“The Merry Spinster,” Mallory Ortberg

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It is with great excitement that I post this, the first ever edition of Lit, He Wrote.

This blog has, from the beginning, been an effort to celebrate diverse voices that are commonly marginalized, or generally “othered.” This, of course, came to reflect my own personal experience as a cisgendered woman. I don’t want this blog—and, in turn, my reading—to be limited by what I find the most relatable. That isn’t progress. The net must be cast wider.

Plus, Mal Ortberg is, like, legend status to me. For all he has done and continues to do for inclusivity, feminism, and everything in general, he belongs here.

In The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror, Ortberg reimagines folk tales and biblical stories, incorporating dark and terrifying twists. The stories are brimming with Ortberg’s signature humor and bravado, but gravitas is never lost. With every tongue-in-cheek reference to a familiar tale, you’re also side-swiped by dark reflections of humanity and gender. These moments, the ones that are closest to reality, become the most chilling of all.

In “The Six Boy-Coffins,” for instance, amidst the epic, mystical backdrop, Ortberg writes:

“She was beginning to the learn the danger of silence, and that someone who wishes to hear a yes will not go out of his way to listen for a no.”

This is more than a dose of reality. It’s a knockout punch. A person does not write something like that without having put more than a little thought into the subject of gender and consent. It haunts me.

Many of these tales call the gender binary into question. The more Ortberg bends gender conventions, the more they seem to dissolve. Women deciding whether to be wives or husbands? Sure! A daughter who uses he/him pronouns? Sign me the hell up. These details catch you off-guard, personally, I found myself reflecting on my own programming. No matter how aware I am of the archaic nature of gender roles, no matter how oppressive I find them, I’m still trained to recognize them as the norm. Unlearning is perhaps one of the most difficult things someone can be asked to do.

Beneath the delightful and winding turns of phrase, there’s an inherent vulnerability. From the gaslighting of Toad to the disintegrating home life of the Fisherman, we are given insight into the effects of toxic relationships on mental health. The Fisherman, in particular, stood out. Ortberg has re-envisioned Grimm’s tale in such a way that offers an even darker twist. The Fisherman wants only to see his friend happy, and willingly gives all he can in order to make it so. But, the more he gives, the greater the friend’s abuse becomes, until finally the Fisherman says, “I do not know how to stop hurting you… I must be doing something very wrong.” Anyone who’s endured emotional abuse is likely familiar with this feeling. This is what most endears me to Ortberg’s writing. Woven neatly within the intellectual wit and crescendos of absurd humor there is a heart beating in all its terrible, wonderful glory.

The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror will be available in stores on March 13th.

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