By Michael Cunningham
All modern fairy tales are about the tricky relationship between the curse and the gift. This is true of the stories told in the nineteenth century by the Brothers Grimm and of the stories told by their French predecessor, Charles Perrault. It is also true of the tales of Hans Christian Andersen, but with a difference: his stories shift European folk wisdom into an explicitly Christian framework. “The Little Mermaid,” for example, is not just a doomed romance between a sea creature and a Prince, but a quest for salvation in which a mermaid trades her tail and her tongue for a chance to enter the kingdom of heaven. “The Snow Queen,” one of Andersen’s strangest tales, is about the battle between angels and demons for custody of the human mind, although you will not glean much of this from watching Frozen.
Andersen’s story begins with a hobgoblin who invents a mirror that claims to tell the truth about anyone who looks into it, but in fact shows only ugliness and depravity. The demon teaches his followers that the mirror is a miracle, but it’s clearly a curse upon humanity, which is why the angels retaliate by smashing the glass to pieces. The Snow Queen’s “Mirror of Reason” is made up of the shards that fall to earth, and people who spend too long looking at it lose their imaginations and become very good at arithmetic. Then they freeze to death. Andersen’s tale centers on a little girl, Gerda, who rescues a boy named Kay from the Queen with the help of the Lord’s Prayer. As Gerda prays, her words turn into armored angels who stab the snowflakes, warm her hands and feet, and clear a path to Kay. She revives him with an embrace and a hymn.
“The Snow Queen” supplies Michael Cunningham with the title and epigraph of his new novel, which centers on a small group of sufferers held together by two brothers, Tyler and Barrett Meeks. Their name echoes the famous promise made in both Psalm 37 and the Beatitudes, which is that once the wicked and the wealthy have had their day, God intends the meek to inherit the earth. Barrett Meeks, whom we meet in the short opening section of the novel, “A Night,” would settle for a more modest bequest: he wants a faithful lover who doesn’t care that although clever Barrett graduated from Yale, he now works in a vintage clothing store in Bushwick and, at nearly forty years old, has no plans to upgrade. The opening of the novel is nocturnal in every sense — it is winter, it is dusk, Barrett is alone again and too defeated to mourn the departure of his most recent partner. At this moment of darkness and diminishment, he has a vision. He looks up at the sky above Central Park and sees a “celestial light.” And the light sees him:
He believed — he knew — that as surely as he was looking up at the light, the light was looking back down at him.
No. Not looking. Apprehending. As he imagined a whale might apprehend a swimmer, with a grave and regal and utterly unfrightened curiosity.
He felt the light’s attention, a tingle that ran through him, a minute electrical buzz; a mild and pleasing voltage that permeated him, warmed him, seemed perhaps ever so slightly to illuminate him, so that he was brighter than he’d been, just a shade or two.
In the next scene it is morning, and Tyler Meeks awakens from a dream into what feels for an instant like another dream. Snow is swirling through an open bedroom window into the ratty little apartment he shares with his fiancée, Beth, who is dying of cancer, and with Barrett. On this November morning in 2004, there are three kinds of snow in this bedroom: the real, the dreamed, and the white powder in a vial to which Tyler is addicted. Each in its way brings mercy and hope, which is what everyone in this novel craves.
Barrett’s vision of a watchful light makes him feel that the world is more lenient than recent experience has led him to believe, simply because there is at least one source of illumination and vivacity that he had not counted on. The snow that blows into Tyler’s bedroom has a similar effect, although some of the crystals come from the demon’s shattered mirror, and one blows into Tyler’s eye “like the tiniest imaginable sliver of glass.” This tiny sliver will remain lodged in his eye for the rest of the novel, and Cunningham keeps reminding us that it’s there, darkening Tyler’s perceptions and making him reach for the cocaine that he promised everyone he had stopped using.
