The Rental Heart & Other Fairytales
by Kirsty Logan
‘My days are flaxen and holy with love.’
If I had to pick one word to describe Kirsty Logan’s collection of short stories it would be this: gorgeous. The whole book fairly pulses with golden, glowing imagery, from jewelled palaces to robot-dandies to affairs with men made from paper. There is breath-taking beauty in the extraordinary...
‘The palace is wider than a hundred people could wrap their arms around, and it stretches so high that the tip of its turret is lost in a white-hot gleam. Each window shines a different colour, like a necklace of gems,’
(from ‘Tiger Palace’)
...but perhaps even more in the mundane...
‘I spend a little time, an hour or two perhaps, sitting by the house and watching the clouds. Many boats passed yesterday so the sky is cluttered. I watch a shiny red tug pass, coofing smokeballs up to join the other clouds.’
(from ‘The Gracekeeper’)
Logan’s mastery of language, especially evident in her occasional invention of new words like ‘coofing’ above, makes for an intoxicating experience. Each new story brings more phrases that catch in the memory, until the reader must sympathise with the word-addict of ‘Bibliophagy’:
‘When he reaches for the words he feels his heels already beginning to rise, already beginning to lift him higher, beginning to move him up up up. He turns away so that the moon is hidden behind next door’s chimney. He lifts the words. He shudders to think how smooth the vowels will feel along his oesophagus. He swallows.’
These stories exist to do more than look pretty, though. Perhaps not unexpectedly from a collection with ‘Fairytales’ in its title, sexuality and gender politics are Logan’s focus. Indeed, in places there are bitter outbursts against patriarchal attitudes towards women: a story about a rape victim is titled ‘Sleeping Beauty’; a little girl is groomed for sexual service (Momma Grows a Diamond); and in ‘Underskirts’ a Lady’s unconventional but happy lifestyle is chipped away and ultimately ended by ‘pious’ gossips and controlling men:
‘That is her desire: a man as straight and solid as a wall for her to lean on. A woman’s world is the size of the distance from the bedroom to the kitchen. What is she without me? She is unmanned, an empty case. A woman is an actress, and the only thing keeping her on stage is the width of her smile.
‘I am born a man. I do not need to perform.’
‘My skin hums with it. My flaxenbelly and my moonsmoke, and there are holes, there are holes in me through which the love escapes. The men are men and they are hard, there are no summits to them, nothing to climb up or slip down. My fingers fit into the gaps between the bricks. The moon is the size of my eye. The buttermilk and the daisies, the redness inside cheeks and within the holiest of holies, within the edges of a girl, and this is grace, and this is glory.’
In contrast to this righteous anger, there is a pleasing matter-of-factness to Logan’s treatment of her characters, without any agenda-pushing or preachiness. A kind of bare-faced ‘So What?’ attitude pervades: Characters have relationships with both genders - So What? Two women are having a baby together - So What? A boy with a tiger tail antagonises a girl with antlers - Well, So What? Yet here, again, Logan isn’t blind to social judgement. Opprobrium lurks in corners, whether in the assumption that two 'different' children should be grouped together or the whispered gossip about affairs between members of different social groups (including robots, in one case), and waits to strike out against those perceived as ‘other’. Nor does she shy away from unhappy endings, allowing for the possibility of those ignorant and judgemental impulses to win. This writer may not judge but she has built a world which recognisably does.
From that world, though, Logan crafts moments of joy and triumph and several of her stories draw a smile at the pleasure of a well-crafted, satisfying conclusion. So it’s a shame that many of these stories just cut off or peter out. This is a pet hate and your mileage will vary but I'm not a fan of the build-to-a-climax-then-end-ambiguously tendency, to which Logan frequently submits. Yes, there are instances where that works and it’s arguably a fundamental part of shorter writing forms but more often than not, I find myself unsatisfied by writers whose clever endings are too much clever, not enough ending. It’s not that I’m asking for every story to end happily – that would be unendurably boring. I just don’t want to be left scrabbling around for meaning. Closure isn't a dirty word and enigmatic isn't the same as profound.
That’s a minor flaw in a dynamic, exciting piece of work, though. Logan avoids the potential kitschiness of the ‘fairytale’ tag to produce a collection that, while certainly heavily influenced by other writers – Angela Carter and Jeanette Winterson leap to mind – finds originality by foregrounding female and LGBT perspectives without ever descending into socio-political posturing. In flipping traditional fairytales’ focus on the heteronormative happy ending, Logan opens out that genre to include the wide spectrum of human relationships and sexuality, normalising variety in a genre which has previously split its characters into beautiful princesses and handsome princes, wicked witches and cunning wolves.