Our culture’s obsession with fairy tales and superheroes is both a premodern revival of myth and a form of compulsiveness. It doesn’t matter that Spiderman has been played by multiple actors or that Disney creates microvariants of identical coming-of-age stories. Myths are meant to be retold, and the more retelling, the greater their power. Nor does it matter when the work winks at the audience with an awareness of artifice and convention. (See Guardians of the Galaxy, or Robert Coover’s debauched fairy tales.) Skepticism is a crucial component of the genre, as fairy tales are not just about first enthrallment, but the full cycle of spell, disillusionment, and reenchantment. The fact that a spell is always ready to wear off defines its power—its precariousness stakes its claim. Artifice must be rewoven, if only by force. In this regard, irony is merely the self-awareness that we are doomed to repeat stories that are not our own.
Anna Maria Hong’s H & G takes a different approach as it brilliantly tells and retells the Hansel and Gretel tale, in prose and verse. Unlike Coover’s postmodern fairy tales, however, H & G does not ultimately reenact cycles of disillusionment and forced reenchantment. Taking its inspiration from the trajectory of the story’s original heroes, it models an escape from enchantment into a more fully human realm.
Repetition frames the book’s structure, as H & G spins out alternative beginnings, middles, and ends to the story, such as one where the children, having burned the Witch’s house, enact the same vengeance on the cottage of the father who abandoned them. In another, trapped in a different home, they dissolve a steel floor with their tears. There is a “New Witch,” who suckles the adult H every day in a ritual that supposedly allows the world to continue.
Certainly, in Hong’s art, myth and fairy tale have a recurring, traumatic power. The book begins:
The candy gets on the inside because we eat it and eat it like thieves, like children under a great burr of clouds made by a god in a slothful mood.
The candy gets on the outside and sticks like tragedy, marking us as the worst type of person.
This “stickiness” is not just compulsive story-(re)telling but also the suffering inflicted by a genre that traffics in misogyny. In H & G, G is a “Korean American Fraulein,” and the book explores the development of the hero’s independent cultural identity in a world full of abusive, white, Anglo-Saxon figures and stories—like the violent Grimm tales and the monsters who populate them. A case study in this recapitulating narrative of trauma is the Witch, a frustrated artist and community activist who enslaves H & G to focus on her life’s work of building candy houses. Beaten as a child and harassed as the only woman at the “Institute of Culinary Rheology and Design,” the Witch’s main failing is that she reenacts the cycle of abuse she experienced. G’s act is to sever that cycle:
I shoved her into that oven because I instinctively knew that it would be the end to something that I had already felt working its way around me like a fog or a cloud of smoke, a pattern, in the old parlance. I killed her because I didn’t want to hear another heroic or awful story from those vehement lips, another woe—rational or ludicrous—from this person who could not break the habit of malice in spite of her extraordinary powers.
As in this passage, H & G enacts a demystification—“the end to something” that’s a “fog” of compulsive reenactment. The power of Hong’s art is first to construct and then dissolve the frame of myth. Hers is an abjuring magic. Part of this return to reality is accomplished through the book’s deeply original voice—both detached and brutal, lucid and ludicrous—which tends to resolve and thereby dismiss absurd, received situations in a moment of clarity and insight. In terms of plot, we learn that G has long departed the magical wood, recognizing her brother’s moral laziness and her father’s murderous abandonment. She travels far over the sea:
[doing] many jobs that would satisfy many bosses in different lands: picking oranges in the South, serving beer to the pale men and occasionally women in L________, gathering signatures for the population counts in R______, selling books of mostly low value in the big city of B________, and of course more cleaning and carting and lifting.
This is not to say that escaping the loop of reenchantment necessarily means happiness. G’s misfortunes continue, sometimes echoing her original trauma but taking different, pointedly ordinary forms. A mentor sexually harasses her. She meets a man who promises to show G a realm “under the bed,” which turns out to be unromantic, dusty space. Over time, G eventually realizes that her situation is not archetypal and timeless, but unluckily her particular experience:
It was another thirty years before G felt that very few people wanted to eat her or do her monstrous harm. Most people, she concluded, had enough of a handle on themselves to be indifferent, and only a few were wired to commit murder, cannibalism, child sacrifice.
To avoid repetition is not entirely possible—as G reflects, “We did not know what spell the Witch had cast to make us feel that things were not over.” And since compulsion is born of trauma, and racism and misogyny help enact it, there’s an understanding that repetition is part of the nature of the world. It is, however, possible to grow up, and to become a person who both confronts oppressors with their own fire, and who can also “walks away from misery” to stand, like G does finally, outside “the great and terrible stories.” In their place, Hong leave us with stories that are more ours to tell:
Some endings cannot be rewritten, and that’s alright. The ones who did the damage must want to be forgiven. In the meantime, put down the stone that wishes for rescue. Step through door after door without looking back. Be in the new strange.
H & G
by Anna Maria Hong
Sidebrow Books, May 2018
$15 Softcover; IBSN: 9781940090085