By Michael Cunningham
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 135 pp. $23
nolead ends nolead begins
Revisionist fairy tales have become so popular that younger generations are likely to grow up knowing them better than the originals. The YA bookshelves are full of them, as are cinemas (
t, to name only two). On TV, we have
Once Upon a Time
. On stage, we have
, based on Gregory Maguire's pop twist on
The Wizard of Oz
No surprise, then, that writers of all stripes continue to recast folkloric yarns for the 21st century. But Michael Cunningham might not be a name you'd expect to see among this group. True, his best-known novel, The Hours, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999, can be said to reimagine Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, but that's a far cry from what he sets out to do in A Wild Swan.
In this slim volume of 10 tales, beautifully illustrated by Yuko Shimizu, the usual suspects and settings - kings and consorts, castles and cottages - are frequently reset in a world of TVs, car salesmen, Slim Jims, and the G train to Brooklyn. The stiff, formal sentences of fairy tales are here, but so are sprinkles of wry commentary and contemporary idioms that startle and amuse.
Cunningham starts with stories such as "Hansel and Gretel," "Jack and the Beanstalk," and "Beauty and the Beast," as well as a couple of lesser-known Hans Christian Andersen tales. He remains mostly true to the original plots - but he injects new perspectives, exploring motives of heretofore inscrutable characters. Rumpelstiltskin desperately wants to become a father, but he knows it will be hard to "adopt an infant as a two-hundred-year-old gnome." In "Crazy Old Lady," Hansel and Gretel are violent, disaffected young adults who mindlessly destroy anything and anyone in their paths. Rather sadistic characters - the spinner of straw into gold and the witch in the candy house - become more sympathetic.
In the end, however, A Wild Swan fails to achieve as much as it might have. Too many tales do too little that's either particularly innovative (unlike Angela Carter's feminist renderings in 1979's The Bloody Chamber, for instance) or enriching. Transforming "Snow White" into a conversation about sexual role-playing is clever but insubstantial. At the end of "Beasts," Beauty sees that the Prince, free of the curse that trapped him in the Beast's body, may have been cursed to protect others. That's an interesting hint at the issue of date rape, but it's not enough to justify the entire tale's rather straightforward retelling. In a book this slim, it's too bad the tales do not bear more weight.