Monday, August 10, 2015

Fiction Review: Little Man by Michael Cunningham


Reviewed by John Popham

I keep intending to write a bit more about the Hugo Awards. But, each time I try I recoil at the thought of the raging nerds occupying the fringes of fandom's political spectrum.  The visceral pleasure they seem to take in foaming at the mouth and attempting to claw out the eyes of their opposites makes thoughful discourse on the subject seem a waste of time. Indeed, as fandom's fringes descend into an orgy of fear and loathing, both sides perceive voiced reason as a symptom of disloyalty to their respective cause. Meanwhile, those of you gentle souls who are here for the stories, and not to mount someone else's ideological ramparts, have heard quite enough.

Good then. Enough. Be still, my soul.

Instead, let's talk about good stories, well told. In particular, let's talk about Little Man, by Michael Cunningham. It's a wonderfully executed  fantasy story offered up in the pages of the current New Yorker.

In Little Man, Cunningham retells the story of Rumpelstiltskin from the eponymous character's point of view. The device of re-telling old stories from the villain's point of view has been used so often that it's become hackneyed, and is only rarely well-done.  Its most successful execution to date was in John Gardner's Grendel.  It speaks well of Cunningham's retelling that, as I read Little Man, Gardener's work kept hovering at the back of my mind.

The main character, who we know well though he never names himself, opens the story with a simple question: What if you had a child? He goes on to describe why having and raising a child has become such a singular passion to him. Yet, what with his being an ugly two-hundred-year-old gnome, the possibility of parenting seems out of reach.
You are driven slightly insane—you try to talk yourself down; it works some nights better than others—by the fact that, for so much of the population, children simply . . . appear. Bing bang boom. A single act of love and, nine months later, this flowering, as mindless and senseless as a crocus bursting out of a bulb. 

It’s one thing to envy wealth and beauty and other gifts that seem to have been granted to others, but not to you, by obscure but undeniable givers. It’s another thing entirely to yearn for what’s so readily available to any drunk and barmaid who link up for three minutes in a dark corner of any dank and scrofulous pub.
The prose is thoughtful and compelling. The author's use of the second person point of view serves as a proposition to the readers to put themselves into narrator's shoes. It also recalls the ancient oral forms of story-telling that were the wellspring for the modern canon of fairy-tales. The result is a narrative voice that is poignant at times, whimsical at others and, in total, as elegant as the narrator's outward appearance is ugly.

As he muses on prospect of parenthood, the little man's attention is drawn into the plight of an actual parent; a miller who, in order to draw a king's attention to his daughter, has told the king she can spin straw into gold. The king puts the poor girl to the test. He locks her into a room with a large supply of straw and a spinning wheel, promising her execution as punishment for her father's cheek should she fail to deliver. 
"When you hear the story about the girl who can supposedly spin straw into gold (it’s the talk of the kingdom), you don’t immediately think, This might be a way for me to get a child. That would be too many steps down the line for most people, and you, though you have a potent heart and ferocity of intention, are not a particularly serious thinker."
Nonetheless, the little man, obsessed with the lot of parents, has a certain sympathy for the miller. He decides to help because some good may come of it, and because, for the first time in his gnomish life, he has something to offer a young woman that no one else can.

From there the story follows its traditional plot arc, but Cunningham's execution of that arc creates a compelling relationship between the little man and the miller's daughter that sows the seeds of the tragedy to come. While each is well intentioned, both of them are driven by irreconcilable desires that can only be satisfied by compromise with their darker natures.