The Perpetual Ending|
by Kristen den Hartog
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|No Fairy Tale Ending
by Kjeld Haraldsen
Iwas once madly, reelingly infatuated with a pair of identical twins (the cravenness of my desire makes me wince even now, twenty years later). Teutonically chiseled, cool-eyed, their sly, foxy faces were helmeted with ultra-grainy, ultra-palely blond hair; in addition to appearances, they shared a creepy "Shining"-style telepathy. (There was an older, plainer sister¨perpetually, understandably glum.) Having farcically finagled my way into their household for a strenuously "casual" visit, and finally face to face with their doubled faces, I felt as though their brains were the discrete but precisely calibrated reels of a reel-to-reel tape-deck, so exactly matched as to obviate even the remotest need for any super-subtle, nanosecond glances, or code words, or gestures. Tongue-tied, red-faced with self-consciousness, I knew¨with the crystalline unerringness of humiliation¨that I'd been unspokenly, simultaneously judged, found wanting, and dismissed.
Double-time. That psychic twining of twindom is but one aspect of the condition touched on by Kirsten den Hartog in her second novel, The Perpetual Ending.
Jane and Eugenie Ingrams are twins growing up within the bucolic borders of rural Deep River. The twins' allied minds stand in sharp contrast to the painfully mismatched storminess of their parents' union: a father whose native sweetness is all too frequently unmoored by gusts of raging temper, and a loving mother, Lucy, whose generosity of spirit is offset by creative aspirations whose arguable flakiness could be read as a precursor to the established stereotype of the hippy-dippy wannabe "artiste". The tensions imposed by the built-in stand-off of their polarized personalities finally implodes when Lucy packs up the children and hightails it to the big city, Toronto. Once ensconced within its shabby claustrophobia, constrained by the penny-pinching necessities of urban survival, the contrasts between the twins' respective personalities come to light. Jane is repelled by the trapped, metallic rancidness of urban decay and poverty, while Eugenie delves headlong into the vibrant spin, the richness, theatricality of the city's compression, its compacted verticality. (The plight of the homeless is somewhat cursorily addressed: Jane dubs them¨with nanve disingenuousness¨as "weird-eyes".) Dad eventually pops up and begs the girls to return to Deep River with him, minus Lucy. Jane reticently agrees and Eugenie, in capitulation to the wishes of her sister, agrees. This leads to the inevitable, cruelly ironic death.
Flash forward to adulthood. Jane is a writer living in Vancouver with her illustrator lover, Simon; together, they collaborate on magic realist/fairy tales. (Magic realism's a slippery slope: as a conceit it's effective only insofar as the reality impinges sufficiently on the magic as to grant it the undeniability, the steeliness, of the quotidian). Jane is unable to unburden herself of the dark secret of her past, clues to which lie scattered throughout the stories she concocts. These stories could be seen as functioning as aesthetic "twins", as a manifestation of interiorized anxieties and desires; Bruno Bettleheim and his groundbreaking book¨The Uses of Enchantment¨springs to mind.
Fairy tales are fascinating: narratively transparent, they're emotionally opaque, a knot of childish yearnings and fears, of longings for stability and resolution spliced with ferocious flashes of the perpetual potential for harm innate in the physical world. Fairy tales are freakish (as twins?) in their fusion of the day-to-day (forest; path) with the outre, the lavishly bizarre (transvestite, talking wolves), in their surreally goofy wit. Jane's stories lack the traditional closure of fairy tales¨their openendedness suggesting the capacity for emotional exploration contiguous with adulthood. An example: the eponymous heroine of "Ildikoh" is a child-woman covered in horns who neatly twists her deformity into notoriety; with fame comes a relationship with a cowboy whose Stetson conceals his own horn. To cap it off, he's afflicted with somnambulism and Ildikoh becomes¨by proxy¨his nocturnal guide and guardian. An encounter with a bunch of vulgar drunks and its attendant humiliation (knocked-off hat = traumatic aftermath) provides the catalyst for an amputation which provides putative solace for the recipient at the cost, with a parallel crippling loss, of idiosyncratic personality quirks (Ildikoh has had a similar, much more ambivalently charged, operation). This is an oddly inverted manifestation of castration anxiety: the removal of the potent horn¨inferring individuality and virility¨bestows the cunning comforts of conformism. (An aside: those captivated by Jane's stories are enthusiastically directed towards Anne Sexton's Transformations for its lustrous verve of line, for the reckless plunging inspired gamble of imagery Sexton so brilliantly employs in her reworkings of the Brothers Grimm, effectively exploding the psychosexual underpinnings of the stories.)
Den Hartog is a solid writer, adept at conjuring up the sleepy charm of country life, its lackadaisical rhythm:
Saturdays, Uncle William collects us and brings us to his ramshackle house by the river, just at the edge of Pine Point Beach. There is a huge rhubarb patch here, in his backyard, and we may eat as much of the sour treat as we wish, dipping the long red stalks in sugar. Like celery, the rhubarb peels off of itself in curly strings.
Though we love Miss Reese and, of course, our father, we wish we could live out this summer at Uncle William's. Day and night the windows are open and the back door is kept ajar with an old shoe. Wind moves through the room in a summer-breeze circle.
Only when it is raining are the windows pulled almost-closed, and then we are three caterpillars in a William-Trillium cocoon, hearing the rain on the red metal roof, and seeing it teem into the river.
The Perpetual Ending is an ambitious work: the doubling of twindom is tripled by the stories, further quadrupled by their reading. Fairy tales are rich as ore, rhythmic as oars. Den Hartog adroitly appropriates this freighted density, plugs into its layered symbology, its juicy, subversive, subliminal sexuality (sexual anxiety invariably lurks¨wolfish¨around fairy tales' fringes). The success of den Hartog's variations on fairy tales' stylistic patterning, their emotional gestalt, perhaps hinges on the reader's identification with, their receptiveness to, the form. Fairy tales' appeal lies in their raw impetus, that impetuous candidness that appeals to our most appalling, puerile wants¨bleatingly sheep-like, sheepish in their sincerely sappy unattainability, their frank infantile force, cozy volatility. Cute, ultimately self-defeating; yet also rawly, fiercely, shockingly primal. ˛
Kjeld Haraldsen lives in Montreal. His poetry has appeared in The Fiddlehead, Matrix, Arc, and Index. His book reviews have appeared in The Globe and Mail and The New Brunswick Reader.