THE HIDDEN HEART OF THE JACKALOPES: Angela Readman’s ‘Don’t Try This at Home’

Angela Readman, Don’t Try This at Home (And Other Stories, 2015)

By Naomi Richards

Angela Readman’s innovative debut collection combines an understanding of harsh reality with the inexplicable. These are sharp tales in a young female voice. Although funny, ironic and often deeply moving, like the best fairy tales, the macabre, the senseless and the extraordinary abound. There is also something of the dream-logic found in the work of Angela Carter and the films of David Lynch. Readman’s writing compares favourably to the short stories of Kelly Link and Kirsty Logan in its use of the uncanny. Readers can peer into Readman’s tales, despite their surface strangeness and see ordinary life. This might account for their popularity. Readman won the COSTA prize in 2013 with ‘The Keeper of the Jackalopes’ and was shortlisted in 2012 with the title story of the collection, ‘Don’t Try This at Home.’

The half-magical, half-realistic world of Readman’s stories reflects Max Luth’s idea of the folk tale lacking a “gap separating the everyday world from the supernatural.”[1] Stylistically varied and often surreal, Don’t Try this at Home deals sensitively with heart-wrenching situations. Readman’s stories look at troubling emotions and situations: alienation, rivalry between siblings, the effects of low self-esteem, disfigurement, neglect, and homelessness. Her work shows a deep humanity. Donald Barthelme once wrote that the aim of literature is “the creation of a strange object covered in fur which breaks your heart.”[2] This could secretly be your aunt who is Catwoman in disguise (‘Catwoman Had Something’) or a young woman communing with a bag lady (‘Everywhere You Don’t Want to Be’). Only a few of the stories are not quite as sharp. A couple of them set in America, such as ‘Birds Without Wings’, are less offbeat and risk-taking than Readman’s best writing. They seem a little forced, out of place in this exciting collection.

Dont RGBIn ‘Everywhere you don’t want to be’, the main character identifies with a bag lady who she refers to as “the other me”. The bag lady, a sort of crone, poetic doppelganger, and mysterious prophet all rolled into one, is eventually gathered up off the streets and taken home by the young woman. The bag lady is honest, provocative and impossible. Beyond the black humour and chaos is an interesting merging of perspectives which fuses social commentary and human vulnerability with the mysterious.

In Readman’s tales there also lurks the horror story and the Gothic fantasy. There is a focus on parts of ourselves that we would rather keep locked away, like Freud’s uncanny, which is “secretly all too familiar”. The grisly opening tale of ‘Don’t Try This at Home’ is about a girl’s relationship with her boyfriend. Later on in the story, she slices and dices him up. The boyfriend’s parts are still living throughout the story and carry on normal, if slightly separate lives. The girl eventually marries him. Although Readman seems to be drawing on the uncanny again, the best way into her work is to avoid psychoanalysis. At the end of this story the wife is left questioning her marriage to a man who is only half there, in a way that any wife might feel if her other half was involved with another woman. She says:

We are happy, and bored. Sometimes I miss him. I see him look out of the window, wondering which part of him went. I stand behind him, handing him tea. And I wonder if someone somewhere is doing the same, looking out of the windows, longing for the part of him that’s with me.

There is a shift in the gaze, a perceptual turn here, opening the seemingly ordinary description up, so it touches on the unknown. Readman’s stories have something of a prose poem about them; they turn, they swerve and surprise the reader. Her stories are grounded within the familiar — and occasionally unfamiliar — world of “home.” A home that, however improvised, is bustling with imagination.

An intangible quality is found in so much of Readman’s work. In ‘Shine On’, which is narrated by a troubled teenage girl with a baby, we are never told what the shine is, although metaphorically the narrator refers to it again and again. The nearest is when the girl says:

I call it my shine because I don’t have another name for it. The closest I’ve seen is that movie kid in an icy hostel. He shines and the caretaker comes. I shine, and it’s not like that at all. I can’t communicate a thing. I just see what someone else sees, listen, and inhale someone else’s life for a minute.

