Saturday, February 19, 2011

When the Wicked Get in a Pickle - #13

STORY: "An Unwelcome Guest" by Garth Nix

FROM: TROLL'S-EYE VIEW: A BOOK OF VILLAINOUS TALES, ed. Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling – Oh, this book! It is so pretty! Sweet little leafy patterns on the pages and fancy shiny stuff done to the cover.

BASICALLY: A funny fairy-tale reimagining in which a perfectly respectable evil witch must outsmart the machinations of a loophole-exploiting freeloader named Rapunzel.

Well, it's been quite a week. Between Melissa making me think hard thoughts with her smart comments (she actually went and read one of the stories I talked about!!! I am changing the world, one extremely patient and supportive and literate friend at a time!!!) and Mike catching on to my nefarious plot to destroy his life, I really needed a breather. And "An Unwelcome Guest" was just the thing.

Let us ruminate for a moment upon the advantages of a great opening.

"There's a girl in the south tower," reported Jaundice, the witch's marmalade cat. "The same one as almost got in last year."

"Well, go and bite her or something," said the Witch. She was busy stirring a huge bronze cauldron. She had twelve coworkers coming for lunch and was mixing up a batch of jelly that had to be poured into an architectural mold and put in the ice cave before eleven.

Are you ruminating upon this wonderfulness? I certainly did not ruminate while I was reading—I was hooked. Look at the modest characterization that crops up right away (just look at it!). We've got an orange cat named "Jaundice," which is a nice counterpoint to the Witch who never receives a formal name. (This is a tricky thing, I think, in retellings… It often irritates me when an author takes it upon themselves to specify a name for an established fairy tale character. I'm all like, WHAT GIVES YOU THE RIGHT? Unless they do it well, in which case I'm all, WHY DIDN'T I THINK OF THAT?) By the way, "Jaundice" turns out to be even more tongue-in-cheek than it seems at first, because the cat's real name is Jenny—
"Don't call me Jenny!" spat the cat, her back arching in agitation. "My name is Jaundice! I am the evil servant of a wicked witch!"
The cat-name thing comes up again a little later when Jenny/Jaundice has to explain that the "Fangdeath" she's talking to on the phone is actually Decima's cat, Bluebell. Anyway, the feline companion trope is given new life and so is the witch trope—I love the idea that she's got colleagues and is on a tight schedule. (There's a hilarious moment soon after when the Witch stops stirring for a second and some frogs manage to escape the jelly with "a sudden series of pops.") The tropes themselves are still exploited—we don't have to have these concepts explained to us—but they're employed in such a way that we know this story's going to be funny.

Nix orchestrates his jokes brilliantly. He's got a cat name that's funny unto itself, so we don't look for the next joke ("Fangdeath") that relies on it as a setup. There's the jelly mold thing, which is again funny on its own, so we're not looking for the next punchline that takes advantage of it. He's basically making clever one-offs do double or triple duty in his story. And there are subtler jokes, too—like the fact that the Witch has twelve coworkers coming, meaning they'll have the right number for a traditional coven of thirteen, or Rapunzel's three "suitors" who show up later and get blinded by thorns (in a nod to the original story) and then revert to their natural mice-forms (three blind mice—get it?).

I wasn't totally thrilled by the story's resolution, which involves some sort of not-very-explained shadowy being that's apparently been inhabiting the body of Rapunzel and making her act this way. It just didn't feel necessary to explain the story's events. But the whole thing carried on so well throughout that it didn't really matter. Nix brings in all kinds of fun bits—like Rapunzel's helplessly handwringing parents, some household "dust-fey" on their cockroach steeds, a cornucopia oozing with a wealth of ice cream and lemonade—and keeps the momentum going. It's so entertaining that I almost wish all the stories in this book were Nix's. (But only ALMOST. I'm really looking forward to checking out Neil Gaiman's poetic take on Sleeping Beauty and my beloved Kelly Link's dark Cinderella.)


Post a Comment