In this engaging debut collection of short stories, L. Annette Binder probes the psyches not of heroes, but of monsters, turning the lens of the fairy tale on itself. When I first read the list of story titles, heavy with allusions—Galatea, Nod—I was afraid of finding myself in the well-trod territory of the reinvented Grimm tale. But Binder’s collection is unusual in the way it straddles the divide between fairy tale and normal life. There is no magic, and there are no talking beasts. Instead, Binder's monsters are ordinary people marked by physical and mental deformities: freakish height, the ability to speak dead languages. For them, the realm of the fairy tale is a lonely, isolated one, an internal landscape of beauty set against a reality that is often twisted and bleak.
In the first story, “Nephilim”—a Pushcart Prize winner—Binder introduces Freda, a giantess, “seven foot even by the time she was sixteen.” Freda’s school friends call her “Tripod and eel and swizzle stick,” but Freda’s mother reassures her with the story of the nephilim—“the children of fallen angels and ordinary women.” The story of the nephilim emerges piecemeal, in sections interspersed through the narrative of Freda’s daily life. In these short, tight passages, Binder unfolds the story of the nephilim using the language of myth, heavy with repeated allusions to God and the Bible. “According to the Book of Enoch, the nephilim were three hundred cubits tall,” begins one such passage, near the start of the story. In these passages, Binder eschews direct dialogue, instead quoting Freda’s mother: “Hunger is a terrible thing, her mother had told her more than once.” By framing this fragmented internal narrative in terms of Freda’s mother’s stories—as well as by invoking the language of religion—Binder turns the world of myth into its own encapsulated place. She sets up a neat contrast between the world we know and the world that exists in the stories that have been handed down to us. This conflict—between myth and modernity—returns to haunt many stories in the book. The mythic element is often subtly alluded to or entirely inferred. Truth, then, proves elusive. Is Freda mythic or monstrous?
In “Nephilim,” the internal and external narratives never align, and from this dissoance the story derives its central heartbreak. When Freda falls in love, she confuses love with the sensation of being small, wondering, “How strange it would be to stand next to a man and look him in the eye. To feel the smallness of her hands when he took them in his.” Teddy, the boy whom Freda becomes infatuated with, is “short”—and the repetition of the words “small” and “short” manages to perfectly delineate the massive scope of Freda’s desire. When Teddy stands beside her, her kitchen feels “big,” and the fact of its largeness tells us, more clearly than words, that she is in love.
Freda is not the only character in the collection whose emotional condition becomes occluded by a physical reality. Carol, the heroine of “Galatea,” uses plastic surgeries to halt the flow of time since the traumatic day when her daughter was kidnapped from a mall. For Carol, every season is an anniversary of that moment: “Another gray winter and her girl was gone.” Binder’s sentence is lovely and rhythmic, and its consonance mimics perfectly the bleak similarity of days endured in a loved one’s absence. This is not the only time that Binder opts for sentences almost musical in their alacrity. In “Nephilim,” she says Freda’s growth is “stretching her from socket to socket,” and in “Galatea,” Carol wonders of one lost girl, “Who knew if she recognized her mother’s face.” In the myth of Galatea, a sculptor falls in love with his own work of art. Carol suffers the contrary urge: through love, she hopes to arrest time, become statuesque. The contrast between an internal, mythic desire and a physical reality—the passage of time—is never resolved.
Binder is familiar not just with the plots of myths, but also with the influence they can exercise. In “Dead Languages,” two parents are baffled by their young son, who speaks dead languages as the ancients must have spoken them, with tones. More than once, Binder compares the boy’s speech to a song, giving it the power of hymn and twinning it to the Biblical stories that appear in other stories in the book. The mother says of her son that “she’d known him always and that he’d always be a stranger.” Binder’s talent lies in evoking sympathy for those who lie outside the boundaries of normal human experience, in reminding us that abnormality forms the heart of some of our closest legends.
Binder’s background in classics shows in her reverent and unusual treatment of the notion of myth. If there’s one thing these stories suffer from, it’s a generic supporting cast. The mothers all sound the same, prone to homely aphorisms—“Be grateful for what you have." But this is a minor quibble. It’s unusual, in a collection of so many stories, to find such unity of voice and purpose. Some of these stories shine—“Rise,” “Nephilim,” “Galatea,” “Dead Languages”—but others offer moments of more quiet awakening. “Lay My Head,” about a woman dying of disease, and “Sidewinder” about a brutal stepfather, both foreshadow their ultimate moments of loss but are no less challenging for that.
Ultimately, these are stories about the loneliness that lies at the heart of exceptionalism, about the ways in which families struggle to hold together what the world would divide. These stories evoke wonder, yes, as well as a sympathy that is epic in both its reach and its depth.
Anika Gupta is a journalist based in New Delhi. Her articles have appeared in Smithsonian, Fortune, and elsewhere. She co-founded Hacks/Hackers New Delhi, a nonprofit for journalists and coders.
L. Annette Binder
Sarabande Books, 2012
$15.95 (paperback), ISBN: 978-1-936747-39-9