The philosopher Immanuel Kant had a famously rigid attachment to his daily walk. Clad in a threadbare coat that he steadfastly refused to replace, he perambulated without fail each day, home in plenty of time for his self imposed bedtime. Nothing hindered this walk. That is, until he read Rousseau’s Emile. So perplexed and overcome was Kant by a view of human nature as positively romantic as what he encountered in Emile that he is said to have missed his walk several days in a row. Later, the philosopher digested the lesson learned and came to see that the moral law is written in each human heart (and a starry sky above!). Perhaps encountering the true dignity and beauty of a human being ought to throw us all into a reverie. Perhaps we all ought to be taking more walks… or neglecting them as the case may be.
In J. Mulrooney’s new book of short stories, The Day Immanuel Kant Was Late, we learn in the title story of another mysterious encounter that gives philosophical pause. Kant changes his coat (!) and in so doing casts a philosophical shadow. It is in this shadow that nature becomes an oracle for the reader. The opening line is striking,
As they did every year, the weeds in the meadow announced the arrival of spring in Koenigsberg.
Compare with a traditional fairy-tail trope about the flowers blooming every year in the spring and we already have a juxtaposition intimating a hint of despair. It is in this atmosphere that Kant sets forth. A nearby bee hive is full of camaraderie, but even so is a prophetic voice proclaiming that individuality is an illusion. A flower rooted nearby waits patiently for a bee to pollinate her so she can make a seed. She struggles in vain for love, but instead finds mistreatment from her suitors and creeping danger from the encroaching weeds. Meanwhile the sun moves on and all is left in a chill.
Is philosophy a vain pursuit? It almost seems as if the very concept of an interior moral law is belied by the brute forces that direct the exterior world. Kant seems to be the only one missing the delicate interactions of nature, his mind a million miles away pondering idealistic constructions, or, is it in fact the mind of Kant working tirelessly that imposes the narrative we are reading? I would guess the former, based on his callous interaction with both flower and bee. In the end, Kant is gone. The bees are gone. The flower is gone. The weeds remain. The philosopher is late getting home and the reader is left with the stinging reality of death.
This is only the first short story of many others. What follows is a collection that is creative and whimsical. The stories are written with a light hand. The prose moves along quickly and the author avoids the trap of being over-writing. For instance, from “Simon and the Economy of Salvation”,
“I thought you wanted to marry me.”
Simon had said so, it was true. But he did not mean it anymore. It was obvious that things said at certain moments in life were not binding. He did not explain to Gloria, however, whom he knew would be incapable of understanding. Instead, he told her he did not know whether he still believed in marriage as an institution.
The humor is deft and I laughed out loud many times, particularly endearing is Oholiob the goat from Israel explaining how he became the scapegoat,
“So, thanks God, they didn’t take me nowhere near the slaughterhouse…they take me to the river…In fact, I have a bit of lower back pain even to this day, and I blame it on that cold river on that very night.”
There is a wide variety of topics and characters but it all holds together as each one is presented quite consciously to be living in a fairy tale of sorts. Some of the stories are quite shocking (“graceless” as the author titles one section) but never vulgar, and the actions and thoughts of the characters reveal the temptations and struggles each of us faces within our own hearts. Here, it is out in the open: a beating heart in a toilet, a mathematical representation of a life that seems incoherent, the way an untrue song is a danger to all of creation. In a day when sophisticated writing has devolved into postmodern pablum, it is quite refreshing to read stories that take place in a moral universe and place characters within it who, although not perfect by a long shot, are confronted by deep, unmovable mysteries. In the absence of such a moral universe, literature is at risk of becoming a caricature. No such danger here.
I asked the author, J. Mulrooney, a few basic questions, hoping that by being hilariously vague he might be tempted to reply at length. I was not disappointed.
What is the importance of continuing to read and write fairy tales?
A great question – it would take a book to answer it properly! If you’re ever in upstate NY, let’s get together and have a beer over this one. I’ll just touch on a few things here.
Fairy tales are really the bones of stories. We’ve lost sight of that, I think – we tend to think Ernest Hemingway showed us the bones of stories, with his clipped phrases and ‘How little can I say and still tell you’ ethic. I love Hemingway, but I think, far from writing the bones of story, he should be considered a stylist, no less than Henry James or William Faulkner – someone who has a peculiar and fruitful line of attack, but not someone who reveals the simplest kind of story. If you look at stories from naïve cultures, you find Homer, Beowulf, Gilgamesh, the Tain, stories of wild imagination. You don’t find “ ‘Isn’t love any fun?’ Marjorie said. ‘No,’ Nick said” stories.
(Tolkien’s phrase was the Tree of Story, in which case fairy tales would be the root of the tree, out of which other kinds of tales grow. Maybe that’s a better metaphor than bones.)
One of the things that happens when you get too far from the root is the problem of the Baroque – after a while all the filigrees and motion and technical fireworks leave you longing for the beauty of a clean line. Or think of Modernist music – there’s some Schoenberg that I really like, but ultimately a music that rejects melody isn’t going to satisfy. There’s something that Irish folksongs or “Oh Danny Boy” or even Paul McCartney singing “Yesterday” bring to the table that an alarming number of 20th century composers missed. When writers turn their backs on fairy tales, they’re running that danger.
