In the fall of 2015, I happened across the short story “Little Man” by Michael Cunningham in The New Yorker. As a collector of fairy tales, both old and new, I immediately recognized this strange and surprisingly modern twist on “Rumpelstiltskin.” Cunningham revisited this and several other well-known fairy tales in his collection A Wild Swan and Other Tales. With the popular surge in fairy tale retellings, I have often wondered why Cunningham’s take achieved publication in such a prestigious magazine. A close, in-depth reading of his collection revealed elements I seldom see in popular fairy tale renditions. Cunningham utilizes a variety of clever techniques in his stories, but the ones I was most drawn to the most as a writer were his use of sarcastic commentary on modern issues and the juxtaposition of classic fairy tales with contemporary parables.
Of all the stories in the collection, “Jacked”—a contemporary take on “Jack and the Beanstalk”—was the one that captured my interest the most as a deft and detailed commentary on the single parent, only child plight so prevalent among middle-class Americans. Cunningham creates a solid foundation with Jack’s character in the opening lines: “This is not a smart boy we’re talking about. This is not a kid who can be trusted to remember to take his mother to her chemo appointment, or to close the windows when it rains” (23). Forgetting a chemo appointment is a long cry from forgetting to close the windows on a rainy afternoon, yet it perfectly captures the entitled privilege we’ve come to expect from today’s youth.
Cunningham stays faithful to the original plot in “Jack and the Beanstalk,” but then modernizes it with a series of witticisms of a sarcastic nature: “The mist-girl tells Jack that everything the giant owns belongs rightfully to him. Jack, however, being Jack, had assumed already that everything the giant owns—everything everybody owns—rightfully belongs to him” (26). Personally, I’ve never been particularly fond of “Jack and the Beanstalk.” And, after reading the story, I was left with the feeling that Cunningham wasn’t in love with the original fairy tale either, which is why he pushes the unlikeable character to even further extremes. A “shockingly expensive haircut” and “200-dollar-jeans” can’t hide Jack’s self-entitled nature as a petty criminal. Cunningham makes the story relevant. He makes it his.
All of the stories in A Wild Swan and Other Tales have roots in classic fairy tales with the exception of “A Monkey’s Paw,” which reimagines the supernatural short story “The Monkey’s Paw” written by W. W. Jacobs in 1902, and the opening and ending stories, which offer broad commentary on people at large. I especially loved Cunningham’s snarky wit in the opening pages of “Dis. Enchant.”: “Vengeful entities seek only to devastate the rarest, the ones who have somehow been granted not only bower and trumpet but comeliness that startles the birds in the trees, coupled with grace, generosity, and charm so effortless as to seem like ordinary human qualities. Who wouldn’t want to fuck these people up?” (3). Cunningham continues his observation of human foibles, allowing the reader the opportunity to connect with an array of fairy tale characters. He offers the opportunity to fantasize and to relate to even the most mundane and petty complaints.
The evil stepmother in “A Wild Swan” is given sympathy after she turns her 12 stepsons into swans and commands them to fly away: “Do we blame her? Do we, really?” (5). The witch from “Hansel and Gretel,” finds her voice in “Crazy Old Lady”: “Were you relieved, maybe just a little, when they lifted you up (you weighed almost nothing by then) and shoved you in to the oven?” (20). In addition to identity, Cunningham plays with sexual themes; Rapunzel keeps her shorn hair so her blinded prince can make love to the piece of her that was lost in “Her Hair,” a boy marries the first girl who doesn’t treat him differently just because he has a prosthetic leg in “Steadfast; Tin,” and a girl agrees to play dead for exactly twelve minutes so her Prince Charming can play out his necrophiliac obsession in “Poisoned.”
Cunningham creates a cast of characters that we know intimately: the people who were only partly cured of their curses gathering in bars, the aging women with no families who become easy targets in their old age, the couple who plays out kinky sex fantasies behind closed doors, the single men who would give anything to have a child without the entanglements of a partner, the couple who finds their love renewed after tasting separation, the girls who wonder if their only choices for a companion are the asshole and the fool, and the men who prefer to forget their losses at the cost of the ones they love. These characters are fragments of ourselves and others, fragments many of us prefer not to face.
As I pondered Cunningham’s treatment of old material in a new light, I realized that I tend to shy away from the very thing he embraces. There are opportunities there, but they can only be broached if I am willing to write from the hard places. Cunningham uses sarcasm to separate himself from his material. He allows the reader to make the obvious connections and then to bear the burden of the revelations mirrored from familiar tales retold in a contemporary setting. I think it’s a fine line to walk, but I also think that this is why Cunningham’s work rises above the multitude of other fairy tale retellings flooding the market. As a writer drawn to similar subject material, I am of the belief that fairy tale retellings work because there is such a breadth of material available to mine. However, I’ve also learned that it isn’t just the more obscure tales that need to be told; it’s the true tales. It’s up to the writers to find new ways to reflect the deepest, darkest parts of themselves through the comforts of the familiar.
Cunningham, Michael. A Wild Swan and Other Tales. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.
Images: “Little Man” by Zohar Lazar, The New Yorker; “A Wild Swan,” “Poisoned,” and “Beasts” by Yuko Shimizu. All rights retained by the artists.