New Yorker Note: The Crabapple Tree
04 Jan 2015
Among new short stories, those published each week in The New Yorker likely have the largest readership. My idea is to post a few thoughts on each New Yorker story as they are published. We’ll see if this idea solidifies into a weekly habit or dissipates into an “I-used-to.”
This week’s story is “The Crabapple Tree” by the esteemed Robert Coover. Coover, who is 82, came out with his 10th novel in 2014, a sequel to his first novel, published in 1966. In between, he wrote numerous short stories, co-founded the Electronic Literature Organization (“thrives at the intersection of digital media and [academic jargon alert] textuality”) and served as a professor at Brown University. He is known for metafictional takes on classic genres, as can often be seen from his titles alone (“Pinocchio in Venice”, “Noir”, etc).
“The Crabapple Tree” signals it is a tale, in the classic sense, with its first sentence: “This happened here in our town.” The unnamed narrator tells of the growing family of a farmer, with each new member being odd in some way.
The first son, Dickie-boy, seems to be “touched” (my term, not Coover’s): “Some people said that Dickie-boy wasn’t all there, others that he had something almost magical about him.” For example, he ends up on top of the barn, supposedly with the assistance of the titular crabapple tree, but the tree is next to the house, not the barn.
Dickie-boy’s mother, a school friend of the narrator, died in giving birth to him, a classic element of folktales. His father, the unnamed farmer, was “hopeless at ordinary chores and raising babies.” So he married another woman, The Vamp: “She was a tough, sexy lady, a hooker maybe.” Thus the nickname applied by the narrator.
The Vamp brought along a daughter from a previous relationship, Marleen. Marleen is also an odd bird: “Marleen seemed to live in a storybook land of her own. When she spoke, she spoke to the world, the way singers do, and what she said seldom made any sense.”
Marleen and Dickie-boy bond: “They were as tight as crib siblings and had a way of talking to each other that didn’t use words. My daughter [a friend of Marleen’s] said it might be bird talk, which Marleen had offered to teach her.”
Both step-siblings had gifts: Marleen had some healing powers, though at times could confuse people as well, and Dickie-boy could find lost things.
But despite the bond between the step-siblings, and their gifts, there is trouble: “...sometimes the used Dickie-boy in their games. In nice ways and maybe not-so-nice ways. Strange Marleen might get up to anything, and my own daughter had a mischievous and curious streak, so things probably happened.” For example, Marleen takes Dickie-boy around as if he were a dog. This is a common enough kid’s game, but they take it to disturbing lengths: Dickie-boy is naked, leashed, and attends to his bathroom needs in canine fashion.
Plus, The Vamp, in accordance with the bylaws of the Union of Stepmothers in Tales, hated Dickie-boy. He perishes under questionable circumstances, and is buried next to his mother under the crabapple tree on the farmer’s property.
You might think that would be the end of the story, but Dickie-boy’s death happens at almost the exact halfway point of this ~2,900 word tale, a testament to Coover’s efficient prose. The family soon shrinks even more, as the farmer dies a year after his son (whose bones he may or may not have been fed in a stew cooked up by The Vamp), and The Vamp blows town immediately after the funeral.
For the rest of the story, the narrator’s concern with finding an appropriate mate for her later years increasingly intrudes (the unnamed town seems to have nearly Updikian levels of bed-hopping). She has a taste for men in uniform, though, but despite her connections, nothing more concrete is learned about the trio of deaths and the singular disappearance.
Marleen inherits the farm, which she turns into a wildlife refuge. To make ends meet (ahem), she “took up what we all supposed had been her mother’s trade.”
The crabapple tree becomes a spooky sight for the neighborhood kids, and the target of an arson attempt. “To protect the tree, Marleen had an extension built onto the farmhouse, with a hole in the roof for the tree, or perhaps it moved in on its own.”