So that’s one kind of answer to the question. Another, perhaps better answer would be to say, “Because they’re beautiful.” For me, the Grimm stories, Hans Christian Andersen, Hawthorne’s “Tales of the Puritans” are just incredibly moving in a way that “The Sun Also Rises” is not. To use the folksong analogy again, Paul Robeson singing “Loch Lomond” or “Danny Boy” brings a tear to the eye. “Moses und Aron” and Stravinsky mostly don’t.
A third answer would be to quibble on “fairy tale”. In a “real” fairy tale, all characters are the reader – ie, not only are you Snow White, you’re also a wicked narcissistic stepmother capable of destroying people you love; and you have inside you a handsome prince that can win the battle and awake you from slumber. Fairy stories teach you that, regardless of what’s in you, your passive endangered beautiful self – your inner princess – will someday meet and marry the strength and power and rightful position that you somehow lost – your inner prince – and the rotten parts of your character will be defeated by your goodness. My stories aren’t fairy stories in that strict sense, but they share fairy tale elements.
What is your favorite fairy tale?
A friend of mine gave me a book of faux Russian folktales, “The Spiritual Meadow”, by the modernist Aleksej Remizov. One story on the Passion is called “The Kingdom of Darkness”, and it’s just terrific. That story helped me write my own favourite, “The Devil’s Confession”. Besides the Remizov stories, I love the things you’d expect – the Grimms, Andersen, Hawthorne. I think I’d read Lord of the Rings about 5 times by age eleven. I love all the pre-war stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer: “Satan in Goray”, “The Manor”, “Gimpel the Fool”, “Isaac the Slave”, so many great stories. Tolstoy’s pious tales. Those aren’t quite fairy tales, but share some fairy tale elements.
You have mentioned in the past that you insist on writing 500 words a day, are you still fulfilling your quota?
No, I have been sadly remiss in the past little while! I mentioned I have a novel coming out, so there’s been a lot of messing about punching old work into shape, rereading and rewriting, so my 500 new words per day has fallen off a bit. Not good!
In what way has your faith shaped the way you write?
I’m a cradle Catholic, the son of cradle Catholics, went to Catholic schools and a Catholic university, married a lovely Catholic girl. So in one way I’m just what Heidegger wants to make fun of, trapped in my little Catholic prisonhouse of words and meanings. I probably have so many Catholic reflexes that if I was writing atheist propaganda it would be Catholic atheist propaganda. But the heck with him. I think the better in touch with reality you are, the better you can express reality. If your view of reality includes saints and angels, devils and hell, those things will find their way into your fiction.
Even in the “Graceless Tales” or “Family Stories”, there’s a sense of those things. There’s a story in the book about a boy who is kidnapped by his mother and has just an awful couple of years. It’s realistic in style and tone, but mentions St Christopher in the title. Saint Christopher, you likely know, tried to carry a small boy across a river, but as they crossed, the river became deeper and deeper and the boy surprisingly heavier and heavier. The moment of crisis came when Christopher was sure he would have to drown if he continued to carry the boy. But he held on and continued with the water sometimes covering his head, and made it, exhausted, to the other side. None of that is mentioned in my story, but the relevance is clear: the kidnapped boy lives the life we all lead when we live without grace, when we live among people who turn away from God’s call. It was his parents’ time to help the boy through the river, but they were not saints, they dropped him and swim for it on their own. Even in an ugly story like that, the meaning a Christian sees may be different from the meaning taken by someone without faith.
The other thing I should say about faith interacting with my writing is that it allows me to focus on the work. There’s always a temptation to compromise and write something ‘commercial’ (whatever that means, since the most unlikely things end up selling); or to give up altogether and ignore the whole writing thing. Frederica Mathewes-Greene said to me recently that there are about 750,000 self-published books in America this year – and a lot of those are pornography or fan fiction about “The Gilmore Girls” or things your mom might like but no one else would – and 250,000 professionally published books. In a market like that, why would anyone with sense even bother? Breaking through the blague is more difficult than ever, because even after you break through everyone is swamped with 1,000,000 other books. And yet, the great thing about writing stories is the opportunity to make something good and lovely. And if I succeed in making something good and lovely, God knows about it. So I can think, I always have an audience that matters to me. I think it would be harder if I were an atheist: all that time ignoring people, ignoring my wife, children, friends, work – to do something that no one at all would ever care about. I think if I did not believe in God the whole enterprise would take on a desperate character.
Do you want to give us a teaser about your forthcoming novel?
Thank you for asking! In tone, it’s along the lines of the “Philosophical Fables” section of the short story book: a bit smart-alecky, playing with philosophy and theology, and yet with characters who are still (I hope) recognizable as real people. I’m working on a contract with a publishing house for it now, hopefully that all goes through. The target publication date should be spring 2015.
The title is “An Equation of Almost Infinite Complexity.” When the devil moves in next door, Cooper has the same question everyone else does: what will it do to the property values? But when Cooper’s new neighbor invites him to a cocktail party, Cooper finds himself in love and holding the key to an equation of almost infinite complexity – the equation that predicts the exact date of death for everyone alive. Cooper uses the equation to get a job as an actuary at a life insurance company. As the novel unfolds, both the police and Death are stalking Cooper, and he finds himself on the brink of losing everything – until the devil appears with an offer that is too good to refuse.
Like the Philosophical Fables, the novel is both merry and sad at the same time. I have a few bits to add the grated cheese to, but I think it’s turning out pretty well.
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