June 19th, 2011 / 1:37 pm

Some Notes on Kate Bernheimer’s Complete Tales Trilogy

Kate Bernheimer’s Complete Tales of the Gold sisters is a a trilogy of novels published over a ten year period. It is also part of a broader project, a life’s work, that includes not only the practice of reviving and revivifying the fairy tale, but also the tasks of developing a contemporary theory of the fairy tale, of identifying the ongoing subterranean influence of the fairy tale upon the work of writers not ordinarily associated with the fairy tale, and of championing and legitimizing and de-ghettoizing the fairy tale as a literary form.

Bernheimer is probably better known in her critical and editorial roles than as a writer. Her Penguin-published anthology My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales (co-edited with Carmen Gimenez-Smith), which includes fairy tales by the likes of Kelly Link, John Updike, Neil Gaiman, Lily Hoang, Michael Cunningham, Kevin Brockmeier, Joy Williams, and Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, is the most prominent of these efforts. In her introduction, Bernheimer invokes a line of Nabokov’s: “All great novels are fairy tales.” Then she makes a broader claim: “all great narratives are fairy tales . . . whatever their shape (novel, novella, short story, poem).” Perhaps this claim is hyperbolic (or perhaps not — it depends upon how broad a definition of “fairy tale” the reader will allow), but certainly it is proportional to Bernheimer’s alarm at her fear of “all kinds of extinction.” The examples she offers — an audience at a writer’s conference aghast at the idea that fairy tales could be celebrated as “serious literature,” or the National Book Foundation’s edict that “retellings of folk-tales, myths, and fairy tales are note eligible” for the National Book Awards — speak not to extinction but rather to marginalization among the gatekeepers of “serious literature.” Because, as Bernheimer shows elsewhere in her introduction, the fairy tale as a form and an influencing agent is alive and well in popular fiction, in children’s literature, in plays, and in the movies. (It’s telling that the writer of My Mother She Killed Me’s foreword — a slot usually reserved for a sale-driving name — is the popular novelist Gregory Maguire, whose Wizard of Oz spinoff Wicked was adapted into the wildly popular Broadway show of the same title.) So it seems, in some ways, that Bernheimer’s true task isn’t to popularize the fairy tale, since the fairy tale continues to be widely popular. Instead, perhaps, Bernheimer’s aim is to restore to the fairy tale the literary prestige she believes it is due, and to frame her argument in a way that is convincing to those who do the vetting, an audience of overlapping constituencies that would seem to include university professors, graduate students, award-givers, fellow writers, newspaper book page editors, publishers, critics, and the types who frequent Internet literary sites such as HTMLGiant. This might seem to some readers like a motive that rises from insecurity. The argument might go like so: If the fairy tale is already broadly popular among the broadest of audiences, who cares what some gatekeepers think? The fairy tale is already winning. But I think that there is a second aspect to Bernheimer’s project which makes it a crucial project. I think that Bernheimer might also be saying: Why cede the important ground of the fairy tale to (1) Those who simply make use of it for commercial purposes (Disney, etc.), or (2) To those writers who gain commercial traction from the fairy tale’s inherently interesting qualities but whose work isn’t as accomplished as the work of the best writers? The restoration to the fairy tale of insider prestige, in a sense, is an act of cultural institution-building which might make smoother the path to publication (and to being published well, or at least better) of serious literary works that cast themselves in the fairy tale tradition, and also, for a certain kind of writer, a granting of permission, or at least an invitation to explore the previously neglected possibilities of the form and the tradition.

