Sarah Schun-Lien Bynum “The Erlking”
Summer Fiction: 20 Under 40
July 5, 2010 “The New Yorker”

This short story felt like a cobbler baked with ingredients courtesy of Alice Hoffman, Tom Perotta, and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.

Oh, I know: some people hate it when someone says that a particular author’s work feels like a combination of other authors’ works.

And, sure, if they’re doing it out of laziness because they can’t think of anything else to say, then that’s not fair; if you’re going to chat about a book, it deserves a good reading.

And if they’re doing it out of meanness to suggest that the author’s work feels derivative and recycled, well that’s not fair either, because all these stories have been told before, haven’t they.

But I actually kind of appreciate the short-hand myself as a reader. And this particular short story brought all three of these writers to mind:

Hoffman for the way that Sarah Schun-Lien Bynum brings fairy-tale elements gently into the telling of Kate or Ondine’s story;
Perotta for the so-sharp commentary on the-new-Betty-Friedan-poster-girl-for-urban-parently-wifely-womanly-angst of Kate’s life; and
The Bluest Eye for Pecola’s sense of unbelonging reflected in Ondine’s awkwardness in her own skin.

Outwardly, you would think that Kate and Ondine (whose real name is Ruthie) have all sorts of comforts, but discomfort is at the heart of this story. Kate and Ruthie don’t quite fit. Or, at least, they don’t feel as though they fit. And that’s the important part. That, and also they desperately want to be noticed, to belong.

Kate is desperate indeed; she even drags Ruthie through the long application process for the Jewish Montessori Mommy & Me (even though they’re not Jewish) and their ultimate denial is a sore point:

“Week after week, she and her child has submitted themselves to the director’s appraising, professional eye, and, for all their earnest effort, they had still been found wanting. What flaw or lack did she see in them that they couldn’t yet see in themselves. Even though Kate spoke about the experience in a jokey, self-mocking way, she could tell that it made people uncomfortable to hear her ask this question, so she learned to do so silently, when she was driving around the city by herself or with Ondine asleep in the back of the car.”

Apparently I should have heard of Sarah Schun-Lien Bynum by now, and quite possibly I have and forgotten (she’s had short stories published in a number of notable magazines) but “The Erlking” will make that stick.

How about you? Have you read anything of hers?