Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Russell Banks' "Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story"

"NOT my prince charming" by Dawn Huczek

In "Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story," an incredibly handsome narrator relates an unusual experiment where he pursues a relationship with a woman--Sarah Cole--simply because she is incredibly ugly. It's an engrossing read that uses a thoroughly self-conscious first person narration that doubles back upon itself, checking, clarifying and re-imagining what the reader has come to accept as fact. This kind of incessant rumination and re-imagining of things known is fitting for a story that author Russell Banks says was inspired by an urge to re-tell the "The Frog Prince" story from a male perspective.

He says:
John Gardner advised retelling the old stories, probably the best of all the advice he gave, and he gave plenty. That was for me the genesis of the story, a sort of formal 'what if...?' I simply plugged into the story the details of the world I happened to live in at the time, and of course reversed the gender dynamic of the story, and wrote it to see not what my story meant, but what the old 'original' story meant. It's how we come to know ourselves finally--by figuring out what our old stories really mean.1
This of course lends itself quite nicely to a writing exercise--retelling old stories by changing one integral element and depositing elements of the world you know into the world of the story you think you know. By employing the methods that Banks mentions--using details of the world you live in to help you explore the framework of a story that has already been told, and in this case, the retelling of a story that is hinged on magic as a plot device, you create a fable-like quality in stories that have mainly realist foundations. This is accomplished in "Sarah Cole" with an ending that conflates the two worlds, magical transformation made real and believable, the revelation at the end not 'magical' in the typical way, but surprising and cathartic.

1 Rooke, C., and Rooke, L. (1997). Conversation with Russell Banks. In C. Rooke and L. Rooke (Eds.), The Writer's Path: An Introduction to Short Fiction (pp. 892-895). Toronto, ON: International Thompson Publishing.

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