Bookmarks | Fairy Tales Are More Than True

Novels from Donna Tartt and Helen Oyeyemi

What do we mean when we call a story a “fairy tale”? Nowadays, the term is often used pejoratively. It means that the story has failed the test of realism, that it trades in all of those elements—supernatural interventions, incredible coincidences, pure wickedness and pure virtue—that don’t conform to our sense of how the everyday world works.

Yet the fairy tale as a genre is far more complex than such usage suggests. The true fairy tale isn’t a failed work of realism; it’s a story that tries to get at something beyond our usual understanding of what counts as real. Think not of Disney movies but of tales by the Brothers Grimm or Angela Carter. These stories pierce the veil of the ordinary in order to show us uncomfortable truths: that things are darker and more terrifying than we tend to think, that our normal way of perceiving the world doesn’t do justice to the horror and enchantment that lie beneath it. As G. K. Chesterton wrote, “Fairy tales are more than true.” They offer a different, elemental kind of truth, truth that is not concerned with probability or factual accuracy.

The nature of the fairy tale has been much on my mind lately, mainly because of the heated critical conversation surrounding Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Goldfinch. When The Goldfinch came out in the fall of 2013, it elicited immediate and overwhelming praise. Seemingly every reviewer described the novel as Dickensian, and it was easy to see why: Tartt’s almost eight-hundred-page novel is intricately plotted and unafraid to express sentiment, bursting at the seams with melodramatic events and sudden reversals in fortune.

If every review seemed to have an obligatory Dickens comparison, then almost as many mentioned The Goldfinch’s fairy-tale qualities. Some critics meant this as praise, a way to get at the particular kind of narrative magic Tartt casts; others meant it as a putdown, a shorthand description of the novel’s purported childishness. The New Yorker’s James Wood went so far as to describe the novel as a children’s book—a judgment seconded by Christopher Taylor in the London Review of Books. Such claims have ignited a serious debate in print (Vanity Fair ran an article about the critical dustup titled “It’s Tartt—But Is It Art?”) and in the blogosphere. Was The Goldfinch’s Pulitzer Prize another indication of, as Wood put it, “the infantilization of our literary culture”? Or was it instead the case that, as the novelist and critic Lev Grossman claimed, the “kinds of things that [The Goldfinch] does particularly well don’t lend themselves to literary analysis”—i.e., creating a compelling plot, weaving together different storylines, giving sheer readerly pleasure? And all of these questions circled around the problem of the fairy tale. Is the fairy tale an inherently childish form, or is it simply doing something that works of “literary fiction” aren’t interested in?

The very first page of The Goldfinch prepared the way for just such a debate. There, Theo Drecker, the novel’s main character and narrator, describes the “fairy-tale sense of doom” with which he sits in an Amsterdam hotel. Later on, he claims that he feels “as if [he’d] botched some vital fairy-tale task”; later still, he describes a room as having “a Nordic, wicked, fairy-tale feel” and a building as “a turreted fairy--tale castle.” The word “fairy” appears more than a dozen times.

Tartt, then, is aware of the tradition in which she is working, and her story—gripping, fantastical, full of transformations and enchantments—makes this even clearer. The plot consists of many different moving parts, but very briefly stated it goes like this: When Theo is thirteen and living in New York with his mother, the two step into the Met while trying to avoid a rain shower. They look together at Carel Fabritius’s The Goldfinch, a luminous seventeenth-century Dutch realist painting and the favorite of Theo’s mother. While walking through the museum, Theo finds himself enchanted by a girl he sees in passing. She seems almost elfin in her beauty: she carries around a flute, moves swiftly and lightly, and has “golden honeybee brown” eyes and “beautiful skin: milky white, arms like carved marble.” Moments later, a bomb goes off in the museum, killing Theo’s mother and many others. Theo survives and, in the post-explosion confusion, encounters the elderly man whom he had previously seen accompanying the flute-carrying girl. The man gives Theo a mysterious ring, says some cryptic words (“Tell Hobie to get out of the store”), and dies. Why does Theo accept the ring? Why does he then pick up Fabritius’s painting, which has miraculously survived the bomb, and take it with him, hiding it in his family’s apartment? Because that’s what people do in fairy tales: they find talismanic objects, they pick them up, and then they suffer the consequences.

