Review: The Merry Spinster by Daniel Mallory Ortberg

Some people cherish fairytales, Bible stories, and myths as comforting relics of childhood. Other people remember the feelings of fear and discomfort that they experienced when actually reading these stories as children, and those feelings follow them for years after the fact. Or else, fairytale loving children grow up, return to these stories, and are disturbed by the very things they used to delight in. Daniel Mallory Ortberg’s The Merry Spinster appeals to the latter two categories.

Incidentally, I think that the subtitle “Tales of Everyday Horror” seems inaccurate. None of us live in the worlds described herein. But maybe that adds to the sense of unease that the short story collection creates. He’s able to emulate the language of children’s stories while doubling down on the arbitrary rules and absurdly buttoned-up manners that they often employ.

An excerpt from the titular story from The Merry Spinster:

“Why, Beauty,” Mr. Beale said in amazement, tilting her chin so that she had to look at him, “that is simply a matter of the division of labor. You are the mistress of this house“–he arranged his mouth in a little smile–“and I am the master of everything that is in it.” He dropped her chin and let his hand rest in her lap. “How ugly do you think I am?”

Beauty said nothing.

“Come, you are mistress of your own voice; speak,” said Mr. Beale.

Beauty opened her mouth.

“But first remember I am the master of all the words spoken in this house,” he said, pressing her hands lightly. “Remember that.”

“I think nothing of the kind,” she said.

As you can see from this excerpt, the uneven and intimidating power dynamic in the story of Beauty and the Beast is dialed up in a goosebump-inducing way.

In Ortberg’s appearance at Powell’s in Portland about a week and a half ago, he pointed out that one of the most uncomfortable parts of children’s stories are the unrealistic levels of politeness that the characters show toward one another.

“I would get so uncomfortable and want to yell, ‘No! You don’t have to be polite about that! This person is hurting you!'” Story after story in this collection extends that idea to the point of absurdity. It’s only appropriate that one of the former editors of The Toast would double down on a feminist framework of toxic politeness and stretch it to horrifying levels.

The collection is a lot more fluid than just being a series of feminist fables, however. Ortberg plays with familial roles and typical gendered names and responsibilities. In many stories, such as The Thankless Child (a play on Cinderella), the characters can choose whether they feel more suited or prepared to be a husband or a wife in a marriage. Daughters have typical male names and pronouns and sons are sometimes given lower status and drudge work, all the while being prized/objectified for their beauty. It hardly makes a difference other than to inspire a head tilt. These are worlds outside our typical understanding, after all.

Some of the stories were familiar to me and some were deeper cuts. In his reading at Powell’s, Ortberg also talked about how well indexed and organized fairytales had become over the years, where experts could tell the outcome of a fairytale by what gender and occupation the protagonist is. I’m not quite there. Fortunately there’s a handy reference page in the back of The Merry Spinster to explain which folktales, ballads, or fairytales inspired each story.

Memorable pieces include a retelling of the Velveteen Rabbit with a sadistic twist: the rabbit does not care for the little boy at all, but is so psychotically obsessed with becoming “real” that it slowly drains his life force. Toad’s friends from The Wind in the Willows politely gaslight him until he loses his mind. Also, the Angel of the Lord files an incident report because he didn’t mean to wrestle with Jacob and wasn’t actually authorized to give him a blessing.

In any case, if you don’t end up reading The Merry Spinster (which you should), at least enjoy Daniel Mallory Ortberg’s fantastic series of Joan Didion/Anna Wintour riffs.

All the best,
the entire Sierra Nevada Mountain Range

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