Updated: Oct 5, 2020
Likes, and author Sarah Shun-lien Bynum.
Folktales are said to help us deal with the most terrible of human fears, that of the unknown, in ways that make the unknown bearable. What if your mother dies and your father marries a woman who hates you? What if your parents can’t bear the cost of feeding the family and just decide to abandon you? But childhood is not where fears and insecurities end in human life, and author Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum’s recently released book of short stories, titled Likes, addresses the phantoms that range the adult imagination. These stories are frequently about young parents and spouses and the ways that we deal with what is just beyond the horizon of our knowledge. They probe our anxieties about our marriages and children, of our youthful friendships strained by our having grown up. Bynum explores the many ways we may wonder whether we are keeping up. And she does it so well.
I do not know if all of the stories in Bynum’s new collection are based on fairy tales and it would be a bad deed to tell you which ones I've identified because part of my fun in reading them was that moment of discovery. These stories are of modern life, of characters and concerns so detailed and recognizable that I bet you will stop looking for the folk allusions, and then they will sneak up and catch you off guard. One of my favorite stories was “Many a Little Makes,” about three preteen girls discovering themselves and their friendship as it slips from early middle school to high school. Yes, there is a heart-pounding moment when a tampon flies out of a bag and across a seventh grade classroom floor, and an episode where eyebrow plucking goes adorably wrong, but the girls are just as much defined by their changing interests which are not necessarily gendered at all. If you are a Gen-Xer like me, you will adore a scene that takes place in a video store where Better Off Dead competes with The Blues Brothers and Psycho, or when the main character Mari discovers The Smiths and becomes obsessed with Northern England. Mari’s friendship with Bree and Imogen is of the sort that lives in the golden country of our memories, when friends didn’t need invitations to get together. It was simply expected. And if there is not an allusion to a particular fairy tale, there is a sort of fairytale aspect to it, as when the pantry of one friend is always “magically full” or when Mari describes the tall, sleek Imogen as “a wood elf among dwarves or a human escorting hobbits.” The girls do face a trial, which the adult Mari will almost rediscover and reassess through the fog of adulthood.
These tales are frequently of and about women, and women of some means: the associate professor, processing her recent miscarriage while trying to write a chapter about Henry James; the television writer finding herself a stay-at-home, would-be mom, while her more successful partner creates children’s television; the mother wondering whether she royally screwed up in not getting her kindergarten-age daughter into the Waldorf School. As a middle-aged man reading the stories, I noticed early in the collection the number of times Bynum’s characters struggled with, and sometimes seemed weighed down by, things they perceived as unknowable. A husband’s, a friend’s, a child’s, even a dog’s innermost thoughts and feelings are scrutinized by these women who seem worried that they may not measure up. At times, I saw my wife in these portraits, and wondered if the traditionally-gendered role she plays in our household is part of what would make a woman so focused on certain things that I don’t find myself worrying about. She worries about whether I am content with meals, but then she does the shopping and the cooking. The collection's title comes from a tale about a father struggling with his ability to understand and connect with his sixth grade daughter, but even this narrator is crucially a stay-at-home dad, or a dad who at least handles all pickups and drop-offs and waits outside during his daughter's physical therapy. It made me wonder if full-time parenting, which seems to turn caregivers into the chauffeurs and attendants of their children, gives parents too much time to obsess with matters clearly beyond their control.
Bynum’s definite strength is her ability to pull you into the narrative. This said, her stories do not generally follow an obvious narrative arc. More than once I found myself surprised that a story was over and forced to reassess my understanding. I don’t think the stories are left unresolved. More so, I think that Bynum has (impressively) managed to shift the focus away from an obvious resolution and back to the conflicts that the stories present. This allows the stories the leeway to go to unexpected places that lie between the dramas of tales planned to climax in a certain number of pages. A story about a woman who recalls her husband’s long-ago infidelity while he is in the act of telling their child a bedtime story is not a searing tale of anger, regret or sadness that builds to a confrontation, or to the avoidance of one. The incongruity of the moment does not burn with ironic rage. It is rather left for the reader to struggle with after Bynum’s powerful narrative spell is broken. Like many of the tales, it is a story of remembering, and for adults of even a certain age, memories long enough in the past have grown hazy and uncertain in detail. Perhaps that calls for a different kind of fairy tale for adults, one more like life, that doesn’t suggest that the stories have either happy or sad endings--or that they ever truly end. If so, that's just what Bynum has given us: fascinating moments in time that are more real because they are not weighed down by traditional narrative constraints.
But what do you think? Do adults need fairy tales that address our worries and perspectives? Are you interested or excited to read this book? Were you already a fan of Bynum? What drew you to her style of writing? If you’ve already read Likes, or do as a result of this review, let me know what you think. Tell me if I’ve missed the mark or led you astray. And please critique my male perspective of these tales, which are mostly about women.