What do we know about Michael Cunningham? Well, books like The Hours and Specimen Days demonstrate the man has literary chops and a poetic and elegant turn of phrase. More recently, with By Nightfall and, more particularly, The Snow Queen, he seems to be edging towards carving out a niche for himself as a sort of New York Armistead Maupin. Given The Snow Queen‘s more subtle and sophisticated fantastical elements, A Wild Swan lands – a collection of retellings of famous fairy stories – with a sense that here is a book that maybe Cunningham was conceiving of, maybe writing bits and pieces of, as his mind worked through the complexities of that last novel. It feels like a sorbet, a palette-cleanser between courses. By which, we mean to say: it’s light, flippant in places, not entirely robust, an easy read, fun, for the most part, and not entirely indispensable.
What we have there, then, are 11 short stories, each of which takes a famous fairytale that, for the most part, you will recognise and then riffs on it. Readers familiar with a writer like Gregory Maguire may well get an almighty kick out of a lot of this. The opening story, ‘Dis, Enchant’, is a sort of scene-setter, posing some questions, riffing on fairytale expectations, gone before you blink. This is followed by the title story which reworks the old Hans Christian Anderson tale more famously known as ‘The Wild Swans’ (but, if strictly translated from the German, more accurately referred to as ‘The Six Swans’). Then we have ‘Crazy Old Lady’ (told by the witch in ‘Hansel & Gretel’), ‘Jacked’ (a cocky remix of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’), ‘Poisoned’ (‘Snow White’ by way of Philip Roth’s Deception, in that it’s largely dialogue driven and based around the kind of sexual fantasy that might dog a couple whose relationship started with him rousing her from a magical sleep in a glass coffin), ‘A Monkey’s Paw’ (WW Jacobs take a bow as Cunningham replaces Jacob’s definite article with the indefinite), ‘Little Man’ (‘Rumpelstiltskin’), ‘Steadfast, Tin’ (‘The Steadfast, Tin Soldier’), ‘Beasts’ (‘Beauty and the Beast’), ‘Her Hair’ (‘Rapunzel’) and ‘Ever/After’ (which didn’t obviously strike us as a reworking so may be an ‘original’ – not that all the stories aren’t ‘original’ in some sense, but you follow our drift).
You can see the attraction, certainly. These are well worn paths and Cunningham is on record (in virtually every interview he gave for this book) as saying that it was the happy ever afters that got him, his writerly inclination to ask and have answered some of the questions regarding what happened next, that informed his work here. It’s light, though, in the sense that it’s a slim book that you can read quickly and one of the attractions of Cunningham’s books in the past are that they loiter in the precincts of your mind after you’ve read them, either with images and conceits or with puzzles that you worry over like a loose tooth. By comparison with his novels, for example, A Wild Swan is a bauble. A nice bauble, to be sure, an attractive morsel that catches he light and twinkles every now and then – but a bauble all the same.
In the final reckoning this feels like the short story equivalent of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, and musicals as a hook on which to hang a book isn’t a bad way in. If you like Into the Woods (or Wicked for that matter), it’s hughly likely you’ll squeeze some enjoyment out of this.
Any Cop?: A curiousity, perhaps, but also the kind of book that might accidentally snag Cunningham some new readers, in that people will forever be interested in fairytales and may come to him via this book; and if they do, they have the great pleasure of knowing everything else he has written is better.