THE COLLIDESCOPE, July 28, 2019
by George Salis
About Wendy Walker, from her website: “Up to 1994 I worked in known genres: the novel, novella, tale, poem. Since that time I have turned more to critical fiction, writing with constraints, and cross-genre writing, splicing these together to develop new ways of addressing problems at the crossroads of literature and history. I begin by listening to the demands of a given subject. The subject suggests approaches from a variety of directions, and I try to shape a form to open as many of those approaches as possible. The form is satisfactory if it honors the complexity of the subject addressed, rather than diminishing it, and resolves the material in an elegant manner. […]
“I am a writer, and books are my primary work, but I am always on the lookout for fragments of order. I have learned how to find in writing as much from learning to draw as from learning to write. Similarly, looking at painting and sculpture has been as important as reading to my thinking about composition and fiction. For me writing is necessary as a way of trying to see, of which the written artifact is a happy side-effect, much in the way that a drawing is the remnant and record of the artist’s investigation of a subject.”
It seems inevitable that any book of reworked (European) fairy tales must be compared to the popular collection by Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber. Both collections are conscious of language’s beauty and exude a passion for storytelling, but there is more variety and balance to be found in Walker’s The Sea-Rabbit; Or, The Artist of Life (published by Sun & Moon Press in 1987). Most of the fairy tales that Walker has chosen are more obscure and so her versions were my first encounter. The most popular fairy tale is reworked from the source text, not the Disney dribble, and so the mellifluous name of Cinderella is actually the barbarous- and grimy-sounding Ashiepattle.
And in that story, “Ashiepattle,” we are graced with wonderful descriptions of the baroque dresses that the heroine wears on each succeeding night of a multi-night feast. In an interview, Walker explains how she sketched the dresses in order to better visualize and describe them in the story, like this fauna-based design: “the splendid bark-and-silver-colored fur thrown so carelessly across her shoulders, like a wolf escaping a parting shot; the ragged convolvulus of her enormous ballooning sleeves, iridescent blue, green, and white, like a splayed abstraction of mallards hung on a door; the dark dagging of the long nether sleeves, like parted crucial feathers of hawks aloft; the copper tessellated as the scales of an upstream salmon. The quilted lappets jutting from the waist of her vest recalled to him many gentle paws of foxes, hares, and even lions, slain and arranged in a victorious ring. He helplessly imagined unlacing that superficial bodice, to expose the hirsute white lining that so suddenly put him in mind of the bellies of dead doe, and a cheetah he had vanquished on an excursion to Barbary. The circular motif in the gown’s brocade being gathered from looseness at the ground to neat folds at the waist, contracted into an even impression of fanning feathers on a quail’s or pheasant’s throat.”
“The Cleverness of Elsie,” about a girl who either has the gift of foresight or a palpable imagination regarding the future, is written in anonymous first person. My best guess at the identity of this narrator is Elsie herself, imagining/predicting the future of how she imagines/predicts the future and the downfall that can bring when trying to navigate such a temporal labyrinth. The dissociation which sort of creates a double at the end of the story is some evidence in support of that. The helpless rigidity of events transpired is expressed in the final sentence: “…though I tell her story over and over again.” Something of a dash of sci-fi in this subtle concept and construction.
“The Cathedral” is a brief but wonderful Calvino-esque fable about how the menagerie of statues on the Notre Dame debate with each other for centuries about a particular topic. Not theology, as one might surmise.
“The True Marriage,” also brief, is written in a more basic fairy tale prose that belies, even heightens, the extremely dark nature, ending in a disturbing twist.
As it is with just about any story collection, some are more interesting or "successful" than others, but all offer a fresh perspective and a modern psychology that is more fleshed out than in the Grimm tales. My favorite would have to be the humorous and captivating title story, about a princess who challenges the men of her kingdom to something of a game of hide-and-seek, granting the potential winner her hand in marriage and thus the kingdom. But the princess doesn’t seek, for she is able to stay in her tower and search every crevice and dimension of her kingdom with her eyes. Read the story to find out how this is possible. Oh, and if a man loses, she decorates the walls of the castle with his severed head. The princess already has such a full collection that it mostly brings her boredom.
There’s no good reason why this wonderful book is neglected while The Bloody Chamber remains one of the few books that people mention when wanting to instruct others on the importance of reading more female authors.
I look forward to reading Walker’s first and only novel, The Secret Service, in which those serving her "Majesty" are able to transform into inanimate objects.