Saturday, April 30, 2005

May's Book: Stepmother, by Robert Coover

I first came across this nerveless novella -- 90 pages long, no more than 30,000 words - while shelving fiction at Changing Hands. It's a physically very pretty book -- you can't help but adore the jacketless forest green hardcover, decorated as it is with two identical silver trees, in the shared leaves of which the title is boldly printed (also in silver), and between the trunks of which a diamond-shaped full-color picture floats, as if by magic. In the picture: a crowned and veiled queen with an emotionless look and a pointing finger; the orange hair, right ear, and naked right shoulder of some girl who the queen seems to be pointing at and whispering to; three dull green doves flying above them, one of them upside down; and the sharp smoking flames in the background with which all the action is concerned. (Is the mystery girl burning?) The book cover's two trees each hold a branch to the picture, as if presenting it in tandem to the prospective reader. Above the branches, also floating, the author's name. It feels like the introduction to a grand production; and looking at the picture on this eye-catching cover, one feels as though one is getting an early glimpse of what's on the other side of the curtain: danger, beauty, loss, mystery, magic. A place where trees are alive, where identities are concealed, where queens wear skull necklaces. It is an alluring sneak peak, and aroused enough curiosity in this naughty bookstore shelvist to entice me to find a lesser-traveled tract of the store - I won't tell you where - where I could safely explore this strange McSweeney's offering.

At the top of page 1, you get the first of 13 illustrations, all drawn by Michael Kupperman. Kupperman's famous style, as seen in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Adweek, Barron's, and more, is again on vibrant display. He has an uncanny knack for creating vivid two- or three-color scenes -- he is primarily known as a comic book creator -- and, indeed, the full-color cover aside, all the illustrations in Stepmother are composed in shades and combinations of black and red: black trees, red sky; black castles, red lips; black nail-studded barrels with white maidens inside gushing rivers of bright red blood into a bright red pool. This last unsettling image is the first, the one that greets the reader at the top of page 1. And the book doesn't relent; it is violent throughout: another picture shows an index finger and thumb delicately holding a tiny pale pink baby -- as one might hold a gummy bear -- and an open, expectant mouth, into which the baby is going to be tossed; another shows a man curled up in a hole in a tree, a stain of blood about his pelvis, a trail of red drops marking his passage to the tree, and an approaching witch stirring something in a pot; and these illustrations are faithful to the words on the pages. It is provocative art; it is provocative writing. It is even perverse. There are rapes, there are mutilations, there are executions. There is torture, nudity, masochism. But in all this, like in Lolita, beginning on the very first page, there is interwoven an incredible beauty, an undeniable compassion, a heartdeep understanding of the philosophy of this dark fairy tale land that is perhaps not so far, far away.

Lolita. For those who have read Nabokov's soul-shaking novel of obsession and beauty, the idea of pretty perversity is nothing new. In that book, the narrator, Humbert Humbert, explains his pedophilia with such tenderness, such grace, such gentle passion and honest pain, that one finds it nearly impossible to hate him, despite his horrific deeds (which culminate in a murder the reader wants him to commit). Vanity Fair called Lolita "The only convincing love story of our century" -- never mind that Humbert's love was focused on a preteen, founded on pure lust, and ultimately unreciprocated. The testament of Lolita (it contains no descriptions of sexual acts, no cusswords, no directly expressed vulgarities) lies precisely in its ability to make us sing such high praises as those sung by Vanity Fair. We are reading about illegalities, immoralities, and condemning them, but all the same we are thoroughly enchanted. We can't put the damn book down. We feel as though some spell has been cast. And indeed, one has. Because, despite everything, it is a convincing love story -- a love story more beautiful, more painful (for us as well as Humbert), and more honest, than any we can remember reading -- and only magic seems able to explain for it.

Such is the case with Stepmother. It is a tale of passion and pain, poetically rendered. "Look at it this way, love, I tell her: no more slops to empty." This is the heartwrenching opening sentence, spoken by the title character (and primary narrator) to her daughter, who has been captured and awaits execution. "Of course," begins the second paragraph, "the child, naked and spread-eagled and shackled to the floor below me, expects me to get her out of this somehow. I'm a witch, I should be able to do something." After exhausting such options as magic rings and slippers (which have been misplaced or stolen), unbreakable wands (which have been broken), spells (which have been forgotten), and an invisible cloak (which is full of holes), the witch/stepmother finally does do something, and the two of them manage to escape into Reaper's Woods. And so, by simple turns of magic, certain suffering and death is (for now) avoided -- let the fairy tale begin.

Coover has reworked fairy tales before. One example is Briar Rose, a Sleeping Beauty spin published in 1997, which is so beautiful and compelling that upon finishing it, the reader, rather than close the covers and set the book down, flips back to the first page to read the whole thing over again. The reader will do the same with Stepmother. This book, quietly published last year by McSweeney's (a publishing company founded by Dave Eggers, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize finalist A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius), follows the path of Briar Rose (even through the figurative thorn bushes: namely, the risks inherent in any literary reworking) and fills the footprints quite nicely - even exceeds them.