At forty three, Tyler has a lot to be hopeless about: he is a mediocre singer-songwriter who works as a bartender, lives in a squalid apartment, loathes the Bush administration (soon to be re-elected), and loves a woman who is not responding to treatment for stage four cancer. Under these unpromising conditions Tyler is writing a wedding song for Beth, and he’s trying to compose lyrics and a melody that are “possessed of a childlike, beginner’s earnestness, a beginner’s innocence of tricks,” but although he has faith in his ability to write such a song, to give a “true gift,” he cannot quite get his hands on it. The cocaine is supposed to extend his reach, but it doesn’t. Drugs do for Tyler what they do for several other people in this novel, which is to reveal glittering troves within the self that can be seen but not touched, so when the high ends the treasure vanishes. What Tyler wants — what everyone wants — is to figure out how to pull some of that richness into ordinary life and make it last. The drugs make him feel like he can do it, but they don’t teach him how.
What does teach him is Beth’s sudden remission, followed, a few months later, by her relapse and death. No one knows why her cancer suddenly disappears. Her chemotherapist uses the word “miracle,” without irony. Of course Barrett suspects that the light in the sky has something to do with Beth’s reprieve, although no one is particularly receptive to this hypothesis except for a dimwitted hustler named Andrew. Whatever the cause of Beth’s temporary recovery, it’s only after she dies that Tyler is able to write a song that lands him a record deal and some recognition. In part, his newfound ability comes from the realization that heroin rather than coke should be the songwriter’s drug of choice. Coke, Tyler realizes, is an attempt to slap yourself awake. “Why didn’t it occur to him that music comes from the land of nod?” What’s called for, he decides, is not just effort and wakefulness but drowsy hospitality. You don’t chase the song, you lie down to rest and let it come to you.
This logic is built into the structure of Cunningham’s novel, in which revelations of all sorts take place at dusk — at the end of a day, a year, a relationship, a life. In his earlier novels, The Hours (1998) and By Nightfall (2010), this structure is reversed: the day begins with a blessing and ends with despair. It begins with a sense of preternatural excess and ends with tired people who don’t think much of what they’ve accomplished. As Virginia Woolf laments in The Hours, evening is when the “devil sucks all the beauty from the world, all the hope,” and her day’s labor, which held so much promise at breakfast time, turns into trash. By contrast, The Snow Queen borrows the uncomfortable wisdom of fairy tales, which is that the hour of despair is the most fertile of the day. Beth is often compared to Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and the miller’s daughter — the one who is locked in a dark room and told that if she can’t spin straw into gold by morning she’ll be executed when the sun comes up. Thank God for Rumplestiltskin. And for all those roving princes who are attracted to dead women who turn out — surprise! — to be merely asleep.
The Snow Queen is about these near-death conditions and the surges of energy that they sometimes produce. Fairy tales personify that energy in the form of kindly dwarfs, foreign princes, and imps with weird names and a dab hand at spinning. None of them can prevent the bad luck or poor judgment that leads a woman into danger, nor can they seem to act until the woman is almost dead. It is axiomatic that the faeries only emerge at nightfall. Their intervention underscores human helplessness, but it also makes the point that our efforts are not the only ones at work in the world. In general, the fairy tale view of things is that people make serious and inexplicable mistakes — like the king who neglects to invite the thirteenth wise woman to the baptism of his newborn child, or the miller who claims that his daughter can turn straw into gold even though he knows she cannot — and that the dire consequences of these mistakes can only be alleviated by energy that is not locally sourced. It has to come from outside the human ambit.
In Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” the matter is slightly more complicated, because although there are plenty of enchanted beings who assist Gerda in her search for Kay, the conquering power, the one that thaws the nearly frozen, is prayer. The difference between a Christian prayer and, say, Rumplestiltskin or the talking crow who helps Gerda on her way seems vast, but it isn’t, really. They are all linked by the ideas of surrender and powerlessness. The Lord’s Prayer is a series of requests that emphasizes the inadequacy of human endeavor, the fact that we can’t cope on our own: give us, forgive us, lead us, deliver us. So is Psalm 37, which councils the meek to do the best they can in the face of evil and injustice and then to stop fretting and trust in God. Patience, stillness, and confidence in the unseen are the psalmist’s recommendations for those who have to endure a violent life.
