South Park Self

yolk seeping from their skin like light

dicedcaret once incautiously asked me to explain structuralism, which inevitably led to a voluble email exchange from which he emerged dazed and staggering, and brushing Russian Formalists off himself like coat lint. (They're sticky). The Russian Formalists are the major big gun in my campaign to bring English literary criticism kicking and screaming back into the century before the Century of the Fruitbat, i.e. the one before postmodernism. (Yes, I just accused postmodernism of being a fruitbat). As represented by the distinct sub-school led by Vladimir Propp, the Russians advocate the structuralist analysis of literature, i.e. in terms of an individual text's participation in a larger structure of meaning, which rather often tends to be in terms of genre.

Since I deal with fairy tale, this is important: at the most basic level, fairy tale proffers itself as participating in a universal structure of meaning and form, however illusionary this universality might be. (This is where postmodernism comes in: it joyously explodes notions of universal structure in order to insist that all meaning is contextual and nothing is universal. I also enjoy this, particularly since if you use an interaction of structuralist and postmodernist criticism in your academic writing you can completely piss off two major and opposing schools of thought at once, thus giving yourself a really good excuse for a floundering career).

All of this is important, because it explains why I utterly fell for Catherynne M. Valente's Deathless. Cat Valente is still my literary girl crush: she's an intensely crafted and self-conscious writer, whose abilities with prose cause me to lie voluptuously on the sofa with her books for hours at a time while beautiful words work their way down my body like lovers and my toes wriggle in delight. Deathless is based on the Russian folk tale "Koschei the Deathless", which is a marvellous agglomeration of fairy-tale motifs: ogre hearts hidden in eggs, useless Princes called Ivan, bird-grooms, bride-thefts, Baba Yaga, and Marya Morevna, the princess who slays whole armies. Valente's retelling sets the fairy-tale amid the startling political changes of early twentieth-century Russia. (The bird-grooms respectively hail from the Tsar's guard, the White Guard and the Red Army, with the bulk of the novel set in a Soviet Russia which co-exists with a fairy-tale realm).

This shouldn't work. It works like whoa and dammit: it creates a brilliant, incredible, unlikely, inevitable creature which you can't help but desire hopelessly even while it kicks you repeatedly in the teeth.

It's not just the novel's sense of Russian cold and cruelty, which equally apply to its folklore and its politics. The thing is that communism and fairy tale are both structuralist paradigms. (You knew I was going to get back to Vladimir Propp). Both fairy tale and communism insist on a transcendent, structural reality, a sense in which meaning exists universally on a level above the real. The sparse, stripped-down, essentialist meanings of fairy tale have a dreadful resonance with the sparse, stripped-down, essentialist rigours of life under communist rule. Both encodings believe all too terribly in their own universal rightness, the inescapable inevitability of their narratives. In Valente's hands they don't even conflict; they speak the same language, and the story's protagonists drift from one paradigm to another almost without noticing.

The result is desperately illuminating. The story's viewpoint is that of Marya Morevna, not the annoying Ivan, which is a relief; the tale becomes one of agency, female and political, as well as a love story, one about the bargains and sacrifices of marriage. For all of its novel-length detail and complexity, it retains both the starkness of fairy-tale narrative and its sense of fairy tale's inevitable place in the starkness of Russian life. The result shouldn't be seductive - particularly given my rooted dislike of political writing - but it is. It's an implacably brilliant book. Read it. And, possibly, weep.
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