Amidst the usual blizzard of school shootings, regressive legislation and culture war missives, the American newspapers are overflowing with a freshly baked scandal. Turns out that Harlan Crow, billionaire, prominent Republican Party donor and friend of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, is reported to be deeply invested in Nazi memorabilia and owns statues of some of the most notorious tyrants who ever lived. I had just finished watching a late-night talk show feverishly discussing l’affaire Crow when I picked up Kelly Link’s latest collection, White Cat, Black Dog.
The first story, The White Cat’s Divorce, introduces us to a megalomaniacal billionaire in this unforgettable way. “He had so many houses even his accountants could not keep track of them all. He had private planes and newspapers and politicians who saw to it that his wishes became laws. He had orchards, islands, baseball teams, and even a team of entomologists whose mandate was to find new species of beetles to be given variations on the rich man’s name.”
The bit about “politicians who saw to it that his wishes became laws” seems such a perfect, folk-tale-friendly method of explaining the alleged Crow-Thomas-Republicans nexus to the lay reader. And therein lies the artistry of Link’s works; her “updates” of folk tales, fairy tales and oral storytelling traditions combine the kineticism of the “wonder tale” with psychological acuity and a fiendish, distinctly postmodern humour. Her stories are expertly crafted, layered symphonies where the ancient past (ghosts, vampires, talking animals) is harmonising with a brave new world (gay and lesbian captains of industry, sentient spaceships).
Much of her work has, in the past, carried kernels of folk tales and fairy tales, including her Pulitzer Prize-nominated 2016 collection, Get In Trouble. White Cat, Black Dog, however, is the first book where the stories are explicitly acknowledged (beneath the title of every story is the title of the folk tale it’s in conversation with). The White Cat’s Divorce, for example, is a response to The White Cat (and to an extent, the story of Rapunzel), a French literary fairy tale published by Madame d’Aulnoy in 1698.
In this fable, a very rich but insecure king (rebranded as a despot-billionaire here) sets impossible tasks for his three sons so that they may keep wandering far away from the kingdom, and, therefore, get very little chance of usurping the throne. An impossibly small dog, the finest muslin coat that can pass through the eye of a needle, and, finally, the bonniest bride of them all—for the youngest son, that last bit means a white cat he becomes attached to and insists on marrying.
In Link’s reworking, the white cat is preternaturally wise, talks like a human (“I can’t explain the mechanics of how I talk,” she says) and runs a marijuana dispensary along with her workers, who are all biped cats skilled at healing and agriculture. I won’t spoil the twist ending—and it is a twist, even for those familiar with the original fable—but I will say that it is a deeply satisfying one for modern and pre-modern sensibilities alike.
Similarly, The Game Of Smash And Recovery is a Hansel and Gretel remix where the siblings have been left on an alien planet among vampires and “handmaidens”, slippery creatures of power and well-disguised malevolence. Similarly, the Swedish folk tale Prince Hat Under The Ground is reinterpreted as Prince Hat Underground here; the pun referring to the fact that the denouement to Link’s story takes place in hell, literally. It is an example of the “search for the lost husband” archetype among folk tales, which Link has wrapped around the sweet, eccentric love story of two gay men, one of whom may or may not be a faerie (the original, darker, malevolent origin of the word “fairy”), a crown prince of hell.
In a hilarious scene from this story, the narrator goes to Reykjavik in search of his missing husband, Prince Hat. There, a bartender claims he knows Prince Hat and what he truly is. He writes “fairy” on a piece of paper; the narrator takes this to be a homophobic slur, not understanding the pre-modern context of the word.
This is just one of the sly, super-cool ways in which Link hints at the nature of her “rewriting” exercise. This is not some modern-day watered down version of Grimms’ Fairy Tales. This is a seriously gifted writer who understands the mechanics and the raison d’etre of folk tales better than most. Link knows that these stories were often ways to get “forbidden knowledge” out in the world. Beneath the simplistic metaphors and exceptional events, one often finds radical observations on gender, matrimony and societal conventions. This aspect, too, is honoured by Link in style. Sample this passage from Prince Hat Underground, which starts off on a classical fairy-tale note before switching sharply into brisk, contemporary sociological discourse.
“Incredible to think that, for eight full months, Prince Hat was a receptionist for a renowned analyst. Analysis slides off Prince Hat like water off a duck engendered from dark matter. Out of the wreckage of one life, Prince Hat climbed into Gary’s, and they have been together ever since, faithful more or less, happy more or less, a fairy tale of a romance more or less, their friends say. How pleasant it is to be envied! How delightful when Prince Hat still surprises Gary but only in ways that do not threaten to capsize their comfortable life.”
In a similar vein, this tender and wise aside from The Girl Who Did Not Know Fear talks about the plight of introverts who find themselves becoming unwitting, ersatz psychoanalysts for all and sundry. “(…) my face has said, all of my life, ‘I will listen to your story.’ Pity the introvert with the face of a therapist or a kindergarten teacher. Like the werewolf, we are uneasy in human spaces and human company, though we wear a human skin.”
As that last line shows, Link is very, very good at the paragraph-ending clanger—lyrical and powerful conclusions to ideas she has built brick by brick in the preceding pages. And as White Cat, Black Dog proves once again, nobody since Angela Carter has reanimated folk tales the way Link has. The illustrations by Shaun Tan (creator of wordless graphic novels like 2006’s The Arrival) make for suitably haunting prologues to these stories as well. If you love fantasy, science fiction and other genre stuff, this is a collection you cannot afford to miss.
Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer and journalist.
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