When Margaret Atwood was in her twenties, an aunt shared with her a family legend about a possible seventeenth-century forebear: Mary Webster, whose neighbors, in the Puritan town of Hadley, Massachusetts, had accused her of witchcraft. “The townspeople didn’t like her, so they strung her up,” Atwood said recently. “But it was before the age of drop hanging, and she didn’t die. She dangled there all night, and in the morning, when they came to cut the body down, she was still alive.” Webster became known as Half-Hanged Mary. The maiden name of Atwood’s grandmother was Webster, and the family tree can be traced back to John Webster, the fifth governor of Connecticut. “On Monday, my grandmother would say Mary was her ancestor, and on Wednesday she would say she wasn’t,” Atwood said. “So take your pick.”
Atwood made the artist’s pick: she chose the story. She once wrote a vivid narrative poem in the voice of Half-Hanged Mary—in Atwood’s telling, a sardonic, independent-minded crone who was targeted by neighbors “for having blue eyes and a sunburned skin . . . a weedy farm in my own name, / and a surefire cure for warts.” Webster’s grim endurance at the end of the rope (“Most will have only one death. / I will have two.”) grants her a perverse kind of freedom. She can now say anything: “The words boil out of me, / coil after coil of sinuous possibility. / The cosmos unravels from my mouth, / all fullness, all vacancy.” In 1986, Atwood made Webster one of two dedicatees of her best-known novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a dystopian vision of the near future, in which the United States has become a fundamentalist theocracy, and the few women whose fertility has not been compromised by environmental pollution are forced into childbearing. The other dedicatee of “The Handmaid’s Tale” was Perry Miller, the scholar of American intellectual history; Atwood studied under him at Harvard, in the early sixties, extending her knowledge of Puritanism well beyond fireside tales.
Having embraced the heritage of Half-Hanged Mary—and having, at seventy-seven, reached an age at which sardonic independent-mindedness is permissible, and even expected—Atwood is winningly game to play the role of the wise elder who might have a spell up her sleeve. In January, I visited her in her home town of Toronto, and within a few hours of our meeting, while having coffee at a crowded café, she performed what friends know as a familiar party trick. After explaining that she had picked up the precepts of medieval palmistry decades ago, from an art-historian neighbor whose specialty was Hieronymus Bosch, Atwood spent several disconcerting minutes poring over my hands. First, she noted my heart line and the line of my intellect, and what their relative positions revealed about my capacity for getting things done. She wiggled my thumbs, a test for stubbornness. She examined my life line—“You’re looking quite healthy at the moment,” she said, to my relief—then told me to shake my hands out and let them fall into a resting position, facing upward. She regarded them thoughtfully. “Well, the Virgin Mary you’re not,” she said, dryly. “But you knew that.”
The only warning to be given about “Somebody With a Little Hammer” is that it’s not “binge”-worthy. Gaitskill is not light reading, and consuming too many of these essays in a row can have a numbing effect. Her blunt presentations of fact and deep wades into unsentimental emotionality are like bites of a rich, dense meal. Too much at once can be repellent. But Gaitskill’s writing is somehow crucial in a way few of her peers can achieve. She says the things you didn’t know needed to be said until she says them, and only then do you know what you’ve been missing.
On a divergent but perhaps also parallel trajectory, the first written version of Beauty and the Beast slid itself into print at the dawn of the Enlightenment. Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s “Le Belle et la Bête” (1756) attempted to prepare girls for an arranged marriage that required them to abandon their own desires — to ignore them, to neither know nor own them — for the sake of their future husbands. Men, in this story, are always potential monsters. By the time the tale reached the ears and quills of the Brothers Grimm in the 19th century, it had become a celebration of the civilizing power of feminine virtue and its triumph over base, carnal desire.
Fast-forward a few hundred years and we land here, at Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing Is Monsters. Ferris’s epistolary graphic novel is a bildungsroman. Karen Reyes, Ferris’s young narrator, visualizes herself as a monster. A literal monster — something of a vampire, perhaps, although she defies simple categorization — she is even equipped with an under-bite fang. Karen’s obsession with monsters and monstrosity stems, however, not only from feeling like a monster, but also from her desire to bond with her brother Deeze. He gives her comics about monsters, and the covers of these comics form an interstitial narrative that interrupts and complicates the main story. While Karen’s monstrosity makes her feel like an outsider, she also has a deep faith in monsters. To her, monsters are saviors.
When you move to another country as an adult, the language flows around you like a river. Perhaps a child can immediately abandon himself to the current, but most older people will begin by picking out the words and phrases that seem to matter most, which is what I did after my family moved to Cairo, in October of 2011. It was the first fall after the Arab Spring; Hosni Mubarak, the former President, had been forced to resign the previous February. Every weekday, my wife, Leslie, and I met with a tutor for two hours at a language school called Kalimat, where we studied Egyptian Arabic. At the end of each session, we made a vocabulary list.
I too remember a high school creative writing class in which I was told that I should know all of my characters’ telephone numbers. But now I see that kind of advice for what it is: a shorthand used to try and trick fully-realized characters out of inexperienced writers. The thinking being, if you know your character’s phone number, you might also know what her relationship with her parents is like, what her secret dreams are, who she loves most in the world. “But,” Michel asks, “do we need ‘worldbuilding’ as a concept to explain why moral simplicity, characterization without nuance, or a lack of a tactile sense-of-place can be a problem?” Well, yes. We need whatever term will work for whatever writer at any given time. If we widen our understanding of worldbuilding—and most of the guides Michel links to do have rather wide versions of the term—and use it to refer to a fictional universe characterized by complexity, nuance, a tactile sense of place, an internal logic, a story that fulfills its own promise, then why not?
I wondered if it was comforting for Lily to hear stories about fairy-tale children who had lost what she had lost — unlike most of the kids at her school, or in her ballet classes, whose mothers were still alive. Or perhaps it brought the stories dangerously near, the fact that she shared so much with them. Maybe it peeled away their protective skins of fantasy, made their pepper water too literal, brought their perils too close. When I read her the old fairy tales about daughters without mothers, I worried that I was pushing on the bruises of her loss. When I read her the old fairy tales about stepmothers, I worried I was reading her an evil version of myself.
I sought these tales avidly when I first became a stepmother. I was hungry for company. I didn’t know many stepmothers, and I especially didn’t know many stepmothers who had inherited the role as I had inherited it: fully, overwhelmingly, with no other mother in the picture. Our family lived in the aftermath of loss, not rupture — death, not divorce. This used to be the normal way of being a stepmother, and the word itself holds grief in its roots. The Old English “steop” means loss, and the etymology paints a bleak portrait: “For stepmoder is selde guod,” reads one account from 1290. A text from 1598 says, “With one consent all stepmothers hate their daughters.”