Sarah Shun-lien Bynum: “The Erlking”

Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s “The Erlking” was originally published in the July 5, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.

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Since her name was among those in the 20 Under 40 list, I have looked up Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s other works, including her National Book Award finalist Madeleine Is Sleeping and her PEN/Faulkner finalist Ms. Hempel Chronicles. I have read neither book and none of her short stories, but I am intrigued with what people are saying about them.  Because of this, and because “The Erlking” is one of my favorite dark tales, I was really looking forward to this story. Sad to say, I didn’t care for it.

I read this story twice, hoping that my second read would reveal something to change my feeling of “huh?” Here we have Kate and her young daughter Ondine (but Ondine only answers to Ruthie). The last little while has been very hard on Kate because she can’t seem to get Ruthie into any good schools. Subjecting herself and her daughter to intense sessions of scrutiny only to be denied a place at the end (“What flaw or lack did she see in them that they couldn’t yet see in themselves?).

The story begins when Kate and Ruthie go on an outing at the Waldorf school, a school they didn’t apply to and that they probably wouldn’t have gotten into anyway (it’s very expensive, apparently). The school has put on a pleasant fairy-tale fair for the children.

It is just as Kate hoped. The worn path, the bells tinkling on the gate. The huge fir trees dropping their needles one by one. A sweet mushroomy smell, gnomes stationed in the underbrush, the sound of a mandolin far up on the hill. “We’re here, we’re here,” she says to her child, who isn’t walking fast enough and needs to be pulled along by the hand. Through the gate they go up the dappled path, beneath the first, across the school parking lot and past the kettle-corn stand, into the heart of the Elve’s Faire.

The story proceeds to shift perspectives from Kate to Ondine and back and forth. Ondine’s segments are written in the voice of a very small child, where thought runs to thought to thought:

She has a sneaky feeling that the man is holding a present under his cape. It’s supposed to be a surprise. A surprise that is small and very delicate, like a music box, but when you open it it just goes down and down, like a rabbit hole, and inside is everything — everything — she has wanted: stickers, jewels, books, dolls, high heels, pets, ribbons, purses, toe shoes, makeup. You can’t even begin to count! Part of the present is that she doesn’t have to choose. So many special and beautiful things, and she wants all of them — she will have all of them — and gone is the crazy feeling she gets when she’s in Target and needs the Barbie Island Princess Styling Head so badly that she thinks she’s going to throw up.

Kate’s sections are filled with a bit of shame for not getting into the schools and for not having much money and an attitude of make-today-special-for-Ondine, even though Ondine is making things difficult when she throws a tantrum because her mother cannot see the man in the cape who has the presents. She thinks her mother has ruined her chances and that the man will choose another girl.

So, you can see that the story of the Erlking has been transported to the present, as it has been before, that the genders have shifted from father and son to mother and daughter, and in this case the daughter is brown and not a German youth. Now, what it all means in the end is something I can’t figure out. I’m familiar with the legend, I’m familiar with parenting (though not a daughter), I’m familiar with the ridiculous things parents have to do if they want to get into some select schools, but the ending is a complete mystery to me. Who is this man in the cape, besides the Erlking come to take the child. If this is the present day, what does that mean? I’m left with the suspicion that the story itself isn’t controlled well, though the writing is fine, if not spectacular. Any of your thoughts are greatly appreciated.

9 thoughts on “Sarah Shun-lien Bynum: “The Erlking””

  1. My thoughts on “The Erlking” above. I don’t get it. I have some theories but none of them seem to warrant this short story, so I’m left wondering if it’s me or kind of a bric-a-brac story that lacks cohesion and is more meant to menace slightly.

  2. Joe says:

    Overall, I rather liked this story, although, like Trevor, I’m not quite sure I know what to make of it.

    In any case, I took the story to be a sort of exploration of how we ultimately lose our children despite our best efforts to keep them close to us and to guide them through life. Like any parent (especially modern ones), Kate frets over every decision for her child. Meanwhile, Ondine has a very active and very different life going on inside her (on an outward level, she even refuses to use her given name). So I guess I took the Erlking/straw man to represent the outside forces that inevitably pull children in directions that their parents cannot fathom or even recognize.

    Well, that’s my interpretation of the whole thing. Unless, of course, I’ve completely missed the point and the story is actually an extended metaphor for the human digestive system.

  3. I thought about that angle, Joe, and then read it again to see if the story could support it. I couldn’t figure out how this menacing strawman fit into that, though, nor could I figure out the kids sucking thumbs or the dolls. Or John C. Reilly. What was that all about? That’s why I think the story was well written but not well controlled. Many things just don’t fit into that interpretation. I do think the loss of childhood is what the last few lines are talking about, but that almost made it feel like an afterthought, as if the tale were written and then needed some reason for being. Talk about strawmen.

