Friday, July 09, 2010

Short-a-Day: Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum's "The Erlking"

[One of The New Yorker's 20 Under 40]

Originally published in The New Yorker, July 5, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 85.

I've got a soft-spot already for writers who seem to have a handle on a child's voice, and Bynum not only nails the child, but the mother, too, and the push-pull relationship between them: "Her child is named Ondine but answers only to Ruthie" and "Sometimes they are in cahoots, sometimes not," both establish the stubbornness and their togetherness. Moreover, Bynum has set her story in a real-world location that has a magical element to it: a fancy private elementary school (you know, the sort of place that John C. Reilly's kids might attend) that is throwing an Elves' Faire. The story ends before revealing whether or not it is wending into magical realism or just the stuff of a child's fanciful wishes and a mother's nightmare, and that lack of resolution will either irritate the reader or make perfect sense.

Me, I'm torn between the two: as a writer, I get it, as a reader, I'm frustrated. I can understand Bynum's reason for ending so ambiguously--this is, after all, a story about insecurities, and the mother, Kate, spends much of the story worrying that she's done something wrong as a parent, cleverly inserting a flashback of the ten-week application process for a Jewish Montessori school and the crushing feeling of being unwanted upon their rejection. Bynum's writing is well-suited for this sort of inbetweenness; she uses a lot of hyphens and question marks to break up the character's thoughts. For instance: "Could that be what she lacks--a spinning wheel? She glances down at Ruthie--is she charmed? happy?--and then looks anxiously around the room at the sweet assortment of milky faces peeking out from under tiny elf caps or heaps of luxuriant hair." If Ruthie has in fact slipped away from her mother to be with the stranger made of straw and presents, Kate will have even more to be sorry for.

I get the reasoning for the magical elements of the story, too. Ruthie, like most children of that age, craves something more, and her inability to articulate what that is--it's just a feeling that wells up and makes her want to vomit--leads her imagination to act up. This works well because Bynum has Ruthie's voice down cold: "Ruthie will hold the jiggly snowflake feeling inside her body for as long as she wants. This will mean that she wins, because when she doesn't go potty regular things like walking or standing are more exciting. She's having an adventure." So as a bored Ruthie watches her mother browse the school's gift shop, and as she worries about being punished for losing her "special thing," it's no wonder that she fantasizes about running off.

I wish there had been more, but I'm not totally disappointed that it ended as a moment in time, a memory that will either turn to unforgettable tragedy or one that--just another day like any other, ultimately--is just forgotten. On the cusp, as it is, it can be both, which is as good a reflection of life in the present as you're going to get.

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