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The word fairy is so loaded. Magic, enchantment, and beauty spring up alongside bias, expectation, or prejudice. String together fairy and tale, and a different set of images and impressions arise. We have even less patience with the idea of a fairy tale ending–it feels as unlikely as the end of income tax. Most of us can relate to the Artist Formerly Known as Prince more easily than a happily-ever-after or a handsome prince.
That’s why Michael Cunningham’s queered renditions of the selected fairy tales in his collection, A Wild Swan and Other Tales, are timely and compelling. He disrupts familiar happily-ever-after outcomes and paints them with the vivid colors and grey ennui of our modern lives. Cunningham, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Hours, constructs continuation narratives for these stories that ask the reader to envision the what-if behind the enchantment.
It’s a riveting proposition, one which can be applied to election cycle burnout, media-driven scrolling, or a current infatuation. In “Poisoned” and “Beasts,” we investigate the relationship to other and to self with their accompanying sadisms. In “A Wild Swan” and “Steadfast; Tin,” we explore difference, disability, and our taste and distaste for either. Greed and obsession drive the protagonists in “Jacked” and “Little Man.”
The author wrote these stories as breaks in the completion of a novel, and when his work became hard work, these breaks provided a fresh perspective. These tales evolved as a writer’s way to turn his fertile imagination loose. What I love about these stories, and what Michael Cunningham accesses so beautifully, is the problem of what happens when you’ve acquired your so-called heart’s desire.
Deceptive in its simplicity, A Wild Swan and Other Tales allows Cunningham to show off his short story talents, by crafting finished personas and concepts in clean prose. Snow White’s prince longs for the days “when I was perfect because I didn’t exist…you were the most perfect and beautiful creature I had ever seen. Before I lifted the lid and kissed you.” Or in “A Wild Swan”, the outsider prince, with his inability to make his difference into a charismatic come-on, finds that his wing becomes his protector, “His dreadful familiar. His burden, his comrade.”
There is compassion woven into the fabric of Cunningham’s tales. In “Jacked,” that lazy, unimaginative boy can never have enough, excusing his every crime in perfect self-justification and prospering from his ill-gotten gains. And, in the way of such personalities, is very aware that his questionable character will not bear scrutiny, hence his isolation.
Michael Cunningham’s closing tale, “Ever/After” is a grown-up casting of the terrifying tropes of our childhood Grimm stories. Instead of the children lost in a forest, love gone wrong, or the kidnapped princesses and evil curses he offers us an alternative. This fairy tale features lovers who fear they are ill-suited, and make a loving and happy life together. Marriages last for lifetimes. Children are healthy and always return home from a walk in the woods. The kingdoms flourish, and unlike the nightmares of our youth, even when things go wrong for a moment, they manage to right themselves again.
Is it satire? Perhaps. Is such a fate boring? That depends. The number of different endings captures the imagination, for they are as diverse as each of us. It’s a lovely note on which to send us out into the enchanted forest once again, to face the dangers, and wield our magic, to seek our mates and our heart’s desires.
A Wild Swan and Other Stories
By Michael Cunningham
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Hardcover, 9780374290252, 114 pp.