  4. Tim says:

    The whole John C. Reilly bit seemed completely out of place.

  5. Tim R. says:

    Did anyone see any connections to e.e. cummings “In just Spring” in which the goat-footed balloon-man,like a mythical satyr, leads the children away from their innocence? I thought John C. Reilly and almost everything else mom was thinking about were simply the distractions that kept her from seeing who her child really was. She knew what she wanted for Ruthie, but she didn’t want to do the real work of understanding her own child. As a teacher, I see these kinds of parents all the time.

  6. I didn’t think of the e.e. cummings poem, but I think that’s a good point. I also think your point about John C. Reilly is insightful, though I have to say it didn’t help the story for me. Those distractions were just too distracting because they suggest to the reader that importance lies somewhere else (and not in a way to make me connect with the mother). For example, when talking about John C. Reilly, why the “Daddy and I respect him a lot. He makes really interesting choices.” I feel a line like that, placed in its own paragraph when the mom is in a reflective state, sighing, should have some real significance, but I can’t get there.

    As sad as it is to miss your child’s childhood because you’re not paying attention, as common an occurrence as that is, this story doesn’t do that common theme justice because it feels very imbalanced — at least, it doesn’t do it justice from my perspective yet, anyway, though I’ll probably read it again because it’s still bothering me.

  7. Ken says:

    Back to disagreeing I am. I agree, though, that the Erlking theme is not particularly graceful in its inclusion. A child wouldn’t know this reference and yet I don’t think we believe a real Erlking is actually going to scoop up little Ondine. Otherwise, though, I really enjoyed the shifts of perspective and the stylish writing. In terms of content, I liked the satire and also the intelligent portrait of two different desiring-machines, adult and child, and how they disagree. I’m find that stories with a sort of stream-of-consciousness style interiority (Ferris, Galchen) are often ones I like and you don’t. Coincidence?

  8. I’m glad you’re back, Ken! I’ve been thinking a lot about what you wrote:

    I’m find that stories with a sort of stream-of-consciousness style interiority (Ferris, Galchen) are often ones I like and you don’t. Coincidence?

    Hopefully over the course of several stories we’ll figure out where our differences lie. I don’t think it’s here, though. I admire stream-of-consciousness writing a great deal. In my thesis I devoted a chapter to Mrs. Dalloway, one of my favorite novels, then and now. (Incidentally, my thesis is hardly a scholarly work. I’m not particularly proud of it or even of the time I spent writing it, but I mention it here just to show that I admired a book and style enough to think I should spend my time with it.) Another all-time favorite is A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which I revisit far more than any other book. These were written nearly 100 years ago, though. (wow) I think my problem with the contemporary stuff I read is that I don’t see the stream-of-consciousness as a technique to reveal character or theme but rather as a quick way to insert voice into a story and to feign intimacy. I’m a big fan of voice, but sometimes I feel overwhelmed by it in contemporary fiction (at the same time I’m underwhelmed by the effect) and often don’t think there’s much under the technique. In fact, I am often upset that the style choice seems to be an evasive maneuver, so it seems a technique the author develops to write a lot while saying little.

    I don’t think I have a bias against it though. Maybe. But for a contemporary take on the style, and one that remains incredibly direct, I loved Maile Meloy’s short story “Paint” from her first collection Half in Love.

    My problems with “The Erlking” were not stylistic. I actually really liked the writing and the two voices we come to know. I read it three times, and one of the main reasons for that was because I thought the writing was excellent. I really wanted there to be more to the story than that, though, and the other reason I read this one three times is that I didn’t see much behind the writing of the two characters’ consciousness. I appreciate that we get two diverging viewpoints, both with the distractions of the fair, and what this reveals about the mother-child relationship both in the story and in society in general. I wanted more than that, though, in a story so intricately written and one based on such a fascinating tale.

    I do really like how you phrase it, though: “two different desiring-machines.” With just that little bit of insight and shift in perspective, I am reminded of what I enjoyed in this story.

  9. Ken says:

    I am so tickled by your careful, thoughtful responses and look forward to reading your comments after I read each story. This is exactly where the blog and the internet can really allow actual content-based discussion between people who (respectfully) disagree about an area they both are passionate about. BTW, Portrait of the Artist is one of my favorite books and I hardly would place much of today’s interior writing on the level of it or Faulkner or Proust. Also BTW, The phrase “desiring-machine” comes from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s “Anti-Oedipus.”

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