Fairy tales for our times

Published September 4, 2016

There’s no denying that most readers are obsessed with fairy tales. Whether it’s because they represent a simpler world of black and white morality that is easier to comprehend or they offer the promise of a happy ending one never really outgrows fairy tales. Reminders of fantasy tales appear in the form of movies exploring certain dimensions of a classic story, or books heavily alluding to fairy tales in the name of archetypes. However, needless to say most of these movies and books are often highly unoriginal.

Michael Cunningham’s latest collection of short stories titled A Wild Swan and Other Tales claims to be a re-imagination of those moments that fairy tales either forgot or deliberately concealed. With his previous novels, The Hours and The Snow Queen, Cunningham has proven he can take any familiar story and turn it into something bizarrely splendid. A Wild Swan and Other Tales delivers exactly what it promises and Yuko Shimizu’s intricate illustrations are an aesthetically delightful addition. The hardcover edition of this book is a perfect collectors’ item, especially for those who are fans of this literary genre and by extension dedicated readers of Cunningham.

Cunningham believes that there’s another side to our fascination with fairy tales: the ideals represented by these tales are impossible to follow that deep down the reader desires such perfectly crafted characters suffer the slights of life. “If certain manifestations of perfection can be disgraced, or disfigured, or sent to walk the earth in iron shoes, the rest of us will find ourselves living in a less arduous world; a world of more reasonable expectations; a world in which the appellations ‘beauty’ and ‘potency’ can be conferred upon a larger cohort of women and men,” he writes.

This isn’t just the story of a prince with one wing for an arm, but also how it must have felt to be so unique and beautiful, and yet cursed to have never experienced normal life: “He lived with his wing as another man might live with a dog adopted from the pound: sweet tempered, but neurotic and untrainable. He loved his wing, helplessly. He also found it exasperating, adorable, irritating, wearying, heartbreaking.” Fragmented in various ways, Cunningham’s characters are not only imperfect but a brutal mockery of high ideals such as beauty, bravery, generosity — ideals which are traditionally fundamental to fairy tales.

Self-destructive characters are endlessly romanticised in popular culture, but Cunningham believes that their ruin is not necessarily grand or romantic; sometimes even solitude can be destructive. It is not entirely impossible that the barmy old lady with a candy-house in the middle of nowhere is lonely and the greedy kids who eat her house, a house that requires more upkeep than any other, are actually the evil characters in this story. The author has the uncanny ability to familiarize these otherwise distant characters from strange lands.

In ‘Jacked’ which is his take on the silly boy named Jack who finds magic beans, Cunningham writes: “There are any number of boys like Jack. Boys who prefer the crazy promise, the long shot, who insist that they’re natural-born winners.” It is not his trust in strangers, but his endless greed that becomes his flaw. One idealises material objects that are out of reach or people one admires from far; however, once the fascination fades away, there is disappointment. Hence, the prince from Sleeping Beauty who is now nothing more than an unhappy husband longs for the time when Beauty lay asleep under the curse and “immaculate, and entirely strange, and the most perfect and beautiful creature I’d ever seen. Before I lifted the lid, I mean, and before I kissed you for the first time”.

Cunningham uniquely spins what could be read as classic fairy tales, modernised, often provocative, and at times unapologetically cynical but never boring. His elegant prose and abrasive technique seamlessly go along with traditional folktales. However, if in search of a comforting read, then this isn’t the book to select. Stuck in bodies they resent, the characters in this tale are as unhappy as if they inhabited the real world of chaos. There are no fairy tale endings and perhaps the only consolation one might find is that no matter how miserable one is life goes on. “Maybe that’s what there’s to hope for—that it merely won’t get any worse.”

A Wild Swan and Other Tales
By Michael Cunningham
Illustrated by Yuko Shimizu
Published by Fourth Estate, London
ISBN 978-0-00-814038-0

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 4th, 2016



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