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The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye.

In his introduction to Fantastic Tales: Visionary and Everyday, Italo Calvino notes a "triumphant resurgence" of the fantastic tale, offering the explanation that in such writings we recognize "the modern dimension of the fantastic." Like a historical mirror a reader luminously passes through, Fantastic Tales provides a grand entrance to the strange logic of the talelike form, its obsession with the coexistence of multiple realities, its many links to postmodern fiction.

Throughout stories by authors as wide-ranging as E.T.A. Hoffmann, Hawthorne, Gogol, and James, magical and mysterious elements appear alongside rational commentary and action. Calvino describes this effect as an "oscillation between irreconcilable levels of reality." In "The Nose" by Gogol, a pathetic barber discovers that his nose has detached from his face. When the barber attempts to advertise his lost proboscis in the classifieds, the newspaper rejects the claim, calling it "absurd." This is Gogol's little joke: the nose remains literally and figuratively impossible to reattach. Such logical illogic does indeed create a turbulent "oscillation" in the reader, especially one looking for the final reattachment of linear realist narrative. Similarly, in "The Friends of the Friends," by Henry James, a woman realizes that her fiance has been unfaithful to her with a dead rival - after the rival's death. To cite another Calvino essay ("Lightness"), this is the mental fantastic. What picture of reality will we accept?

The best fantastic literature never forces the reader's gaze Perhaps this is why a number of writers now embrace the hermeneutic multiplicities of the tale. In our own time, with its particular fixation on blending old and new, tales appear to accept certain shift-inducing aspects, such as excess, open-endedness, proliferating realities, and kitsch. Here I use kitsch in the abundant Kunderian sense, as in "The kitsch-man's (Kitschmensch) need for kitsch: it is the need to gaze into the mirror of the beautifying lie and to be moved to tears of gratification at one's own reflection." Tale, as it happens, also means lie. (In the remainder of this essay I will use the plain term "tale" to suggest an aesthetic reflective of reams of traditional enchantment or fantastic literature.)

The title novella in A.S. Byatt's new collection of tales, The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye, presents the movement of one character into this multiple realm of viewing, in which nothing ever quite reattaches. (I ought to mention that A.S. Byatt contributed an essay on a related subject to a collection I've just edited.) Early in the narration, Byatt's protagonist, Dr. Gillian Perholt, recalls Milton's serpent, who "floated redundant" in the grass of Paradise. Perholt (presumably her name is a play on Charles Perrault, the French fairy-tale writer), whose husband has just left her for another woman, has become obsessed with this phrase, floating redundant. Yet a part of her also identifies with Milton's use of the word, which connotes overflowing. Soon Dr. Perholt begins to have fits she describes as "stoppages" - collisions with her own death, or, put differently, moments when her life overflows into nonlife.

After one such stoppage, Dr. Perholt proclaims her divergence from the postmoderns. But in fact, the crisp language of each rationally told story in this collection belies a luxuriantly multiple view of things. High collapses with low. New merges with old. In the novella, Dr. Perholt's body appears younger, though internally she continues to age. Kitsch elements abound: the brilliant academic falls in love with a Harlequin-romance djinn, who wears sunglasses and relishes in nonendings.

Really, a divergence from the postmoderns?

Down this hall of mirrors Byatt travels: as she tells Dr. Perholt's story, Dr. Perholt haltingly attempts to tell her own to the djinn, while he, of course, tries the same. "[I]t is what art is," remarks Byatt's protagonist later, "a medium for seeing and a thing seen at once."

If Byatt's doubling echoes the complexity of chaos theory's "self similarity" (which itself revisits the Renaissance notion of a world within a world), Can Xue's has the precision of a photographic negative. In her short story collection The Embroidered Shoes, Can Xue fuses the absurd with the depressed, the political with the asocial, the beautiful with the disgusting, the magical with the willed. A blatantly bored, but never boring voice prevails in these surreal tales. "Those things that everybody considers as counter to reason happen to me every day," one of the characters in "Two Unidentifiable Persons" remarks bleakly, sitting in the air. Each of Can Xue's sentences resembles a little fogged mirror, in which you can almost, but not quite, see your features. The airborne heroine, for example, is described vaguely yet exactly. When appearing to be in deep thought, "her eyebrows became extremely long."

