Modern reality seen in lens of fairy tale

Bethanne Patrick

THE WASHINGTON POST – Certain authors have such mastery over the short story form that you never forget the first time you read their work. Lorrie Moore, for example. Jim Shepard. Deborah Eisenberg.

Add to that impressive list Sarah Shun-lien Bynum with her new collection, Likes, as evidence.

From the first piece (The Erlking) to the last (Bedtime Story), Likes lays out bread crumbs for the reader to follow. The fairy-tale reference deliberate given that several of the stories play on those weird fables we tell children. The Young Wife’s Tale subverts the princess trope with a tale of a king whose beauty and bravery “disturb” women even after his death. The Bears follows a writer who learns that there are far more frightening things than woodland creatures. Even the title story reminds us that fairy tales continue to exist: A father peers into the world of his daughter’s Instagram, where girls attempt to fashion stories out of incomprehensible images. “New Instagram post: a peeled-off pair of ballet tights, splayed on the white tiles of a bathroom floor.”

Likes may cause some discomfort. Girls, with their swift and mysterious pubescent metamorphoses, unsettle themselves, their parents and society. But it’s all part of Shun-lien Bynum’s breadcrumb path that starts with childhood and ends with womanhood.

She’s tracing seasons in the lives of female characters, from the early years in which they attend Waldorf School fairs replete with elves, fairies and compostable lemonade cups through middle-school nicknames and midlife sadness. She’s not tracing them in a linear fashion; the stories each take place in specific lives and milieus.

Tell Me My Name, the second story in the book, focusses on happily settled Los Angeles friends who live next door to once-famous Manhattan club icon Betti Pérez, a dead ringer for Dita von Teese or perhaps Debbi Mazar, “She has arching eyebrows and the smallest possible pores, flat red lipstick. She must be at least 45-years-old! You’d never know it, because her skin is amazing.”

Betti’s looks are important to this story, especially at a point where the unnamed narrator sees relief “do something strange to Betti’s face. For the first time I see a trace of looseness there, the slight heaviness under her jaw, or how her foundation lies dustily on top of her skin.” If women are the central characters in Likes, time is the villain that stalks them: The seconds in which a mother turns away from her little girl. The long wait for a king to die. A longed-for creative residency turned sour, the momentary dopamine hits of Instagram attention, the slow currying of favour to gain attention from a man.

Shun-lien Bynum allows her characters to believe they’ve seen the truth, but shows her readers that the characters – like us – rarely get it right. Likes is a short-story collection you should read slowly, but it’s so good, each story at such a high-wire level, that you’ll wind up tearing through it and wishing for more.