WE ALL KNOW what to expect when we see “romantic comedy” or “romance” in the description of a film or novel: despite apparently insurmountable obstacles, the two protagonists will work their way towards their “happily ever after” resolution, usually sealed with a kiss, a wedding, or the image of the united couple journeying into an opaque but idyllic future. There are many individual variations on this tale, of course: in recent popular movies, for example, the man is already engaged (Wedding Planner); the girl is attracted to the wrong brother (While You Were Sleeping); the characters are in an ostensibly insurmountable conflict over business matters (You’ve Got Mail). In the enormously popular Pretty Woman — prostitute marries rich capitalist — the fairy-tale scripts of (at least) Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Beauty and the Beast overtly structure the story. Vivian, the Cinderella of the dating world wants, asks for, and gets “the fairy tale”; Edward, the cold ruthless “beast,” becomes the prince who rescues her. Despite overwhelming social, educational, moral, and character differences, love conquers all.
The pleasure of the films mentioned above depends, not so much on their individual differences as on their repetitive and familiar generic similarities. There are of course many contemporary “relationship” stories that do not end at the “happy ever after” kiss. Often organised around overt recognition and explicit discussion of the ideas and reality of intimate relationships — we see many examples of this throughout the long-running TV series Sex and the City — these more “realistic” depictions grapple with and demonstrate the extent to which twenty-first-century notions of romance are still influenced by and connected to the early and comforting scripts embodied in the fairy tale.
If romances targeted at adults foreground romantic love as their primary subject, what is interesting about the traditional fairy tale is that, although this type of love is implied by the ending, it is never the main subject or concern of the story. Aimed at children, fairy tales give us some heroines who are active on their own behalf — in “Hansel and Gretel,” for example — but most of the others (Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty) are helpless victims of stepmothers, witches, and nasty stepsisters who mistreat, abandon, or attempt to kill them. In two of the cases just mentioned, the heroine is actually in a coma until a prince shows up to rescue her with a. life-restoring kiss.
The initial violence in many of the Grimm stories has over the years been reduced or even eliminated when told to children; and of course, we are all familiar with the passive, maternal, and innocent character of Snow White popularized by the Disney film and franchise. Singing her way through the day, beloved by animals, taking maternal care of the seven lovable, asexual, and pretty much interchangeable “dwarfs,” Disney’s Snow White, apparently ignorant of the ongoing danger to her embodied by her stepmother, patiently accepts her fate, which will inevitably include a prince. This depiction — in which Snow White in her iconic blue dress looks like a cross between the Madonna and Betty Boop — renders the original story into a simple tale of good versus evil, and continues its “once upon a time” historical acontextuality.
Into this terrain comes Catherynne Valente’s new book Six-Gun Snow White. Set against the historical and political backdrop of the Old West, this novel provides a protagonist more like a half-breed version of Calamity Jane than anything resembling any other depiction of Snow White hitherto produced, including the self-conscious heroine searching for a new script for herself in Donald Barthelme’s metafictional 1967 novel. In Barthelme’s Snow White, the eponymous heroine lives and has sex with seven interchangeable men while waiting for her “prince,” and she cannot imagine anything better than the fairy-tale script despite her extensive education and her aborted attempts to write a new type of story for herself. Valente’s Snow White, like Barthelme’s, is not a romantic lead in the conventional meaning of that term, but instead emerges out of at least two “romance” traditions that Valente intelligently and provocatively weaves together: the fairy-tale genre in general, with the story of Snow White providing the main elements and motifs, and the American myth of the frontier as embodied by Huckleberry Finn, which is mined for both its cadence and plot-line. Her mapping of Huck’s attempt to escape the corruptions of civilized society — and also run from the series of widows and other women who wish to adopt him into that society — onto the fairy tale gives Valente’s Snow White a somewhat ironic and self-conscious agency, as well as a voice, denied to her in both the Grimm and Disney versions.
