Fractured fairy-tales

By JAMES PARKER  |  January 23, 2008

In their hundreds they come, scuttling and scratching to her call. Is the princess offended by this verminous surge? Squeamish? Not at all! Merrily, merrily to work; Giselle sings and dances, the rats do the washing-up, the pigeons — their soiled wings beating — fold the laundry, and in the bathroom a friendly horde of roaches boils up from the plughole, munching through layers of scum: after 2.3 seconds, the tub is sparkling.

The makers of Enchanted are saying a couple of things with this scene, I believe. They are saying, first of all, that nothing is too f’d-up for Fairyland; that the creeping things of the street are no less its citizens than the mermaid or the unicorn. And they’re saying, too, that a proper respect for the fairy tale, with its thrones and reversals and abductions, is an elementary act of psychic hygiene — perhaps the elementary act.

Essay titles
Here’s something for you, student of comparative literature: contrast the treatment of feet in HCA’s “The Red Shoes” (vain girl in scarlet slippers is condemned to dance without cease, until her feet are hacked off at the ankles) with their treatment in the Saunders tale “My Flamboyant Grandson” (Korean War vet out shopping suffers bleeding-feet syndrome, which interferes with the ability of an all-seeing marketing conglomerate to read the “information strips” on his shoes and thus determine his personal preferences). Anything? Nothing?

Then try this: investigate each author’s relationship, as a stylist, to the vernacular. Saunders writes the best dialogue in America, all TV-damaged and lumpy with half-think but somehow queerly sincere, even at the threshold of total sarcasm — our current folk language, maybe. HCA, meanwhile, scandalized the Danish critical establishment with the chattiness of his stories, which included (in the words of one commentator) “frequent asides or parentheses; little bits of Copenhagen slang; much grammatical license.”

HCA’s first translators unanimously missed the point, producing English versions so brittle and archaized they rather resemble the Saunders mini-story “Woof: A Plea of Sorts,” in which a dog called Biscuit writes a letter to his master: “I suspect you may be surprised upon surmising this missive. . . . You have perchance never heretofore imagined me, in the dark of night, pen clasped between ‘toes,’ standing upon hind legs.” The thrust of Biscuit’s letter is that, if his master persists in the practice of standing naked in the kitchen singing “Purple Rain,” his loyal hound will bite him in the “member.”

“If the art of storytelling has become rare,” wrote Walter Benjamin in his 1936 essay “The Storyteller,” “the dissemination of information has had a decisive share in this state of affairs. Every morning brings us the news of the globe, and yet we are poor in noteworthy stories. This is because no event any longer comes to us without already being shot through with explanation. In other words, by now almost nothing that happens benefits storytelling; almost everything benefits information.” Saunders has a name for this phenomenon: he calls it Megaphone Guy. “Megaphone Guy is a storyteller,” he writes in “The Braindead Megaphone,” “but his stories are not so good. Or rather, his stories are limited. His stories have not had time to gestate — they go out too fast and to too broad an audience.”

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