Peculiar things happen in Readman’s tales, without explanation. Yet thanks to her skill we do not stop to ask: How could a woman be born with a dog face and fur in ‘Dog Years’? Why would a mother suddenly want to transform herself into Elvis after a customer complimented her on an attractive hair bobble? (‘There’s a Woman Works Down the Chip Shop’). Here, we have a nod to the eighties hit, ‘There’s a Guy Works down the Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis’ by Kirsty McColl. We accept these absurd situations because Readman’s world is inescapably our own, with its references to popular culture and brand names but also the fascinating way she works with language. Her use of everyday but quirky language is highly sound-orientated. Whether it is the rhythms of the street in ‘Everywhere You Don’t Want to be’: “You don’t want me stinking up your snazzy new sheets”; or the alienated teenage voice in ‘Shine on’, full of attitude yet a sense of worthlessness: “Shania sucks a frozen lolly like a Sex Ed teacher gone rogue”. The voices and rhythms are captured perfectly. When Readman does tell it slant, it is with a lot of imagination. Rooms sizzle instead of sausages, and a father, while arguing with a neighbour becomes “reddened like Christmas” – Readman’s language always goes to unexpected places. There is an assurance in such writing that the stories are going to take you to somewhere strange and won’t let you go.

The characters in Readman’s tales are often shown looking longingly towards either popular culture/celebrity or myth and fairy tale to find meaning. Catwoman, the Hulk, a mermaid of sand, a lobster boy, a mirror, a witch and creatures called jackalopes all make an appearance, while Superman, Frankenstein, Goldilocks, Rhett Butler and Scarlett are alluded to. What we have is short stories drawing on a mixture of genres. In particular the explosion of fairy tale images and themes found in present-day film, fashion, set design, advertising, visual and performance arts. However, despite the continual presence of fairy tales in many different media, as a genre they tend to be marginalized. Perhaps this is why Readman chooses to do something different from straightforward retellings. Combining something of the old tales within a modern setting and giving the writing more than just a twist, she pushes strongly against the limits of the form in a way that is playful, visionary and subversive.

Every reader will respond to a story with their own cultural/mythical associations. These are as likely to be drawn from Disney culture as from ancient legends or the dark hearts of the Brothers Grimm’s tales, but wherever symbols are drawn from, they are ways of making meaning and stitching things together. As Joseph Campbell pointed out: “In the absence of an effective general mythology, each of us has his private, unrecognized, rudimentary, yet secretly potent pantheon of dreams.”[3] Writing is made out of other writing. W.B Yeats covered his ‘Coat’ with “embroideries’ made out of ‘old mythologies’”. This piecing together of the old and new, linking things or ideas, has always been a way of working with a story. In an article about the fantastical literature of Jorge Luis Borges, Marina Warner points to the importance of the

murmuring exchanges of writers across time and cultures […]. The more literature talks to other literatures, and reweaves the figures in the carpet, the richer languages and expression, metaphors and stories become.[4]

Readman borrows this philosophy but uses it in a much quirkier, lighter way to explore the everyday and the commonplace through the lens of the odd, the unusual and the magical. Many writers have used aspects of fairy tale and myth as a way of putting the strange into more conventional narratives. Women writers in particular seem attracted to using fairy tales to subvert, demystify, or play ironically with them. As Alison Lurie points out, the original Grimm’s tales were literature for working class women.[5] Lurie believes that fairy tales are subversive and “iconoclastic”, dark tales full of sex, love, death, violence and female power.

Clearly, Angela Carter is an influence. This can be seen in both the originality and the fusion of the everyday with fantasy that both writers explore. ‘When We Were Witches’ is the most Grimm-like of Readman’s tales while also, in its texture and lusciousness, echoing Carter. It is full of lovely raven pies, apple tarts and rabbit skin shoes, combined with harsh imagery: the witch’s face is likened to “dead meat”. It is also reminiscent of David Lynch seeing the awful as beautiful, especially in Readman’s opening image of crows followed by the disembodied hand of the witch at the door. Her best images talk back to us; the top of the witch’s spine like a question mark, reflecting both the child’s and the reader’s interest in the witch’s identity. After all, it is a fairy tale and in that way it is a shared experience.

Carter’s revisionist tales often lean heavily on symbolic imagery and the creation of new myths, as she was, as she admitted “in the demythologizing business.”[6] Carter achieved this brilliantly, but female writers today are looking for other ways of working with fairy tales and myths. Readman fragments, dilutes, mixes and merges aspects of fairy tales in radically new ways. There are similarities in her approach, not only in the work of Kirsty Logan and Kelly Link but also in Emma Donoghue’s collection Kissing the Witch. In Readman’s ‘When we were Witches’ a girl is taken and brought up by a witch, who — as would be expected in a retelling — is not really witchy after all, but in fact saves odd and unwanted children, such as ones with six fingers; which is like Rapunzel and Hansel and Gretel in reverse. Emma Donoghue also turns tales inside out in Kissing the Witch, in order to highlight positive relationships between women. In Donoghue’s tale, Cinderella can run off happily with the Fairy Godmother and Snow-White can have a seductively close relationship with her “evil” stepmother.