More specifically, this particular avatar of Snow White, half-white and half-Crow Indian, and a source of shame to her rich mining-magnate father who keeps her existence secret from his second wife until after the marriage, is named as such by her new stepmother, not because of her ivory skin but because she is “a thing I could aspire to but never become, the one thing I was not and could never be.” The original fairy tale, with its magic mirrors, poisoned apples, huntsman, sacrificial deer, and so on, provides a steady, ongoing, and palimpsestuous backdrop for this version; but Valente draws on other ready-made stories from fairy tale, native myth, and other fictional traditions to provide strange and complex “back-stories” for both the stepmother and her step-daughter. Readers will hear echoes of many narratives, some of which may be deliberately integrated, such as a Dorian Gray aspect to the story-line connected to the magic mirror or specific references to “coyote” tales and other animal fables, and some of which may be more in the mind of the reader than in the intention of the author. For this reader, for example, there were echoes of Kathy Acker’s highly experimental Empire of the Senseless, which also adopts the Huck Finn story-line, as well as dialogue, characters, and even story-lines from the TV series Deadwood, to name just two examples.
The seams between these different ready-mades are sometimes invisible, sometimes overt; but there is an ongoing, often overtly feminist, and sometimes simply metafictional (or what Raymond Federman called surfictional) attention throughout the novel to the role of narratives and scripts in Snow White’s adventure. This theme is addressed most directly in the episode in which Snow White hides out with the seven “Kates” — Valente’s reinvention of the seven dwarfs; “bush-whack Titanias” — in a frontier camp ironically called Oh-Be-Joyful. In an admonition to our heroine about opening doors for strangers, Witch-Hex Watson tells her:
We got a nice thing going here. Life’s still stupid but we got free of story out here under the beeches and the Big Dipper. We had enough of it, of things happening one after another and no end in sight. Of reversals and falling in love and tragic flaws and by God if I see another motif in my business I will shoot it dead.
The trajectory of the novel takes us inevitably to the moment at which the wicked stepmother shows up, with murderous intentions, at Snow White’s door. In a 2007 interview, Valente focuses on this moment as the source of her own special interest in this story over others: “why does she open the door? Doesn’t she know that witches are up to no good? Doesn’t she recognize the woman who raised her?” In Six-Gun Snow White, the “evil” appears in the guise of Snow White’s “real” mother whom she never knew, Gun That Sings, and Snow cannot resist opening the door, despite the repeated warnings of the Kates: “You can’t ask why she did it, when she was warned, when she was told. The plum truth is you would, too, if everything impossible stood out there saying you could be loved so perfect the past would go up like a firecracker and shatter across the dark.” The third time Snow White opens the door, she takes the apple so eagerly that we cannot help but conclude, with the narrator, that “this is a suicide we’re watching, full faith and knowledge.” The conclusion of the story has no prince, and no “happy ever after,” though Snow White does wake up out of 100 years of dream into another kind of world, another kind of identity: as a Physics professor.
Six-Gun Snow White is beautifully written, with a ventriloquist’s sense of voice and the poet’s attention to language typical of Valente. It is full of delightful surprises that map the mythical, the magical, and the real onto each other in complex and deliberately disruptive ways. For example: Snow White’s father is, it is implied, the famous mining entrepreneur George Hearst; he keeps her from the world but gives her a private “fairground” to play in along with a zoo full of animals that Snow names, like Adam in another mythical context. The stepmother’s story starts before her marriage with a “deal” with the earth that gives her magical powers, as embodied in a magic ring and the magic mirror; she tries to kill Snow White not because she is jealous of her step-daughter’s beauty, but because she needs to give her heart to the child she has borne only in the mirror. When this brother is given the deer heart instead, he becomes “Deer Boy,” half human, half deer, who seeks his “sister” with both homicidal and fraternal intentions in his desire to be fully human.
Asked once about her use of existing stories for her own narratives, the late Kathy Acker answered: “ I am a reader and take notes on what I read.” Valente, also a voracious reader, has taken careful note of what she understands to be the correspondences to be found in and across the different traditions she invokes in her counter-realist narrative. Her unforgettable portrait of Snow White is a simultaneously comical, lyrical, political, and haunting reading of the familiar fairy tale that intuits and explores what she shows to be the ongoing truths and insights, as well as the highly problematic gender roles, in the scripts we inherit from the fairy tale, from canonical literary sources, and from popular culture.