Is it a brand new sparkly fresh morning in literary America if there are two male writers conscientiously reckoning with male privilege in their fiction?
I posted recently about the implicit wimminlyness of fairy tales. Well, I guess I didn’t get to that part of the broader literary context for Heti’s fractured fairy tales. But it should be pretty obvious, what with the Disney Princesses marketing and the virgins and crones, and the oral-ness and folk-ness of the oral and folk traditions.
So when I read this version of the Beanstalk Jack, “Jack and the Mad Dog,” after Jack blew his reality-show-rehabilitation phase, Jack now a village embarrassment despite his past triumphs, I was intrigued. Also, it was nice and meta.
Now, meta-fiction is like everyone’s teen music crush phase. You really loved it for a long time. You thought that metafiction was literature’s beginning and end. And then you grew up a little and thought that the whole project may be a little hollow, if you take it to its logical extremes, now that you started thinking about it. And even if you started really loving David Foster Wallace for playing with this very hollowness, you still think that maybe you should maybe move on from what thought was cool when you were 15.
Here’s Earley’s response to the metafiction in his story (and also, say what? The Appalachian cultures did those folk tales better? Of course they did, but where are the grandly illustrated story collections??):
These days, Jack has lost almost all import in Appalachian culture. To my knowledge, his stories are told almost exclusively, and self-consciously, by storytellers—preservationists—at festivals and schools. What happens if the day comes when nobody tells his stories at all? What happens to Jack and the other characters? To them, that would probably seem like the apocalypse—the collapse not only of their world but of the narrative conventions that created it. I think that in this story, metafiction seems not only relevant but necessary. I also never imagined that I would say that.
See, even Earley, published in the New Yorker, has to apologize for using metafiction.
But I think the metafiction is crucially important in this story, which is perhaps the most successful attempt I’ve seen (really?) to depict the experience and effects of male privilege in literature. Because of the metafiction.
Jack’s a has-been, and the story opens with him waiting for the farmer to go to sleep so that his wife will come out and sell him a quickie. But the farmer stays rockin’ on the porch and humiliates Jack by pointing out his general impotence, plotwise. “Jack, everybody knows you ain’t got no magic beating stick no more. You ain’t had one since I don’t know when. Now head on out.”
Poor Jack! Tired of being a hero, tired of having magic sticks and golden eggs and silver axes laying in the road for him, tired of his own inevitability.
But here’s the magic of the meta:
Jack comes to terms with his jerkface ways by realizing that everything in his story materializes simply because he is in the story. That’s meta, people, but with a purpose outside its own solipsism.
Here’s his meet-cute with the snarling dog:
“So tell me,” Jack said, noting that the dog knew his name, “why are you impeding my progress across this here bridge?”
“Because that is my solitary calling.”
“Where’d you come from?”
“I don’t know. A minute ago I wasn’t here, but now I am.”
Jack nodded. “Limited omniscient narrator,” he said.” “My point of view.”
“Don’t rub it in.”
The cutesy metafiction is the best representation I’ve seen of male privilege: the realization that in a dudely dude’s limited omniscience, every person and object in his view can seem to be destined for his own control. Put into the story just for him, unquestioned, ready to serve.
Soon enough in the story, as you might expect from my gloss, the women show up. Maidens in too-tight dresses, materializing in the cornfields, describing to Jack the way he put their father to sleep and raped them.
But in Jack’s story, the girls (were girls and) existed in the story to be part of his adventure. To be stages on the way to his heroic triumph over the giant. To be pins in the map of his journey to selfhood.
“Daddy never woke from the sleeping draught you gave him. He kept snoring so the door joggled and the roof shook and nobody never heard the like. Except us. We were the only people about the settlement once you left. Eventually, the mill rotted down and the dam gave way and the great wheel tipped and toppled into the ivy, where it lays ’till this day.”
“But what happened to you?” Jack whispered. “Tell me what happened to you.”
“Me? I just sat by the side of the road weaving a basket of golden straw for to take eggs to the market.”
Their whole town, and everyone in it, exist only because of Jack’s story. And when Jack realizes this, (spoiler!) his story self-destructs.
Because of all the cutesy metafiction, the story becomes far more interesting than a cad wrestling with his caddish past.
It becomes a story of gender relations in fiction: of how women are the objects of male characters’ journeys of self-discovery and growth. Women are mirrors by which men see themselves more clearly. Women are symbols. Women are aesthetic objects.
“They’re not limpid pools of amber, Jack,” the first said.
“They’re light brown.”
“And they’re not shining or flashing or burning with passion.”
“They’re just eyes.”
But when Jack finally understands this, his story ends.
What kinds of stories could be built on the ruins of this old, old story?
Shelia Heti’s, for one. The Woman Warrior. There are plenty of others. But not many written by men.
Unless you count this.
“So long, joiky! Send me a postcard from Albuquoiky!”