Each story in Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s collection, Likes, serves as a stepping-stone. Readers are led through different developments in the female body, from post-miscarriage (“The Bears”) to pubescence (“Many a Little Makes”) to sexual independence (“Bedtime Story,” the final selection). The path may feel, at times, like a fairy tale, but its perspectives are devastatingly accurate, suggesting, as they do, the ways our culture categorizes women.
On rereading, the first story, “The Erlking,” shocked and drew me in again. I was reminded of how dynamic Bynum’s stories are, but also how carefully constructed they are in character development, atmosphere, and, perhaps most important, structure. While Bynum does not write experimental fiction, she does experiment with story and shape. “The Erlking” is sinuous, its path curving from everyday parental concerns to consumer obsessions to physicality and back to the not-so-delicate power balance between mother and daughter. It also moves between happiness and discontent, magic and reality, and, finally, between safety and danger.
In the story, Kate, a mother who already worries that she hasn’t done the very best for her child, negotiates a number of obstacles as a heroine might in a fairy tale, but they’re cast in contemporary, material terms. She comes up against the quotidian (the little girl clearly needs to pee but refuses to acknowledge it), the consumerist (how can they decide which lovely item to purchase, all of the objects so carefully made?), and the logistic (does that man have a present for me?).
She enters our consciousness with the tinkle of bells on the school’s gate: “It is just as Kate had hoped.” There are “huge fir trees,” a “sweet mushroomy smell,” even “gnomes stationed in the underbrush” and music from “far up on the hill.” But although Kate and her child (who is “named Ondine but answers only to Ruthie”) go through the gate and up a dappled path beneath those fir trees, they must also cross “the school parking lot” and go “past the kettle-corn stand.” Kate may love the fairy-tale elements, but she’s also firmly placed in a late-capitalist locale.
The Waldorf school Elves’ Faire is “exactly as it should be, every small elvish detail attended to” (jousting sticks! compostable lemonade cups!), and Kate feels terrible that she did not enter Ruthie into admissions for a school like this, where she might have enjoyed a “media-free experience of the world.” So far, so Gen X. Kate, like her legion of fellow parents, wants everything for her offspring: freedom cocooned by complete safety, delicious cool beverages served in Earth-friendly containers, a proper education served up in doable doses, without editorial comment.
As Kate and Ruthie go through the fair, Kate’s mind wanders back to the various preschools they visited, including “the Jewish Montessori” that she adored for its vaulted ceiling, Frida Kahlo prints, and “dainty Shabbat candlesticks.” It doesn’t seem to matter that “the school had not made the least impression on Ondine,” and that’s in part because Kate feels it’s “a lengthy, rigorous audition process disguised as a Mommy & Me class.” She cares so much about getting her own role as a mother right that she’s forgotten her daughter’s personhood and agency.
Which is where we must swerve back to authorial purpose. If Bynum concerned herself only with the stages of biological womanhood, well, maybe that’s been done before—not frequently, not enough, but certainly in the work of some second-wave feminist writers. But this writer pushes things further. Like her forebear Angela Carter, she reminds us that women have personhood and agency completely separate and distinct from their roles as girls, daughters, menstruators, childbearers, and mothers. Personhood, we see in “The Erlking,” can take forms that seem simple, like insisting on your own name, choosing your own toy to buy, remaining uninterested in a particular school, and recognizing that a child’s status holds its own kind of dignity, presents its own set of choices.
Did you think “The Erlking” would end with dignity and choice? Absolutely not, because its author also wants us to see that, in the world we live in, a female of any age might be caught in any number of traps, even if she retains her dignity and makes her choices. If Kate remains stuck in her personal web of how a mother should be, Ruthie has already become caught up in the snare of “everything” she has wanted: “stickers, jewels, books, dolls, high heels, pets, ribbons, purses, toe shoes, makeup.”
Neither one of them will escape. You shouldn’t be surprised. “The Erlking” subverts every bright fairy-tale memory we’ve all ingested and reminds us that the woods are mainly dark and deep, impossible to escape. Enter the world of Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s Likes and prepare to change.•
Join us on January 20 at 5 p.m., when Bynum will be in conversation with CBC host John Freeman and a special guest. In the meantime, visit the Alta Clubhouse to discuss Likes with your fellow California Book Club members.