All that, of course, is the critical side. I am here to tell you, as I write today’s three thousand words of criticism, that the work of a critic is tremendously easier than the work of the artist. The critic reads, describes, contextualizes, interprets, makes associations, and brings judgments to bear. The work of a critic is not passive — it is the labor of the most active variety of reading — but it is not primarily generative. It is responsive. The things that animate it are found in the work to which the critic is responding. (This is one way that criticism sometimes fails literature: Some works, by their weirdness or recalcitrance or engagement with an idea or singularity, lend themselves more easily to the writing of interesting criticism. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the work is superior to work that doesn’t lend itself easily to the writing of interesting criticism. Stories and novels are made of sentences, but not only of sentences. When the sentences are intensely interesting or beautiful or challenging in an idiosyncratic way, it provides the critic with something very interesting to discuss. But when the sentences are worthy in a less attention-seeking way, the critic is robbed of an opportunity to shine critically. Likewise, when the story or novel’s other moving parts are idiosyncratic or otherwise unusual, especially in a manner that is foregrounded on the surface level, the critic has an easier time of doing the things critics do. There are some works whose surfaces appear conventional which turn out to be among the most complex and richly ordered works, but they require a heavy lifting that puts the critic in humble service to the work, and one idea that might appeal to the critic’s sense of self is that the work exists to serve the critic. Consequently, some worthy and mature works are critically diminished because their authors have taken pains not to foreground, say, their structural complexities, or because their complexities are in the neighborhood of subtlety rather than bombast, while other works are overpraised because they offer critics so many convenient jumping-off points. One way of reading this digression is to say that the critic has ceased to serve the work that ought to be getting the critic’s attention. Another way of reading this digression is to say that the critic feels a responsibility to serve the reader that is at least equivalent to what the critic owes the work, and that once the issue of criticism [or, in the case of Bernheimer's anthology, its corollary: curation] has been invoked, then it becomes necessary to follow the discussion where it might lead. A third way of reading the digression is as the manifestation of the idea that criticism is the act of bringing the full force of one’s attention to bear upon the subject, and that one’s full attention will always include the things that attach to the discussion of the subject but which are outside the most limited idea of what the subject might be. To bring the digression full circle, this is one way criticism sometimes serves literature: To follow the rabbit trails, and to read any work not only on its own merits, but also as a participant in the broader conversation of literature. As with many things, criticism’s weaknesses are often manifestations of its strengths.) I have now digressed at such length that you might have forgotten how this paragraph began, so I will try again:

All that, of course, is the critical side. I am here to tell you, as I write today’s three thousand words of criticism, that the work of a critic is tremendously easier than the work of the artist. The critic reads, describes, contextualizes, interprets, makes associations, and brings judgments to bear. The work of a critic is not passive — it is the labor of the most active variety of reading — but it is not primarily generative. It is responsive. The things that animate it are found in the work to which the critic is responding. The more difficult work is the work of the artist. (It is interesting, along these lines, to read The Book Against God, the only novel published to date by our leading critic James Wood, or to watch Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, the only film penned by our leading critic Roger Ebert. The critical preoccupations and prescriptions, in both cases, are subsumed into the organic requirements of the work, to mixed success, their first efforts at art-making being measured not against their first efforts at criticism, but rather against their best or most strident works of criticism. Reading the book or watching the movie, the receiver is reminded: People probably would have considered Michael Jordan a pretty good baseball player if he hadn’t first been the Michael Jordan of basketball.)  All that to say: I approached Kate Bernheimer’s fiction with considerable trepidation. I wanted to like and admire it, because I like and admire her work as an anthologist and champion of the fairy tale, and I also expected not to like and admire it, to be disappointed, because the making of good literary art is so much more difficult a task than good literary argument-making.

Perhaps it would be best to save evaluative talk for the end, after the descriptive talk is through, but it seems all right to start the discussion of Bernheimer’s Complete Tales by saying: They’re enjoyable. They’re interesting. They make you feel things. They reward the reader’s time.

The first book in the series, published in 2001 by FC2, is The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold. It draws upon German, Russian, and Yiddish sources. Four of the tales are transcribed directly from Ralph Manheim’s 1977 translation of Grimms’ Tales for Young and Old. The epigraph is from John Ashbery:

.                          And when the needle finally swung
It was wrapped in rags, in pitch blackness.
I escaped from a dream of living
Into a fairy tale with no happy ending, no ending at all.

It is a useful epigraph, not least because it communicates to the reader that Bernheimer’s vision of the fairy tale will be the bracing vision of the old fairy tale as practiced by the likes of the Brothers Grimm, rather than the happily-ever-after sanitized and Americanized fairy tale as popularized by Walt Disney.

The book has a strange structure of alternating (but irregularly alternating) titled and untitled short chapters. The titled chapters are fairy tales. Some of the fairy tales are more-or-less (or exactly) the old fairy tales. Some of the fairy tales seem to be newly made-up fairy tales. Some of the fairy tales star the Ketzia Gold of the book’s title. Others of the fairy tales don’t feature Ketzia at all. The untitled chapters at first seem to be part of a different book than the fairy tales. They read more like a proper novel of Ketzia Gold. Part of the reader’s task is to try to figure out how these parts are related and how to read the titled chapters alongside the untitled chapters.

The first chapter is “The Saltmarsh Tale of Lies.” It begins like this:

I want to tell you something, so listen. I saw two bathers flying. They flew with their breasts turned heavenward and their backs faced hellward. The first wore a striped bikini, the second a plain pair of trunks.

