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Wolf Parts by Matt Bell

Wolf Parts by Matt Bell

Reviews, Vol. 4.2, June 2010
Keyhole Press, 2010
Paperback, 50 pp., $8
Review by Cynthia Reeser

The epigraph to Wolf Parts comes from Kate Bernheimer, editor of Fairy Tale Review, who writes that “Fairy tales see things as they are. To be real is to know the consequences of becoming. Never to own, and always to die.” Bernheimer’s words could not have been selected more carefully, more particularly, speaking as they do to the reality of fairy tales, which so often acknowledge the persistence and finality of death; Never to own, indeed—nothing, not even the body, is ultimately, finally, one’s own.

Here, the tales themselves are wolf parts, literal fractured fairy tales, written and rewritten and splintered and pieced back together to reflect the myriad possibilities of story. Wolf Parts is the quintessential fairy tale dissected. The characters that traditionally accompany the wolf are those he is linked to in endless, circular inevitability, an inevitability as certain as death. These are parts, episodes, and retellings, that indicate both an attempt to break the cycle and the characters’ enslavement toward it; there is the resulting failure to escape the binds of story and myth, which ironically, refuse to be broken. Story proves itself stronger than its players:

After Red cut herself out of the wolf’s belly […] she again found herself standing on the path that wound through the forest toward her grandmother’s house. […] Afterward, she went to her grandmother’s, where she again discovered the wolf devouring the old woman, and where he waited to devour her too, as he had before. Once again, she was lost, and once again, she cut herself out of his belly and back onto the stony path.

The retelling over generations of fairy tales, and how the story lives as such, is made real by its countless retellings and generational re-readings: It is through this that the story, a reflection of reality, is made real and given voice and life, a life that human characters cannot take with them in the end—and there is always an end. Story itself, as made evident in Wolf Parts, represents the persistence of death in the human life cycle and yet captures an immortality that humanity will never be able to achieve, but that its representatives do. It is story as art, as immortal, a signpost to humanity that states, This is who we are/this is who we were. Bell writes of Red that “she trusted her grandmother, even though it hurt worse than anything that had come before”: the power of story is evident in the ultimate trust it draws from us.

The episodic structure lends itself to the mincing and dissection of the fairy tale, and with each page (the tales are never more than a page in length), Little Red, the wolf, and the grandmother all turn and return to their natural capacities, at the beginning of every tale existing simultaneously in both their pre- and post-horror states: the wolf is always ready to engorge himself on the flesh of the women, and they always climb, scratch, bite, or knife their way out of his stomach or the bed, ever-fated.

Even beyond the book’s episodic structuring, the rhythm of the syntax points to the fatedness of its characters, to the rhythm inherent in the retelling and in the timelessness of the fairy tale. For instance, Bell writes, “And then on the third day, a knock, and on the third knock, a voice.” In this particular episode, the grandmother lies in her bed at the mercy of the tale: “Raise the latch, she cried, before she’d fully heard the voice, and certainly before she realized how deep it was, and how terribly unlike a little girl’s.” And so the story goes, and there is no hope of escape from the narrative.

The wolf remains the villain, as he is also at the mercy of story, even when the narrative twists and the women turn against him. The tales evolve thematically over the course of the book, holding on to a thread for several episodes, and then suddenly turning everything on its head. Through this, Bell not only distills the essence of story, but also of narrative, which itself becomes nearly a character, one that is mostly invisible, but powerful as story. When it is Little Red who wields the knife, it is she who is positioned as pack leader, teaching in one particular instance the young girls sent out in sacrifice to the wolf in the forest how to assail their attacker.

As with the evolutions and introductions of variables that tend to occur with fairy tales throughout generations and across continents, every episode represents a possibility, a branching off of the tale in a universe of alternates, but most importantly, these nuances represent interpretation. There is room for variation, as Bell seems to indicate: “I say wolf, but of course there are various kinds of wolves.” Even aside from the presence of variability, there is the persistence of roles. Every character has an essential role that (s)he does not veer from. The wolf is always the fanged, slavering beast, the representation of all that is cruel and unjust in the natural world, and Little Red is always Little Red, always a figure of the feminine, even when she is perpetrator rather than victim.

When, one time, the wolf commands Little Red to strip off her clothes, she removes everything but the cape: “she wore only her red cape and hood, which she would not remove, no matter how urgently he pleaded.” Her refusal to remove the cape indicates not so much an unwillingness as an inability to step outside her role: after all, who else could she be? She can exist as none other than Little Red Riding Hood just as she will always be female, just as the wolf will always be the wolf. Their roles are fixed, even when a sort of thematic turning point occurs: Little Red becomes an adult and incites the feminine revenge against the tormentor who has not only consumed her and her ilk, but who has raped her time and again.

Identity is also questioned through the interchangeability of roles. What could it mean, such fluidity of identity? Bell writes, “If the wolf had always been the wolf, and the grandmother always the grandmother, why did Red so often struggle to tell them apart?” Sometimes, when the wolf has control over the girl, he bids her to consume the grandmother, and she is turned ravenous beast, transformed into an insatiate carnivore: “Clenching her fork and knife in her tiny fists, she searched the empty platters, and when she found nothing else to eat, she clambered quickly toward the yawning wolf, hungry for more.” Transformation, when it takes place, does so at the level of story and character: what ascension is there, after all, beyond that, if not into the realm of theory and rhetoric?

And the moral of it all?

If I told you the wolf deserved this lonely end, that his slow, struggling starvation was justified, then that would be one kind of tale. But he was not a moral wolf, and this was never about to become a moral story, no matter how it ended.

The moral is that sometimes there is none. Sometimes, a wolf is just a wolf.

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