And Stepmother, like Briar Rose, claims no title for itself; it fits no one genre. It contains allegorical elements, but is much more than allegory. It is bitingly satirical, but its target, even if we think it specifically marked, remains broad and general - it is directed, upon reflection, at all of humankind. There are aspects of the tall tale, expressed mainly through descriptions of the Old Soldier, who has a list of amazing accomplishments to his penniless name. It is a fairy tale, as squeezed and twisted as it may be. But above all, it is simply a story: it comes with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and is complete with the compelling characters to guide you through it. It is a story that is at once literary and massively appealing (though the masses know nothing of it). A story that shuns modern stylistic trends (see Jonathan Safran Foer) in favor of sparklingly pure tale-telling. A story whose every word is simultaneously dark and delightful.

A story, finally, that deserves to be called supreme literature, and that may very well stand alone at the top of my favorite books list at the end of this year.

Books Read in April

Notes from Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky

The classic novella from one of the greatest writers ever. A two-hour read, and well worth it, if only because of its status. The dinner scene in which the nameless narrator gets drunk and embarrasses himself is one of my favorites in all of literature. I recommend the new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer

Not as good as his wife's book (The History of Love, listed below), but original and worth reading. The first serious fiction to center itself around the tragedy and aftermath of 9/11. The primary narrator, Oskar Schell, doesn't deserve the Huck Finn comparisons some have given him, but he is an original and entertaining American kid nonetheless. I suggest reading this and The History of Love back-to-back. Krauss and Safran Foer are clearly literature's new first couple.

The History of Love, Nicole Krauss

A wonderful story about Leo Gursky, an aging and morbid man who knows nothing of the impact he's left on the world, and Alma, a fourteen-year-old girl who is testament to that impact and who is also every bit as original and compelling - and not quite as annoying - as Safran Foer's Oskar (see above). At times tender and tragic, at other times laugh-out-loud funny, this book, with its tones that seem soft and loud at the same time, reminds me of a yelled whisper, or a muted cymbal clap. Indeed, both the story in the book and the book itself contain this characteristic of being quietly loud: in the former case, when dealing in the narrative with the expanse and effects of love and literature; in the latter case, when arguing for its place on the modern literary bookshelf. In both instances, the passionately subdued style pays off. A fresh voice is added to the eternal conversation on love and loss and the power of writing, and we have another fine book for our bookshelf. (I find Krauss fits very snugly between Barbara Kingsolver and Maxine Kumin.)

No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy

The first book in seven years by the author of Blood Meridian and The Border Trilogy. Will be reviewed for July. Due in stores July 19th.

Mary, Vladimir Nabokov

The first novel by my favorite author, written some 80 years ago. A very straightforward story about a soldier living in a pension in Germany with a handful of comical Russian emigres. A rather simple book, given Nabokov's reputation for trickery and wordplay - gives no indication of the literary genius that would later produce Lolita and Pale Fire (both of which are regularly included among the best books of the 20th Century), and is even at times a slow read. Worth it, however, if you like the author's later work. It is interesting to see how some of the themes common in his writing, such as displacement and love, were first expressed.

Spanking the Maid, Robert Coover

The only book of Coover's to make Harold Bloom's western canon. I think other Coover books are at least as good as this one, if not better, but I won't fuss. Bloom is one man with one opinion, and we could debate his selections forever. This very fine literary novella revolves around the daily routines of a master and his maid. Each morning, the maid enters the master's bedroom with the intention of finally achieving perfection in her work. The master, haunted every night by nightmares, is forced to discipline her when she fails. I won't say any more for fear of taking the enjoyment out of this sinister tale, except to tell you that things get worse and worse...and the master and his maid might even enjoy it.

Lady into Fox, David Garnett

The second straight McSweeney's publication I've read that's been great (see this month's review of Stepmother for the other one) - I was getting scared they were moving in the wrong direction, but perhaps I was wrong. At any rate, this publication - a resurrection of a 1922 novel by David Garnett, who slept his way into the famous Bloomsbury Group (and then married that lover's daughter, who was also a member) - is a great read whether you seek literary satisfaction or quick entertainment. The story is that of a man whose wife turns into a fox, and the struggles - social, sexual, religious, etc. - that he endures as he copes with his wife's new form. As his wife gets closer and closer to the true nature of a fox - that is, wilder and wilder, by a human's estimation - his struggles intensify. The book reads something like a fable, but feel no need to derive a moral from this story. It is simply fun storytelling, and quick, too. It's another novella - I've read a few in this form this month - and would be perfect for a short plane ride or a long lunch.

Literary Word of the Month


Changing the class of a word - such as from a noun to a verb - usually for figurative purposes. The word teeth, for example, is a noun. But, when prefixed with de-, it becomes a verb:

"I'll deteeth thy mouth."
(Jason to Shakespeare, in a bar late last Friday, after the Bard gave him the figo.)

Post-lesson quiz:
Can you spot the unitalicized (and perhaps poor) use of anthimeria in this post? Enduring wisdom will be rewarded to all who answer correctly.