Tonally, we’re in fairy tale country, although we’re also in a setting contemporary enough that somebody is wearing a bikini. It’s a good way to announce the project of conflation the novel proves to be. The chapter is only a page long. Its pivotal action concerns “Four girls in eyeglasses” who are trying to catch a rabbit that lives in the mansion lawn. They engage in a game of telephone, telling one another about the rabbit, and the third girl tries “in vain” to catch the rabbit. Other things attach to the story — a “bird in a shake” at a boardwalk ice-cream stand, a swimming anchor, swimming dune grass, a leaping cow, “greenflies and blackflies and dragonflies” — and none of it coheres until the final line:

“So open the window and let the lies out, I say.”

When a one-page first chapter ends that way, the reader might say: Okay, I know what I’m getting into. This is a book in which a teller is going to bring everything at her disposal to bear upon the story, including flights of fancy and imagination, including things from outside the story, including “lies,” and all of it will add up, in addition to whatever else it adds up to, to a portrait of the speaker. This strategy, by the way, isn’t a strategy native to the fairy tale, except in the loosest way (perhaps we could say that the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm add up to a portrait of their twisted minds, or to a cumulative portrait of the twisted collective cultural and worldviewish inheritance of the Germans — a dark thing to consider, by the way, if you read the Grimms alongside the first forty-five years of the German twentieth century.) It is a strategy fairly common in the twentieth century novel, although I haven’t seen it performed in quite the way Bernheimer is performing it here. In its way, it is a cousin of Christopher Higgs’s Marvin K. Mooney, Philip Roth’s Zuckerman-projections of the imagined lives of others in American Pastoral and The Human Stain, or J.M. Coetzee’s later work in the nonfiction-within-fiction-or-is-it-the-other-way-around hall of mirrors work in novels such as Elizabeth Costello.

Soon (by page two), we get the introduction to the Gold sisters, and we meet them good and early. Ketzia, our heroine, is a crib baby, and her older sister Merry is first becoming aware of Ketzia’s intrusion into the family (the chapter ends: “the stolid gaze of her sister Merry who looked away at once upon meeting Ketzia’s eyes.)

The next chapter, “The Star Pennies,” telescopes into a future narrated in the first person by an adult Ketzia. (“I’m going to tell you something. For a long time I was so poor that I only had one room to live in with a small cot to sleep on. This room was on the road of oracles . . . And my husband and I were no longer together.”) The husband is Adam, another of the novel’s preoccupations. He turns out to be an outwardly appealing American dream of a husband who is privately and extraordinarily emotionally abusive. Ketzia is living in a run-down desert motel, where she daily strips and showers in front of a one-way mirror behind which sits the motel manager, who discounts her rate in exchange for the show.

From here, the narrative pings around in time. The Gold family treats Ketzia horribly, although she delights in some of the horrors, as they are the only thing she knows of life. (She loves, for example, to sleep in the dog’s bed.) She meets Adam in grammar school. He was “the smartest boy in my class,” and he comes from an upright, well-off family. It would seem to many that Ketzia has married up, although maybe not. Her self-conception is conspicuously at odds with the way others see her. Her constant inner talk is of the “Stupid Ketzia, stupid girl” variety, whereas Adam and his mother, at first, believe her to be “smart and pretty and pretty smart and pretty pretty.” This dynamic ends devastatingly:

“You are not the girl I married,” [Adam] said one day. “Yes,” I agreed. “I am not myself.”

All kinds of creepiness is going on in the Gold house of Ketzia’s childhood. Her father’s favorite avocation, enabled by his wife, is to take nude pictures of his daughters as they “vamped for the camera, circles of bubbles on the bodies and piles on the heads as beehive wigs. They slithered their hands on each other’s wet bodies.”

Eventually, Ketzia becomes a transcriptionist for the Triple D (“Depraved, Dishonest, and Debauched”) Co., whose “college-educated president founded the business after his wife left him for his father.” The Triple D men are private investigators, and Ketzia’s job is to render their Dictaphone talk into typing.

There is more than a little of Cinderella in the broad arc of Ketzia’s story (everywhere she goes, it seems, she’s tasked with the dreariest chores), and Bernheimer wisely extends the story past the Cinderella-ish ending. Ketzia does get her Prince Charming, and he’s every bit as alluring as you’d expect, but there isn’t a happily-ever-after. Instead, we get an after that’s as bad in many ways as what came before. Marriage isn’t an end as much as it’s a beginning, and the power in this marriage is aligned along traditionally onerous pathways — he gets the easy road, and she gets the rocky one. Near the end of the book, we get this telling paragraph:

The real end was trying. We had no idea idea where to begin. For days, out dull-eyes windows we stared at dull-brained neighbors who were always eating weeds with machines. At twilight we’d have sex in the yard and hope to lift the whole world and ourselves out of a stupor.

