Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Robert Coover's “The Crabapple Tree” was originally published in the January 12, 2015 issue of The New Yorker.
Robert Coover’s modern fairy tales, as published in The New Yorker, have been witty, arch, and wicked.
“The Crabapple Tree,” another in the series, has a different flavor: mordant, maybe, or darkly detached. Tart or sour are the words that come to mind.
Coincidentally, the Disney movie musical of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods (that fantastic amalgam of fairy tales for adults) has just opened. The New York Times calls it “splendid” and set in “a world ravaged by catastrophe.” The musical has this going for it: although the people are, in the end, alone in a cruel world, the bright light is that here and there they keep each other company and, occasionally, they are able to offer each other solace or help.
Coover’s story has none of that hopefulness. It’s more a story about story-telling than it is a story: everyone (or almost everyone) in this piece has a story, and some of the stories are stories told about someone else’s story. Kind of like us here — reading stories, retelling them, giving them our own take.
I get the sense that Coover’s not so enamored of everyone’s stories about stories. He has one character break the nose of another when someone accosts him with a story he’s heard about the guy’s wife. We’re talking about story as art versus story as gossip or story as witch hunting and the way we half see everything and have to use labels to interpret the world.
“The Crabapple Tree” has eight characters: Dickie-boy (a weakling), his father (the mostly absent guy who is also a drinker), Dickie-boy’s mother (the bleeder), his step-mother (the Vamp), and his step sister Marleen. Marleen is a kind of managerial older sister/performance artist. The most important character, however, may be the narrator, a now-old neighbor lady whose daughter was once a friend of Marleen’s. The narrator’s daughter, the police chief, and the fire chief round out the crew.
There is a kind of confusion to the story that put me off on my first run-through. Now I kind of think that confusion is part of Coover’s intent, as if he is replicating the way gossip and misunderstanding both garble real life.
The old woman is basically retelling the story of Marleen’s life. She says that Marleen had a gift — she could make people “well again.” But Marleen was also the kind of person who rattled people, scared them: when Marleen was around, the narrator says she would stumble and drop things. There is the whiff of witchery to Marleen — she talks to herself — although neither Coover nor the old lady uses the word itself. But there is also in Marleen the whiff of the artist — as someone who has a gift.
Things take a bad turn.
Then, one day, when Marleen was dragging him around by his soft ankles, his head broke off. That scared my daughter. She came home crying, though eventually she went back again. Marleen told her that her mother hated Dickie-boy and had cut his head off and then glued it back on without telling Marleen, so that the head would come off again while they were playing and she’d be blamed for it. But the police chief, who went to investigate the death, told me that, after talking with the boy’s folks, he was convinced it was just a tragic household accident that the little girl was inventing wild stories about.
They buried the boy under the crabapple tree, where his mother had also been buried. The narrator’s daughter hears from Marleen that her step-mother had cooked Dickie-boy in a stew and served it to his father (echoes of ancient Greece). The story is that Marleen was playing with the boy’s bones.
The police chief is sure it’s just a kid’s story. The fire chief actually accosts Dickie-boy’s dad on the subject and gets his nose broken. And then, in turn, Dickie-boy’s father dies.
That the Vamp had killed her stepson, poisoned her husband, abandoned her daughter, and gone on the run was the general opinion, but my daughter said she wasn’t so sure.
Marleen grows up, becomes very strange, and perhaps becomes a slut or a prostitute like her mother. “Over the years, we got used to thinking of Marleen as something eerie but mostly harmless at the edge of our lives.”
I really do not have a proper take on this story. It repelled me when I first read it, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Now I have read it carefully a second time. Usually, by this time, some sense of the author’s intent has occurred to me. Here, I just don’t know. The best I can do is that I sense a distinct distaste that the author has for the narrator, an old woman who enjoys retelling stories and perhaps getting them wrong. She enjoys her relationship to power (her flings with the police chief and the fire chief), and she seems to set herself up as an authority.
Finally, everyone at this farm is dead but Marleen. She eventually extends her house so as to protect the crab-apple tree — given that once “somebody tried to set fire to the tree.”
I would like to make something of all the significances: the tree, the deaths, the attacks, the story-telling, the outsider, the weakling, the step-mother, the survivor. But the story feels either too big or not big enough. I hope someone else will set me straight.
I wish the story called to me more. I have the sense it’s actually about the art of writing about a story: Marleen is the story-teller while the narrator (and everyone else) is the reader who just doesn’t get it and insists on retelling it anyway, with all her assumptions, misreadings, and voraciousness on display. The crabapple tree would then be inspiration or art or access to art, and Marleen the one who is the real story-teller. Note that Marleen doesn’t eat the apples. Marleen takes the tree as a whole, protects it. It is the narrator, not Marleen, who appears to have eaten the apples, given how she sours everything she touches.
I also note that the narrator, who fills in as the general reader, and the school teacher (who fills in as the school teacher) are both rattled by Marleen, as if some ordinary people are scared by art and put off by it, while Dickie-boy and other children have the ability to be healed by it. The story also, if seen in this vein, would be commenting on the inability of some ordinary people to see the truth in art, as well as the inability of some ordinary people to see the truth in life.
Or maybe winter and my cold office and the 2-below temperature outside all have me stymied. Maybe “The Crabapple Tree” is actually about something else entirely, like scapegoating. Maybe the story is actually about who’s-in-who’s-out and how they get there. I look forward to other people’s comments.