Such writing however may not always result in the creation of a new fairy tale or myth in a complete form. Kate Bernheimer points out that using fairy tales may be conscious or unconsciously used as “writers amplify and minimize, hurtle and hoard those fairy tale techniques that appeal intuitively to them.”[7] There is a lot of creative energy when a writer turns fairy tales head over heels. In doing so many of the old deceptions, the narrow conceptions of fairy tales can be cast off and the story is reworked into something new, which does not pretend to be anything more than the writer’s truth at that particular moment.

As there are many child narrators in Readman’s tales, the child’s point of view helps to make the fantastical more credible. Neglected children are a theme that has escaped into the world from both Grimm’s Tales as well as the work of Hans-Christian Anderson. From the onset, most of Readman’s stories have card-carrying tropes from fairy tales adding texture and symbolic associations. If not handed over to witches then children might endure the “horrors” of an ordinary upbringing, such as the story of a small boy working out his anger and confusion through playing with a soldier doll, in ‘Boys like Dolls.’ In ‘Surviving Sainthood’, a boy’s guilt is focused on — after he fails to save his little sister from falling into a swimming pool — which leaves her brain-damaged. Slowly his emotions are complicated with feelings of jealousy as his mother’s attention is eaten up by his sister. Readman takes us into a forest of bad situations with compassion for her characters.

Another neglected child is the narrator of ‘Conceptual.’ Her artist parents prioritise their art over their responsibilities to their daughter and risk having all their children taken away by Social Services and raised “in a less artistic home.” However shocking or satirical this idea, we are swept away by the playful conceit of the story. We accept the family with their interesting line of clothes cut from paintings, their leftover meals draped over canvases propped up in the yard, and admire their ingenuity in making a Valentine card out of shed skin, a perfect metaphor for a dead marriage. It’s humorous, over-the-top, and grotesque, but above all it’s darkly entertaining. It also gives us an insight into what it’s like to be a child in a family who is different from other families. ‘Conceptual’ examines issues of conformity: society versus individuality, personal freedom versus responsibility. The answers in Readman’s stories are never easy or predictable, because she is too aware that human nature is complex and contradictory.

Events occur in Readman’s stories in an associative way, so that the fairy tale and the surreal elements co-exist within everyday life. This is achieved particularly adroitly in ‘The Keeper of the Jackalopes.’ It mixes the mundane existence of a father and his little daughter, Clary, in a trailer, with the peculiarity of his job, as a taxidermist, stuffing mice and turning them into art forms. The father’s job perhaps echoes the mice in Cinderella, as both are helping a poverty-stricken child to a better life. But the jackalopes are imaginary creatures, tied up with the absence of the mother. “Is that why I’ve never seen one hopping around?” asks Clary. The imaginary world and the real world come into conflict when someone tries to buy the land the trailer sits on. While the child wishes to protect the land as a reserve for jackalopes, there is also the coming-of-age realization, poignant in a child so young, that her mother is never coming back because she prefers “dickalope”. That one word tells the whole story of the mother.

Despite all the alarming difficulties of everyday life, there is a sense in these stories that the human spirit remains strong. That inside all of us — “waiting in the wings” like Elvis in the chip shop — are so many strange and wonderful things, if we are only brave enough to let them step out.


Notes:

[1] Max Luth, The European Folktale, Form and Nature, Indiana University Press, USA, 1986.

[2] Donald Barthelme, Come back, Dr. Caligari, Boston Massachusetts, Little, Brown, 1964. “His examiner […] said severely: ‘Baskerville, you blank round, discursiveness is not literature.’ ‘The aim of literature,’ Baskerville replied grandly, ‘is the creation of a strange object covered with fur which breaks your heart.’”

[3] Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Fontana Press, Harper Collins, London, 1993.

[4] Marina Warner, Witchiness, London Review of Books, Vol.31 No.166. 27th August 2009.

[5] Alison Lurie, Not in front of the Grown-ups, Cardinal, UK, 1991.

[6] Angela Carter, (ed. by Jenny Uglow) Shaking a Leg: Collected Journalism and Writings, Vintage Classics, 2013.

[7] Kate Bernhimer, Fairy tale is Form, Form is Fairy tale, from The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays From Tin House.


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