Like most secular humanists, Tyler Meeks has a lot of difficulty with this advice. He is a great fretter, and not just about the cruel death of his wife. He frets because he believes that only people can fix the problems that people cause, and he sees nothing but problems, most of them originating in George W. Bush’s White House. I would not want Tyler to be less vigilant on behalf of minorities, detainees in Guantanamo, and Iraqi civilians murdered in the American hunt for weapons of mass destruction, or to stop caring about anti-sodomy laws in Fiji, but unfortunately his thoughts on these matters produce some of the least successful sections of the novel. Tyler is outraged, but not insightful. He has a few zippy one-liners and several rants, but no ideas. It’s easy to deplore Sarah Palin; the challenge is to find something useful to say about why so many Americans voted for her, and Tyler does not. His thoughts about politics only hold our attention (fleetingly) when they’re wrong. In 2004, he is sure that Bush will not be re-elected; in 2008, he is sure that Obama will lose.
These miscalculations are part of a pattern in the novel that is designed to undermine our confidence in calculation itself, which seems to rule out surprises, beginning with that light in the sky. Yet even in fairy tales, not all surprises are benevolent. A light in the sky — a bolt of lightning — killed Tyler and Barrett’s mother and, as Cunningham writes, cancer is a kind of cellular miscalculation, a deadly “rampancy” that makes no sense. And then there are people like Barrett, whose brand of intelligence lacks an engine and thus unexpectedly leads to a life spent selling second-hand Freddie Mercury t-shirts. Sometimes energy explodes; other times, it peters out. No one sees any of this coming.
Tyler’s problem is that without heroin he cannot make space in his mind for the incalculable, good or bad. The sliver in his eye keeps him alert to human failings and the necessity for action but precludes any measure of surrender. “Be still,” says the Psalm of David, and trust in the Lord. Can there be stillness without the Lord? If so, what does one surrender to? This question about what comes after secularism — or perhaps after humanism — is on a lot of people’s minds these days. Barbara Ehrenreich’s memoir, Living With a Wild God, was published at the same time as The Snow Queen, and in it she tries to understand a vision much like Barrett’s without going to either a psychiatrist or a priest. In the last eighteen months or so, two of the best living writers in English have published novels about Jesus. Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary is about what Jesus’s mother might have thought about his ministry and crucifixion. J.M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus is about a little boy who refuses to learn the rules of arithmetic because he believes in magic and immortality.
None of these books are devotional in a traditional sense. They are not written from a position of faith, but nor do they set out to ridicule it. Much like The Snow Queen, they are about encounters with people and situations that generate what Tóibín describes as “the fluster of life…a sense of unthinking energy, like bounty.”
Cunningham is at his best when he writes about our need to experience this kind of exorbitance:
Doesn’t the secular world want, need, to walk both proud and penitent, robed, for the benefit of some savior or saint? We worship numberless gods or idols, but we all need raiment, we need to be the grandest possible versions of ourselves, we need to walk across the face of the earth with as much grace and beauty as we can muster before we’re wrapped in our winding sheets, and returned.
He’s at his worst when he fails to take the need seriously. No, that’s not quite it. He’s at his worst when he’s dominated by the ironic knowingness, the vernacular flippancy that creeps into his prose whenever he writes about the people that he knows best, namely contemporary New Yorkers. This isn’t just a verbal tic — for example, a tendency to begin or end sentences with Right? Right? — but a deeper problem with characterization. Too often, characters in The Snow Queen verge on caricature: Liz, the wised-up aging hipster; Andrew, the fading beauty looking for something new to sell. Cunningham has these people all figured out—their haircuts, their wardrobes, their gestures, their turns of phrase– and because he’s outsmarted them they don’t come to life. They don’t escape the equation.
But then there’s the incalculable — those miraculous paragraphs that Cunningham can produce, page after page of them. I read an interview in which he says that he goes straight to his desk from his bed in the morning in order to hold on to the night and pull it into the day. You won’t see evidence of this dream-to-desk path in The Snow Queen’s characters, but you will feel it in all the sentences whose beauty hails from the land of nod.
Alice Brittan teaches post-colonial and world literature at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She is finishing a book called Empty-Handed: On Gifts and Grace and beginning one called Notes on Miracles.