A Wild Swan is beautifully rendered.
Though fairytales never really went out of style, they seem to be having a bit of a renaissance. This is evident in film, with Frozen injecting new life into the kid-gloves Disney versions of such tales, and advanced special effects allowing for live-action versions of Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella and other. This is also evident in literature, as displayed by the rise of fabulism and magical realism in American literary fiction. Fairytales are popular with children because they’re secretly, slyly adult. They hide violence and gore behind magic and princesses. And fairytales are popular with adults because they remind them of being children. Michael Cunningham, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Hours and A Home at the End of the World hones in closely on these characteristics in A Wild Swan, his book of fairytales.
Cunningham’s tales are equally as dark as those spun by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen but modernizes their morbidity by infusing them with millennial angst and hopelessness. Younger readers, for which these tales are probably inappropriate, would nonetheless relish the descriptions of magical kingdoms filled with beautiful royals each on the edge of their own distinctly violent downfall. And older readers will read A Wild Swan and recognize their own teenage angst lurking within the pages, along with the persistent hum of “you can’t always get what you want.”
The collection begins with a sort of thesis statement, titled “Dis. Enchant.” Here Cunningham, or the wicked ringmaster he is writing as, expresses his desire to “fuck up” the beautiful and the lucky, to “curse” the rich and handsome. In addition to being a bit on the nose, it also feels mean-spirited. He offers a brief reprieve, venturing into two of the book’s best stories, “A Wild Swan” and “Crazy Old Lady.” These subvert the typical fairytale formula by giving us complicated protagonists. Gone are the purely good-and-evil of his fable-writing forebears, replaced by an angsty part-swan prince and a lusty, bohemian free spirit who accidentally allows herself to become a crazy witch in a candy house.
But while these stories have beautiful (if not happy) moments to balance the darkness, later stories are populated with unlikable characters to which awful things happen. These stories are aggressively grumpy, and Cunningham’s frequent use of the second person makes them feel like accusations hurled at the reader, further upping the unpleasantness.
In addition to the gloom, many of the tales in the collection are modernized, and though this is used effectively with the barhopping, television-watching protagonist in “A Wild Swan” and the handbag-collecting mother in “Jacked,” it feels forced in some places. This has less to do with the language and more with the lack of updated characters and situations. A Wild Swan, despite its subversive, modern approach, feels rather white and heteronormative. There are so many opportunities to expand these tales beyond their straight, white origins, but Cunningham does not take them.
What rescues A Wild Swan from its grim disposition and occasionally forced modernity is Cunningham’s beautiful prose, which is particularly delightful when used to create fairytale imagery, and the stunning, Gorey-esque illustrations by Japanese illustrator Yuko Shimizo. These qualities cannot be dimmed, and the collection as a whole oozes quality. The book serves an excellent companion to Philip Pullman’s recent Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version, which takes the opposite approach to fairytales, instead presenting stripped-down, almost Biblically written versions of the original Grimm stories.
A Wild Swan is beautifully rendered and incredibly dense for such a short book, though this is no surprise considering it comes from a writer as talented as Cunningham. And while it’s too dark and too modern, it ends hopefully, with the stunning, generations-spanning “Ever/After” which finally captures the balance of darkness and light that Cunningham is capable of. It is a delightful paradox in the way that the best fairytales are, a tale of murder and sadness that leaves you believing in true love and magic.