By story’s end, Ketzia has devolved into a puddle of servile apology, and the book concludes:

For a long time after, far and wide Adam was known to have retrieved his difficult wife from the bottomless pit of supplication. And later, when we were apart, I would go and sit at the edge of the river under the bridge, stare fixedly at the farthest arch, and think in wonder of his kindness.

She never does achieve any level of significant self-awareness, so there is an extraordinary divide between the story she tells herself about her life as a means of coping with her life, as a functional fiction of her life, and the darker story of her life that her telling of her story has revealed. In some ways, she is most strongly able to offer a true vision of her life when she is not pronouncing upon her own life, but rather when she is making a retreat into the “open the window and let the lies out” fairy tale retellings.

The second and third installments of the trilogy–The Complete Tales of Merry Gold and The Complete Tales of Lucy Gold — follow similar patterns, weaving titled fairy tale chapters with the untitled chapters that play out the larger arc of the book’s central tale. These two tales shift the point of view, each to a different Gold sister.  They also play variations on recurring motifs that find their ways into chapter titles, and even on sentences. (Ketzia Gold says: “I want to tell you something, so listen.” Merry Gold says: “I’m going to tell you someting, so listen.” Lucy Gold says: “I’m going to tell you something, so listen.”) As Ketzia worked at Triple D, Merry works at Triple C (Children’s Clothing Company), and Lucy works at Triple E (Eggs, Erennials, & Etcetera, as lightning has toppled the P in Perennials.) Merry’s tale is the coldest. She is, Ketzia told us, the mean sister. And she is. Lucy, who grows up to become an animator of fairy tales, is the embodiment of an attractive innocence that draws others to her “like bees to honey.”

Individually, the books have a pleasing integrity. Part of the pleasure of reading them in a set of three is watching the ways Bernheimer rings the changes, story by story. The girls are distinguished from one another by temperament, by birth order, by relationship to their parents, by the ways in which they do and don’t engage with men, by their differing orientations to the stories and fairy tales into which they do or don’t escape. There is something of the cautionary tale built into each account, but the narratives don’t run in the direction of didactic moralizing, unless they are teaching that no matter who you are or what you do, the circumstances of life will overpower and undo you.

The one thing that bothered me, while reading, is the question of these books as artifacts about which their makers are self-aware. Lucy, for example, who narrates from the dead, dedicates her book to Ketzia and Merry. And in order for the sisters to so thoroughly make their books in conversation with one another, it would be necessary for at least two of the sisters to have knowledge of (and, probably, physical possession of) the other’s books. How, though, do they achieve a tone so uniform, when they are as temperamentally and circumstantially distinct from one another as they claim to be? And how do each of them maintain a congruent balance between self-awareness and un-self-awareness while at the same time so skillfully maintaining the kinds of tonal and structural parallels with the works of the others to a degree that would seem to require the kind of extraordinary analytical powers that would require most writers to reckon more strongly with the things about which the writer, previous to the reading and drafting and rewriting, would have been less than aware?

But perhaps these — aesthetic ideals, certainly, lifted from the aims of psychological realism — are not fair tests to which to put a set of books so steeped in the fairy tale tradition. Certainly, there are gaps in the books which are attributed to the workings of or play with magic or the idea of magic, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to consider that some kind of extra-natural impulse likewise arranged the books. One pitfall of being a writer and also writing criticism is the tendency to want to find solutions to narrative “problems” like these, and it occurred to me, as I was finishing reading the third book: What if this isn’t a complete trilogy, but rather an in-progress tetralogy? There is, after all, a fourth Gold, a brother. Would the telling of his story bring some of these questions to rest?

There is another test which might be brought to bear upon the books. It is the test of pleasure, of delight, of wonder, three subjects with which the books themselves are intimately acquainted. In the last seven days, my seven-year-old son has been breezing through the seven volumes of Harry Potter. There is often laughter in the room where he is reading. Every few hours, he comes running into the room where I am, and he says: “Hear this!” “Listen to this!” “Read this!”

It has been awhile since I’ve read anything with a similar sense of delight, but it was a delight I felt strongly and often while reading Kate Bernheimer’s Complete Tales trilogy. Delight doesn’t count for a little. It counts for a lot. Delight is one of the readerly virtues we’re starving for lack of. On grounds of delight, these books deliver.

I am interested in Kate Bernheimer’s critical project, but I am likewise interested in her artistic project, her story-making and novel-making. She is still a young writer, and the reader considers that maybe she is just getting started. A week spent in her Complete Tales is sufficient to make this reader hope that the scope of her ambition will grow, and that she will take the time required to make the next thing, perhaps even a thing that makes these things seem retrospectively diminished by comparison, even while, right now, they seem so large and generous.