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.

55 Comments:

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You know, I may never read the books you recommend, but I will always enjoy your reviews of them. You have a wonderful way with words.

 
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