Over the course of the narrative, Theo, now effectively an orphan (his father left when he was young), moves between several different locations, usually with the painting—and the trouble that surrounds it—in tow. We follow him to a Victorian-style workshop, owned by a character named Hobie who specializes in the restoration of antique furniture; to the Manhattan apartment of the Barbours, wealthy friends who take Theo in; to a Las Vegas subdivision that has been abandoned after the real estate–market crash of 2007; to Amsterdam. All of these places are described in magical terms. Some are light-filled and enchanting (the workshop is “a wilderness of gilt, gleaming in the slant from the dust-furred windows”), others dark and romantic (the Barbours’ apartment has “shaded lamps burning low, big dark paintings of naval battles and drapes drawn against the sun”), still others soulless and threatening (the suburban Las Vegas town is “a toy town, dwindling out at desert’s edge, under menacing skies,” looking like a “planet depopulated by radiation or disease”). But all seem less like places we might actually find ourselves in than places we might find ourselves dreaming about. In short, we are in the realm of fairy tale.

***

Tartt's first—and, I think, superior—novel, The Secret History (1992), brilliantly described how we might find ourselves drawn into a world that is more magical and more frightening than our own. In The Secret History, it was the world of the wealthy and well-educated. At the beginning of the novel, Richard Papen leaves California for a liberal-arts college in Vermont, where he falls in with a group of wealthy students studying the classics (one is perfectly nicknamed “Bunny”). They introduce him to Greek philosophy, drugs, and other habits of the young, rich, and bored; eventually, they initiate him into orgiastic ritual and sacrificial violence. And yet, even after Richard participates in a murder and its cover-up, even after he sees how exploitative and cruel his friends can be, he can’t help but be enchanted by them. The life of the mind, and the life of the rich, is that seductive.

The Goldfinch likewise spends a great deal of time describing just how enchanting wealth and the things wealth provides can be. If the novel had a color scheme, it would be mahogany. Much of it—perhaps too much—is devoted to lavish descriptions of beautiful things: the antique furniture that Hobie restores, not for financial gain (he’s a terrible businessman) but for his love of old, well-made things and “the magic that came from centuries of being touched and used and passed through human hands”; the easeful life of the Barbours, complete with evenings at the Oyster Bar at Grand Central, filled with “vintage crocodile bags” and “silvered shoes, embroidered shoes, ribboned and pointy-toed, a thousand dollars a pair.” Despite the novel’s length and various settings, it can occasionally feel claustrophobic; the beautiful stuff threatens to smother the very life out of the novel.

But it doesn’t. Why not? Partly because Tartt is so good at evoking wealth’s lush attractiveness. In this way, The Goldfinch follows in the tradition of one of America’s greatest fairy tales, The Great Gatsby. We know that Gatsby’s parties and his closet of endless shirts are ridiculous, but Fitzgerald makes us want them anyway. The same goes for Tartt. In one of the novel’s most interesting and challenging moves, Tartt connects the Barbours’ somewhat crass love of luxury to the much nobler love of beauty displayed by Hobie in his workshop and Theo toward the painting. Throughout the novel, a question nags at the reader: In such a painful world, where parents die and fate is cruel, why should beauty matter? Why should Hobie continue working on his furniture. Why should we care about Fabritius’s painting? Aren’t they just distractions from the harshness of the world, fairy tales that we tell ourselves to forget our pain?

Toward the end of the novel, Theo writes at length about the relationship between beauty, reality, and illusion:

I’ve come to believe that there’s no truth beyond illusion. Because, between “reality” on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.

And—I would argue as well—all love. Or, perhaps more accurately, this middle zone illustrates the fundamental discrepancy of love.

This is a strong, and ambivalent, defense. Love and beauty aren’t reality—or “reality,” since Theo puts the word in quotation marks. They are a form of magic. And it is in the nature of magic to be both blessing and curse: love and beauty can distract us from reality; we can choose to reside in the middle zone forever. But they are also the only way to move toward reality, to allow the mind to strike the real. Illusion, it turns out, isn’t a distraction from the truth. It is truth.

So why, if The Goldfinch’s fairy-tale qualities are both so clearly signaled and so thematically important, have some critics found them so dissatisfying? I suspect it’s because Tartt hasn’t written a pure fairy tale. Instead, she has written a novel that, on its surface, looks an awful lot like a work of conventional literary realism. Like such works, it is intensely interested in physical detail (all that furniture and drinking and architecture); it is tightly focused on Theo’s interiority; it even describes Hobie’s activities in the workshop in a way that recalls Philip Roth’s focus on glovemaking in American Pastoral. And yet, in the deepest sense, The Goldfinch is not a work of literary realism. It uses many of the tools of that genre, but in pursuit of different ends.

