The fairytale has always been with us, although during the last century it has fallen out of literary favor, confined to the nursery, the classroom, and the Disney movie. Children’s literature has kept the tradition alive, but in contemporary writers like Matt Bell, Lucy Corin, and Kate Bernheimer we find a strong and recent tradition of folktale written for adult readers. Micah Dean Hicks, in his debut short-story collection Electricity and Other Dreams, adds his own spin to the fairytale formula.
Hicks’s work takes on many of the debates surrounding the fairytale form. Although this form dates back to at least the seventeenth century, today literary devices of the fantastic are often associated with popular fiction and dismissed out of hand. This is an ahistorical perspective, and one Hicks’s collection challenges. In “Crawfish Noon,” Hicks crafts a pitch-perfect Western, its genre recognizable in every sense but one: all the major figures, from the Sheriff to the Love Interest, are crawdads. A genre-bending humor is at work throughout the story—one crawdad, named Tom boiled, “tumbled into a hot spring” and ever since, “something had been off with the crusty son of a bitch.” By giving the lowly crayfish pride of place, Hicks foregrounds the ways in which his fiction playfully riffs on genre conventions.
Some folktale and fairytale scholars (Jack Zipes, for one) have argued that such tales are the way literature ask questions of itself, a thesis best born out in the work of Steven Millhauser, whose collection The Knife Thrower (1998) has much in common with Electricity and Other Dreams: in both collections, many of the stories are about the stakes of writing itself. In “The Stick Man’s Cages” and “Gun Juggling,” Hicks meditates on how writing has the potential to do real-world harm. In “Gun Juggling,” a juggler practices compulsively, working her way up from tiny beanbags to the guns of the title, but her hard-won success proves exactly as destructive as one might imagine. In “The Stick Man’s Cages,” a well-meaning creator builds cages that enclose all the people around him. Only one woman escapes his creations, and she spends her life trying to find the stick man who captured her hometown. It’s a beautifully articulated allegory for the difficulty of the fabulist writer trying to make sense of his biography. On the one hand, the stickman’s creations are wondrous lovely: “the villagers laughed... And agreed that the cages were beautiful... They praised his cages, and because they praised him, he stayed.” On the other, the act of enclosure destroys: once a place or person has been written about, the act of writing fundamentally erases some aspect of its subject. In Hicks’s work, writing is dangerous labor.
The collection is equally concerned with failures of interpretation, the way in which the world refuses representation. In “The Time of the Wolf,” a first-world contractor working the oil fields in an unnamed Arab nation is violently punished for his hyperproductivity. Possible interpretations proliferate: we have sympathy for the globalized laborer who has no say over where he labors, no matter how good he is at his job; yet so to do we have sympathy for his competitors, who resent him, and for the locals he’s displaced, who curse him. This is an empathetic critique of the proliferation of U.S. contract workers overseas. U.S. citizens are aware that our oil comes from somewhere but don’t always want to know the details. Too, Hicks has a keen eye for the objective correlative: the story repeatedly describes ominous flocks of oil-soaked birds hovering overhead. By the story’s conclusion, the birds have gone up in flames, bringing this reader to mind of many failed U.S. interventions in the Middle East.
Hicks is at his most successful when his stories resist too-easy allegorical interpretation. Stories like “How the Weaver’s Wife Killed the Motorcycle Man” struggle under the weight of their politics. When a woman...