan and so of course I liked this anthology of fairy tales by some of my favorite authors (Aimee Bender, Kelly Link, Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, Lydia Millet...)(full disclosure: editor Kate Bernheimer once published a piece of mine in her journal Fairy Tale Review). But probably my favorite of all the tales was "A Day in the Life of Half of Rumpelstiltskin" by Kevin Brockmeier. And it had me thinking about how I read. I sometimes ask students what, if anything they are picturing when they read a story, and some of them will claim that they are seeing it play like a movie in their heads. But I don't really believe them. If they are, they are filling in an extraordinary amount of gaps. I mean even the most scenic of stories doesn't have anywhere near the visuals of a movie. When I read, I am hearing language and usually not seeing anything. Occasionally an image will stand out and I'll see it clearly--sort of like looking at photos while someone narrates their vacation (good grief, is reading fiction like a power point presentation?). I'm bringing this up now because in this story the main character is ... Half of Rumpelstiltskin. I mean he's literally half of a person. And Brockmeier does describe him: "He is like a pentagram folded across its center or a tree split by lightning. He is like the left half of a slumberous mannequin, yawning and shuddering, rising from within the netlike architecture of his dreams. He is like that exactly." But if I spent the story actually visualizing, or if Brockmeier spent the story constantly describing, half of a man...well, it would be a huge and horrible distraction. Instead Brockmeier calls the character Half of Rmpelstiltskin all the time. That's his name. And the repetition gives a lot of strength to the voice while tonally affecting how you think of the character. I can't help but have sympathy for someone cut in half, and of course, it's more important thematically that he's half of himself than it is literally. The story wouldn't work if Brockmeier didn't treat the half body realistically (it hops, its clothes don't fit Gregor Samsa's bug body, it's treated as absolutely real) but because Brockmeier doesn't constantly worry about what you're seeing, you aren't distracted by the body, but are instead engaged by the character. I'm not suggesting we abandon physical description (I like the slide show portion of my reading) but just want to suggest that the sound attached to a character, the tone of how he's described, can do more work than the statistics of height, weight and hair color.

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