This can make for a disorienting reading experience. When I read the book last winter, I thought that it was a very strong, very enjoyable work of conventional realism, and I didn’t understand what all the fairy-tale fuss was about. Then my wife pointed out all the fairy-tale tropes—the magical objects, the orphaned child—and I reread the book. I couldn’t believe I had missed it the first time around. And this is why I think The Goldfinch has been so divisive: it looks like literary realism and it sounds like literary realism but, beneath its dazzling surfaces, it’s something else entirely.

***

One novelist who stakes her claim to the fairy-tale tradition even more clearly than Tartt is the Nigerian-British novelist Helen Oyeyemi. Oyeyemi is a frighteningly precocious writer—Boy, Snow, Bird is her fifth novel and she hasn’t yet turned thirty—and all her novels display a willingness to rework fairy tale and myth. Boy, Snow, Bird is Oyeyemi’s boldest recasting yet. In it, she tells a tale of radical transformation and radical evil by placing the Snow White story in 1950s New England.

In a recent interview, Oyeyemi talked about the misconceptions surrounding the fairy-tale genre:

People say things like “I want a fairy-tale existence.” The Brothers Grimm would be looking at them in this astonished way, like “So you would like your whole family to be murdered and then eaten in a pie?”

Boy, Snow, Bird doesn’t feature cannibalism, but it does give us a rat catcher, a child who can talk to spiders and doesn’t cast a reflection in mirrors, and a birth that reveals long-buried family secrets. Unlike The Goldfinch, there’s little pretense that this is a work of realism. It is fairy tale through and through.

The novel opens in New York in the 1950s. The narrator, Boy Novak, is a “girl with a white-blond pigtail” who delights in illusion: one of her favorite games is “setting two mirrors up to face each other so that when I stood between them I was infinitely reflected in either direction.” Her father is a rat catcher, and if there is a nice kind of rat catcher, he isn’t one. He yanks out the eyes of the rats he catches because “the rats that are blind and starving are the best at bringing death to all the other rats.” The basement is a chamber of nightmares: “there’s nothing else in that cage with them, and all your father does to them at first is give them water, so it stands to reason that it’s the rats making the holes, eating themselves.”

As soon as she gets a chance, Boy runs away to a charming small New England town called Flax Hill. There, she marries Arturo Whitman, a man whose house “looked like the kind of house you could start a fanciful rumor about: ‘Well, a princess has been asleep there for hundreds of years…’ and so on.” When we find out that Arturo is a widower with a stepdaughter named Snow, the fairy-tale elements have been locked even more firmly into place.

And then history—more specifically, America’s tortured history with race—intervenes. Boy gives birth to a baby girl, Bird, only to be told by the nurse, “That little girl is a Negro.” It turns out that Arturo’s family has been passing as white in Flax Hill for generations. Boy responds by sending her stepdaughter Snow away to live with Arturo’s relative. Like Snow White, Snow is literally too fair of skin, and the child must be banished not for her stepmother’s good but for the good of Bird: Boy fears that her daughter will be made to feel lesser when seen next to her lighter stepsister.) At this point in the novel, one might think that Boy, Snow, Bird is going to turn into a racial allegory, but it doesn’t. Oyeyemi’s writing is much too strange for that, and race swirls around, but never overwhelms, the other things the novel is interested in.

Boy, Snow, Bird centers on crossings-over and transformations—moments when characters move from one world or identity to another, moments that seem to resist normal explanation. Oyeyemi is Catholic, and she has talked about her interest in mysticism: “In these writings we’re offered a nutshell or a rose or spear and each image is part allusion to something just beyond words and part utter misdirection.” Julian of Norwich wants to talk about divine love, but she can only gesture toward it with the figure of the nutshell. Similarly, Oyeyemi wants to talk about the strangeness that lies beyond everyday experience, but she can only gesture toward it with myths. That is what the best fairy tales do. They don’t reduce the world’s complexity. They use simple tools to open up that complexity.

Published in the December 19, 2014 issue: 
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Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). He writes Commonweal's "Bookmarks" column.

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Robert Stone, 1937-2015

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