What Can We Steal From Sheila Kohler’s “Magic Man”?
Title of Work and its Form: “Magic Man,” short story
Author: Sheila Kohler (on Twitter @sheilakohler)
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story debuted in the April 2012 issue of Yale Review. Elizabeth Strout and Heidi Pitlor subsequently chose the piece for Best American Short Stories 2013.
Bonuses: Here is the New York Times review of Becoming Jane Eyre, Ms. Kohler’s 2009 novel. Ms. Kohler writes a column for Psychology Today. You can find her essays here. Here is what Karen Carlson thought of “Magic Man.”
Want to see Sheila Kohler and Edmund White discuss fiction? Say, “Thanks The Center For Fiction!”
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Classic Forms
The story is not very long, but it is powerful. Sandra and her children live in Europe, but they are on vacation in South Africa. She has three daughters; S.P. is the oldest, but Jessamyn, the youngest, is Sandra’s favorite. Ms. Kohler releases the story in an interesting fashion. While the whole story is told in the third person, each section alternates between a third person narrator limited first to Sandra’s perspective and then to S.P.’s. Sadly, the story is a kind of cautionary fairy tale. Eight-year-old S.P. wanders off for a bathroom break and some alone time. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work out that way. (I’m being vague because you should just read the darn story!)
Ms. Kohler notes that the story was inspired by “Der Erlkönig,” a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and the folk tales that inspired it. It just so happens that I have a history with that poem. In fact, it’s one of the few that I have committed to memory. (That list is pretty much limited to “Der Erlkönig,” “To Be or Not to Be” and “Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles onions on a sesame seed bun.”) Frau Coulter (rest in peace!) had us memorize the poem in first-year German. She was right; my interactions with German have all related to “Der Erlkönig” in some way.
Goethe composed the poem in 1782 and Franz Schubert famously used the text in one of his lieder. Many a young person has sung this song in school voice lessons and competitions.
Frau Coulter led us in numerous group readings of each stanza and tested us on solo recitations. I guess “Der Erlkönig” was primarily a homework assignment at the time, but I loved pronouncing the strange words that were made up of such exotic sounds. I loved the rhyme and the meter. And I loved the story. The poem begins “in medias res:”
Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind?
Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind;
Er hat den Knaben wohl in dem Arm,
Er faßt ihn sicher, er hält ihn warm.
What does that all mean? Goethe’s work is in the public domain. Many translations are not. I therefore present my terrible, awful translation of the first stanza:
Who is that riding through the inclement weather so late at night?
It is the father with his child.
He has the little boy wrapped safely in his arm,
He holds the boy tightly, he keeps the boy warm.
The existential threat is out there in Goethe’s work, nipping at the heels of father and son. The same is true in “Magic Man.” Little S.P. tells her siblings stories about this supernatural, fantastic creature, a man who can turn you into a toad if he likes. (Perhaps a reference to Der Froschkönig?) S.P. is being pursued as much as the boy in “Der Erlkönig” was. We meet the “magic man” through her perspective; he’s as charming and persuasive as the titular villain of Goethe’s poem. The Magic Man tempts S.P. with the prospect of playing with his lonely son, just as Der Erlkönig tempts the boy with his daughters:
“Willst, feiner Knabe, du mit mir gehn?
Meine Töchter sollen dich warten schön;
Meine Töchter führen den nächtlichen Reihn,
Und wiegen und tanzen und singen dich ein.”
My terrible translation that is so bad that it’s better termed an “approximation:”
Will you come with me, you fine little boy?
My daughters will take care of you.
My daughters lead the dances at night,
And they will cradle, dance and sing with you.
In “Magic Man,” Ms. Kohler appropriates the form of the fairy tale. See how close “Magic Man” is to a Grimm Brothers story? To a Hans Christian Andersen story? (And to “Der Erlkönig”?) Now, the Magic Man is the only “conceivably supernatural” element of the piece, but many other fairy tale conventions are present:
- A child who is old enough to be a little independent
- That child leaves the safety of parents/home
- The child goes on a journey through nature all alone
- The child encounters some kind of danger while on his or her own
- The antagonist demands something of great value from the protagonist
What’s the overall lesson here? “Steal” these classic forms and bring them into the current day. Where would you put a contemporary Hansel and Gretel? I’ve always wanted to write some story inspired by “Unter der linden.” (Although I’m guessing it would be more of a romance. One hopes.) The specifics of any form may change, I suppose, but many thematic concepts will remain constant. Think about horror movies; the big baddies change depending on society’s great fears at the time.
Most of the story is told in the present tense. This is a wonderful choice for the kind of story that Ms. Kohler is telling; it’s a young girl going out into the woods to meet a kind of monster. Ms. Kohler ends the story with an interesting move, violating the structure she established. In the last section told from the third person narrator limited to Sandra’s perspective, Ms. Kohler makes a leap from the present to the future simple tense:
Years later, she will remember that moment of rage…and she will feel the rage again…she will feel…
Ordinarily, switching tense or perspective is a mistake. It’s up to the writer to make the switch “okay.” Ms. Kohler makes the POV switching okay by adding white space between sections, thereby informing the reader of what she’s doing. I like Ms. Kohler’s tense change because it comes near the end of the story and it doesn’t contain a great deal of action. It makes sense because the emotion of “rage” certainly fits with the emotion the reader has when thinking about S.P.’s situation at the time. Perhaps most importantly from a writing perspective, this tense change makes the next one okay.
The last paragraph, according to the rules Ms. Kohler established, is told from Sandra’s perspective:
Years later, when her sister is dead, killed by her husband driving the car off the road, her child will tell her the whole story…
Now THAT is much more of a quantum leap than the last tense shift, right? Stuff happened! The characters do more than just feel emotions. Ms. Kohler prepared us for this leap, making it feel perfectly natural.
Tense and time shifts are perfectly valid storytelling techniques; they just need to be employed properly. Think of one of the finest films in cinema history:
Demolition Man begins as John Spartan is trying to rescue hostages that are being held by Simon Phoenix. Spartan fails and he is blamed for the dead civilians. Both Spartan and Phoenix are cryogenically frozen for their crimes. The narrative of the film simply jumps ahead 36 years. Are we mad? Nope. The director gives us a million clues to let us know that things have changed. (Just as Ms. Kohler eased us into the possibility that she would zip into the future in the last paragraph.)
What Should We Steal?
- Create modern examples of classic forms. Contemporary folks may be a little less likely to believe in witches, but we’ll always have equivalent figures.
- Prepare your reader for the judicious changes in tense and time frame that you make. Your narrator can take us anywhere and anytime…so long as your changes make sense.