In the first section of this fairy-tale metafiction for adults, Stepmother is attempting with whatever faulty magic she recalls to free her red-haired daughter from the dungeon of the royal palace, where—raped, naked, and bloody—the girl awaits execution for some unnamed impropriety she has allegedly committed. Stepmother is the first-person narrator of this section, which begins with her exhortation to the shackled girl, “Look at it this way, love, I tell her, no more slops to empty,” and ends with the girl escaping on the back of her mother, who has temporarily transformed into a female unicorn. As narrators and focalizers [End Page 196] shift, the rest of the story is hardly this hopeful, but it does continue throughout to provide powerful insights into the narrative topoi of fairy tales as landscapes of socialization and opportunities for transgression. Robert Coover’s irreverence is matched only by his up-close knowledge of the norms that regulate social power and narrative reception.
As philosophy, Stepmother is an exuberantly ethical romp in the face of death and of the institutionalized fictions of transcendence on which we rely to unthink mortality. As narrative, it tells and comments on the cyclical nature of the punishment of Stepmother’s “beautiful wild daughters” in a world where her tricks and those of the Jack-like Old Soldier defy the authoritative powers of the Reaper, the Holy Mother/Ogress, the King. And Coover’s recent essay “Tale, Myth, Writer,” in Brothers & Beasts: An Anthology of Men Writing on Fairy Tales (2007), provides one interpretive key to these dynamics. As metanarrative, Stepmother invites us to look at the fairy-tale genre in estranging ways that transform it, but arguably do not renew it. Coover invokes a very large number of folktale and fairy-tale plots, actors, and motifs in hypertextual associative patterns that open a window into social pathologies and/or lead to naughty laughter. Fairy-tale aficionados will recognize something of “Iron Henry” and “Hans My Hedgehog,” “Cinderella” and “All Kinds of Fur,” “Snow White” and “The Juniper Tree,” “The Maiden without Hands” and “The Maiden Who Seeks Her Brothers,” “The Kind and the Unkind Girls” and “Six Go through the Whole World”—at times paired to reflect on one another and all mingling in disorderly but not meaningless ways. If the novella as a whole is a wonderful vindication of the fairy-tale’s stepmother-witch stereotype, Coover also provides a devastating investigation of “princehood”—the essence of which is associated with the “exercise of royal privilege” on the “near-naked maidens” that princes often encounter in the woods—and of the fairy-tale heroine who continues to put her hopes into self-mutilating narratives where she must be rescued. Magic rings, seven-league boots, Aladdin’s lamp, wands and spells are made good use of because Stepmother, her daughters, Old Soldier, and everyone else refuse to give up and are “not without resources,” but Stepmother—unlike Holy Mother—makes it clear that “magic can alter only the sight of the beholder, not the reality of the thing or person seen.”
From Pricksongs & Descants (1969) on, Coover’s forays into the fairy tale have seriously challenged readers to rethink the social life of familiar stories in philosophical, ideological, and gendered terms. In a recent interview with Gabe Hudson, Coover declared that
fairy tales, religious stories, national and family legends, games and sports, TV cartoons and movies, now video and computer games—it’s a metaphoric toy box we all share. Sometimes all this story stuff feels [End Page 197] like the very essence of our mother tongue, embedded there before we’ve even learned it, so much a part of us that we forget it didn’t come with the language, but that someone made it up and put it there. The best way to expose that and free ourselves up is to get inside it and play with it and make it do new things.
With Stepmother, Coover gets into fairy tales and plays with them to denaturalize their hold on our...