Thursday, September 12, 2019

The Merry Spinster by [Daniel] Mallory Ortberg

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

Just a note: this book is by Daniel Mallory Ortberg, but is under the name of Mallory Ortberg. (See below for more about the author.) 

The Merry Spinster is a collection of modern takes on classic fairy tales and other stories. That is probably the easiest way to describe it. The stories aren’t straight up retellings, though, as they are often mashups of different tales. For example, “The Thankless Child” combines elements of Cinderella, King Lear, three Medieval prayers, and Psalm 139. Also, there are riffs on modern stories like The Velveteen Rabbit - and that one is particularly dark. In general, these are not “nice” stories, although the same could be said about the originals in their pre-Disney forms. 

Ortberg does some interesting things with the stories. While some are pretty dark, all of them have an underlying wit and sense of humor. They are also more feminist than the originals - the women and girls are hardly passive sorts, waiting for a prince. Ortberg also bends genders in many of the stories. Kings will be female, queens male. A youngest daughter will be referred to as “he.” In the context of the stories, this will flip stereotypes, so that a male daughter will be renowned for beauty, a female son for her bravery, and so on. It makes for a disconcerting experience in some ways, because our language itself is based on a gender binary and assumes particular gendered traits. 

In some of the stories, there is pointed social commentary. In others, the point seems to be to imagine different points of view, as in “Fear Not: An Incident Log,” which retells portions of the book of Genesis from the viewpoint of the Angel of the Lord, filling out an incident report for every interaction with humans. Divine miracles as bureaucratic incidents, so to speak. 

Ortberg writes well. The twists and turns are carefully plotted, and spring on the reader unexpectedly. The language is matched to the stories, so they are to a degree “in the style of” the originals. For obvious reasons (see below), Ortberg is thoroughly fluent in the Bible, as well as “christianese” of the Evangelical variety. He brings out sly references to verses that are fairly obscure, and nods in the direction of tropes within the Evangelical subculture. Some of these might be unnoticed by those who didn’t grow up in that subculture, but they hit home for those of us who did. 

Here are a few lines which stood out. 

In “The Daughter Cells,” an underwater mermaid kingdom is described. The daughters get to do whatever they want with their little patch of, well, not land exactly, but area, I guess. 

At any rate, these girls didn’t own their patches of land, but they had the use of them, which made for good practice. They might ornament their allotted land with flowers, they might grow crops, or they might stuff it with old sea glass and bits of shipwrecked kettles, as they saw fit. The only way to teach the value of something is to give someone the chance to waste it - or at least that was how the thinking went under that particular administration.

That last line in particular struck me as interesting. I think it is more broadly true about humanity. 

How about this one, from the Genesis story?

They live all alone in their own heads, and shudder reflexively at the prospect of God’s imminence. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen a man spend all his life praying for union with the divine, only to shrink back and scrabble to return to his own skin once he realizes that the presence of the divine is coming for him...

Finally, there is an exchange in “The Frog’s Princess” that is true and disconcerting for that reason. 

“Beauty does not belong exclusively to you,” the man told his daughters. “Beauty is a public good, and you are responsible for it.”
“What does that mean, exactly?” the youngest daughter asked. The sun burned hot on his forehead. 
“It means - in a sense - that according to a certain understanding you belong to everyone,” the man said.
“By that reasoning,” his daughter said, “I belong at least partly to myself. Certainly at least as much as I belong to anybody else.”
“Don’t be clever,” his father said. “Go and play outside, where people can see you.”

This leads into some pointed, though oblique, comments on sexual harassment of young women. The whole story, actually, is a satire on male sexual entitlement and the expectation that women, by virtue of existing, exist to please men. 

The book is a pretty quick read, but it packs a lot of interesting ideas into its small size. If you like remixes of classic stories, you will definitely enjoy it. If you find gender bending and swapping intriguing, you will also like it. It’s worth a read. 


Note on Daniel Mallory Ortberg:

I first discovered Ortberg when he took over the Dear Prudence column at Slate Magazine from Emily Yoffe. Back then, he was Mallory Ortberg, fresh off co-founding the much-lamented late website, The Toast. (At least the old stuff is still online. So there’s that.) For a while thereafter, I didn’t think much about it. 

Later, though, I made the connection: he is the child of Evangelical pastor and author, John Ortberg. In fact, back when I was part of organized religion and identified as Evangelical, our former pastor used to quote John Ortberg a lot. And actually, as far as Evangelical author sorts go, his stuff was...pretty good. I don’t agree with all of the theology, but it was kindhearted and humble stuff, not the macho posturing and dogmatic assertion of so many others. 

However, Ortberg’s church is officially non-affirming of LGBTQ people. 

When Mallory announced that she was transitioning to Daniel, I was rather curious as to what his family made of it. Apparently, they are accepting of Daniel. I really wonder now how John Ortberg squares all of this. Does he just accept the cognitive dissonance? Or is he, like I suspect many Evangelicals, trapped between affirming personal beliefs, and the reality that he would lose his ministry if he came out as affirming? It’s an interesting question. 

It is easy to see some autobiographical stuff in The Merry Spinster; not details, but emotions. It is particularly fascinating since Daniel didn’t come out as transgender until the book was finished. This background explains why Daniel is so fluent in the language and subculture of Evangelicalism, and why he knows his Bible rather well. I am curious to read his next book, which is a collection of essays on, among other things, religion and gender identity.  


Just for fun, I have read and reviewed one other book written by a transgender person:

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