The language of this tale flows smoothly. It reads like a modern version of a classic Poe tale, or something from the Brothers Grimm. Given Coover’s reputation as an icon of postmodernism/metafiction, I kept expecting some clear break with the style of a tale, but it never came (the silly crack about the Union of Stepmothers in Tales is mine).
I’ve read very little of Coover, so I would be interested to learn whether this story is, broadly speaking, representative of his usual approach to metafiction. I suspect Betsy at Mookse and the Gripes may touch upon this in her review, which will be posted here.
Regardless, Coover creates an excellent and classic tale here, working in a handful of tropes very smoothly, without drawing undue attention to them or over-saturating the story with them (as, for example, Sondheim’s Into the Woods does, or as Coover himself did in a previous New Yorker story “The Frog Prince”). There are clearly recurring and significant symbols here, particularly birds, bones, and the titular crabapple tree. But I don’t have a strong sense of what -- pardon the hack phrase -- they are meant to signify.
So what’s going on here? Is the master of metafiction playing it (kinda sorta) straight? This New Yorker story seems to lack the usual accompanying question-and-answer with the author, so there’s no help to be found there. But there’s an interesting interview with Coover here from early 2010 about his novel “Noir” that may shed some light on this story as well.
Specifically, Coover states: “I have essayed frequently on this topic, distinguishing between myth and tale as between the sacred and the profane -- sky-writing and earth-writing -- but judging them both to be conservative forms, content to remain close to the comforting mental habits of the past. People, fearing their own extinction, are willing to accept and perpetuate hand-me-down answers to the meaning of life and death; and, fearing a weakening of the tribal structures that sustain them, reinforce with their tales the conventional notions of justice, freedom, law and order, nature, family, etc. The writer, lone rider, has the power, if not always the skills, wisdom, or desire, to disturb this false contentment. “ (Again, full credit goes to Sean P. Carroll for doing and publishing this interview here.)
If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say that this might be a faux-tale. That is, it has the elements and structure of a traditional tale, but it lacks the underlying (and usually fairly apparent) symbolic meaning. We try to assign meaning to the symbols in the story in order to perpetuate the “eternal verities.” But the point is, I’d guess, that the time (something this story plays with the reader’s perception of, as seen in the first four paragraphs of this story) for such things has past, if it ever indeed existed.
We have, on the one hand, the world of the tale, where the farmer’s children are touched and a crabapple tree looms over us with symbolic portent. On the other hand, we have the narrator’s asides, which could be read as merely the standard devices in tales to provide context and plausibility. Our focus, naturally, goes to the former, the featured elements of the tale. But look again at the “asides” of the narrator. There is a story in them as well, of people looking for love, or even a stable relationship, and not finding it. Of institutions (police, firefighters) failing to carry out their basic functions. Of children left to raise themselves.
In the face of these manifold problems of modernity, we still look for old truths to comfort us. Much as we look under the crabapple tree for the bones of the past, as if we can make a stew of them today that will somehow give us the nourishment that we’re lacking. But we’d really just be eating the bones of our ancestors, as that’s all they have to offer us now. They don’t have solutions or answers. We’ll have to come up with those ourselves. Our contentment with tales is a false one.
I can’t point to much to support the above, so I am admittedly out on a limb. The one piece of “evidence” that kept the above from the delete key is this: crabapple trees do not produce edible fruit. Instead, they are used as rootstocks and pollinizers in apple orchards. In other words, they are a receptive and reliable substrate onto which flavorful apples can be grafted, much as we graft our modern hopes and fears onto ancient tales and then guard them with care.
But I would be very interested to hear other takes on this tale.
Update: There's a big discussion of this story over on "The Mookse and the Gripes" which I recommend checking out here. In particular, commentator David Abad points out that "The Crabapple Tree" takes many of its elements from "The Juniper Tree" folktale collected by the Brothers Grimm. This is an important observation and impacts the interpretation of this story.
Disclaimer: The above is my initial reaction to the story, written without revision. “New Yorker Notes” are meant to be timely notes, rather than deep analyses.