When Donald Barthelme took popular characters (Batman and the Joker) and placed them in unusual, postmodern situations in his short story “The Joker’s Greatest Triumph” (1967), he was doing something new: taking an old, familiar story and turning it inside out. He did something as daring when he reinvented the story of Snow White in his 1967 novel of the same name.
The importance of these literary experiments can be seen in the influence they have had on generations of writers. Now reinventions of popular stories (such as the inversion of the superhero comic in Alan Moore’s Watchmen) and retellings of fairy tales (like Gregory Maguire’s Wicked) are as common as a cold, but when my paperback edition of Snow White was reprinted in 1971, the experiment was unusual enough to warrant this statement on the back: “Donald Barthelme’s Snow White is not the fairy tale you remember. But it’s the one you will never forget.”
“She is a tall dark beauty,” the book begins, rather predictably, but then quickly veers off into strangeness, “containing a great many beauty spots: one above the belly, one above the knee, one above the ankle, one above the buttock, one on the back of the neck. All of these are on the left side, more or less in a row, as you go up and down:
The hair is black as ebony, the skin white as snow” (3).
We recognize the dark hair and white skin, but what of these birth marks, represented in my edition, not by asterisks but by thick black dots with a white spot in the middle, all in a perfectly straight column that would have been impossible on the curvaceous heroin? This odd reliance on typographical symbols on the first page of a novel, draws our attention to the markings on the page, in much the same way that Laurence Sterne drew our attention to the ink, letters and symbols on the page in his novel Tristram Shandy, published two hundred and fifty years earlier. (Read my post “Tristram Shandy ****s Up the Page.)
Nothing else appears on the first page. This strange bit of text is only a fragment and we must turn the page to get the next, unexpected line: “Bill is tired of Snow White now. But he cannot tell her. No, that would not be the way. Bill can’t bear to be touched. That is new too. To have anyone touch him is unbearable. Not just Snow White but also Kevin, Edward, Hubert, Henry, Clem or Dan” (4). Bill and the other six men are obviously the dwarfs, although there is never any mention of short stature in the novel. In early versions of the Snow White tale, these dwarfs did not have names, but thanks to Disney, now they do, cute names like “Dopey” and “Sneezy.” Rather than these, Barthleme gives us common, everyday names, pulling the fairy tale out of the realm of unnamed myth and cute Disney characters into the mundane reality of the modern world.
Not only are the names plain, but we learn that “Bill is tired of Snow White.” How could anyone get tired of Snow White? What kind of fairy tale is this? Bill also has become adverse to any kind of human touch. This is a psychological problems, rather than a mythical conflict between good and evil. “That is a peculiar aspect of Bill, the leader,” we read, “We speculate that he doesn’t want to be involved in human situations any more” (4). This “we” introduces another mystery of the novel. The narrator refers to the group as “we,” but he never uses the word “I” and refers to each character in the third person. The narrator cannot be pinned down to any single persona in the book. The narrator, then is both part of the story and apart from the story, a character in the story and an uninvolved spectator, troubling the role of the narrator in telling a story either from within or without the main events.
This unknown narrator even interrupts the story at one point to quiz the reader with questions like “Do you like the story so far? Yes ( ) No ( ).” He also tests the reader’s understanding of the story, asking, “Have you understood, in reading to this point, that Paul is the prince figure?” Such a question is less comprehension check, however, as it is help from the narrator in understanding the parallels between the fairy tale and this novel.
However, the narrator leaves the hardest work up to the reader: “Has the work, for you, a metaphysical dimension? Yes ( ) No ( )” and then asks, “What is it (twenty-five words or less)?” This last question is one of the most metafictional elements in any piece of metafiction, as the narrator is directly asking the reader to participate in the writing of the novel. The reader is supposed to pencil in an answer and actually add to the text. Whether the reader actually does this (I didn’t) is irrelevant. The invitation to become a coauthor (which is what Roland Barthes called the Writerly Reader) is undeniable. The narrator is inviting the reader to participate in the production of meaning. As for what that meaning is, I wouldn’t presume to take over your responsibility! The rest I will leave up to you.
In short, the book is not so much a retelling of the story of Snow White, as it is an examination of relationships, especially the relationship between the writer, the text, and the reader. Nowadays retellings of fairy tales are as common as a Hollywood, but few have managed to do them with such intelligence, insight, and wit as the great Barthelme.
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