While Byatt's people are brilliant, Can Xue's are brilliantly crazed. They seduce and elude, defying resolution. A murderous wife in the story "A Strange Kind of Brain Damage" says, "[T]he important thing is that I saw the green scarf, which led to my crazy behavior. I'm the only person in this whole world who went nuts over that scarf. Okay, so it's done, and I don't want to mention it again." Somehow, I saw Gena Rowlands, with lopsided false eyelashes, black-rimmed eyes, a skittery gaze. She'd have finished off the statement with a flick of her upturned thumb and a drawn-out "fffff." (Several of Cassavetes' films remind me of fairy tales, too; in Love Streams, for instance, Rowlands' character brings her brother, who's a writer, a dog, a goat, a pair of ducks, and a miniature horse, before falling into days of collapse.)

Resisting the odd optimism of linear form - the end as presented in realist narratives is, at least, an end achieved - Can Xue's stories don't end at all. Mostly they trail off into confusion, indifference, and repetition. This open-ended quality matches that of traditional tales, which frequently abandoned their heroes and heroines in awful conditions, and rarely arrive at the happily ever after. Readers may know the Disney Snow White finale - a glorious wedding - but the Grimms' version ends with the wicked stepmother being presented with a pair of slippers heated in coals. She is "forced to step into the red-hot shoes and dance till she [falls] to the floor dead."

Joseph Skibell's first novel, A Blessing on the Moon, begins with its characters already literally abandoned: they've been killed in the Holocaust. The main character roams the earth afterwards, unable to enter the next world, accompanied by his rabbi, who has become a talking crow (a common motif in Yiddish folklore and a character in Bernard Malamud's Holocaust survivor story "The Jewbird"). While reading A Blessing on the Moon I was reminded of a Yiddish proverb. "Vos tsu iz iberik," my grandmother would say adamantly when served a meal that was just too big: too much is superfluous. She'd say the same about this disappointing novel. Unlike Byatt, who delicately nudges her prose from the ordinary toward the fantastic, and Can Xue, whose banalities glare at superrealities, Skibell goes from myth to history; he uses stories as ciphers, or rather, the story of a ghost as a cipher for the tragedy of loss.

In Mr. Palomar, Calvino wrote that the dead have trouble with history. When looking back on their lives they're disappointed with the facts. "They prove arbitrary and irregular," he writes, "and this is irksome, especially because one is always tempted to intervene and make the correction that seems necessary, and being dead, one cannot do it." Part of the sadness of the Holocaust is that it's unchangeably done; for Skibell, as for us all, this is profoundly unacceptable. And so he makes the necessary corrections, inserting Holocaust themes into a traditional German fairy tale, "The Moon," in which the dead return to their graves and the moon to the sky. The moon of Skibell's title falls first in a parable, is dragged down again in an anecdote, but then appears singly, literally, in the sky at the end, the fantastic flattened back into fact.

The novel Vincent's Tale: A Bedtime Story for Boyfriends reveals the hidden dangers of the postmodern tale. Nolan A. Dennett uses device after device after device: author's asides, tales within tales, wittily named characters ("Prince Valium") and high mixed with low to groaning effect: "While floating, his luscious weenie swayed slowly side to side, thigh to slender thigh in the waves." We have "Shrovetide" here as well as "hard-ons." We have some pretty bad writing. The narrative lashes from postmodernism to medievalism to Disney, finally just resembling a failed episode of Xena: Warrior Princess. Vos tsu iz iberik. Dennett's heavy-handedness forces a static world which precludes entrance, quite unlike the intricately reflected realms of both Byatt and Can Xue.

Kate Bernheimer edited the forthcoming Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore the Fairy. Tales That Have Changed Their Lives.
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Author:Bernheimer, Kate
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1997
Words:1475
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