Fractured fairy-tales

By JAMES PARKER  |  January 23, 2008

Because that’s life, baby — Dick Cheney is still in office, and virtue is by no means necessarily triumphant. It is one of the laws of Fairyland, part of its physics, as it were, that reality must be looked dead in the eye. If not, certain doom. In HCA’s “The Shadow,” for example, a gentle and pious scholar is betrayed by his own shadow. Writing his book about “the good, the true, and the beautiful,” training his mind upon the Platonic forms, the scholar is easily outwitted and finally done to death by the suave and bastardly shadow (who also happens to be a great dancer).

“It is,” wrote the Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner in his 1977 book Telling the Truth, “as if the world of the fairy tale impinges on the ordinary world the way the dimension of depth impinges on the two-dimensional surface of a plane, so that there is no point on the plane — a Victorian sitting room or a Kansas farm — that can’t become an entrance to it.” Saunders is a master of these entrances because, to press Buechner’s metaphor a little, he sees through. He’s a pinpoint satirist, yes indeedy, but his real gift is for a sort of angelic irony, hovering warmly in the vertical plane, piercing with forgiveness the veil of things below.

(HCA, too, was hip to the vertical. “From above,” he advised at the end of his tiny story “Heartache,” about the death of the dog Moppsie, “you can always smile at this incident, as well as at many of our own heartaches and those of others.”)

It’s the gentleness of Saunders, his refusal to be shitty or peevish or lowdown, that makes him the single storyteller adequate to the mutant futurism of the Fox News/celeb-reality era. He likes humans, as a rule. Even his sharpest polemics have a wobbly, galactic bemusement about them: “Our venture in Iraq,” he wrote in the title essay of this past year’s collection The Braindead Megaphone, “was a literary failure, by which I mean a failure of imagination. A culture better at imagining richly, three-dimensionally, would have had a greater respect for war than we did, more awareness of the law of unintended consequences, more familiarity with the world’s tendency to throw aggressive energy back at the aggressor in ways he did not expect. A culture capable of imagining complexly is a humble culture.”

Interlude with rodents
Were you as enchanted as I was, darling reader, by that enchanting movie Enchanted? From the first frame to the last, it was, needless to say, an enchantment. But if, on pain of death, exile, or metamorphosis, I had to pick my favorite scene — well, it would be the one where Princess Giselle (played by the always enchanting Amy Adams) does the housework.

Poor Princess Giselle . . . teleported out of Fairyland by the wicked queen, marooned amid the dog shit and rumbling spires of 21st-century Manhattan, she is homeless, confused, and her white dress is getting dirty. A kindly divorce lawyer lets her sleep in his apartment, but oh!, the place is a mess. She needs some help from her animal friends! Delicately obtruding her tiara’d head from the 25th-floor casement, Giselle trills a few Poppins-notes of song — Ah-ah-ah-ah! — and here they come, not the fauns and fluttering bluebirds of the forest, but the lowlife: the vagrant rats and pigeons, grime-bearers of the metropolis.

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