When Mystical Creatures Attack by Kathleen Founds, a 2014 comic novel. Not the kind of thing I normally read. Blurbs point to or are written by George Saunders, Wells Tower, Karen Russell, and Mark Leyner (who is known, it seems, for his “fearlessness” – rest of y’all writers are cowards), which probably helps pin down Founds in some way. I have never read any of these writers, barely know who they are. I paged through the book, thought it was funny – in fact assumed it was more of a kind of humor book than it really is – and bought it.
It was the chapter of Methodist church cookbook recipes that got me, dishes like Valley of the Shadow of Death by Chocolate Cake:
Directions: As the cake rises, call the kids around, and tell them about your girlhood, when you had polio, and Dad made a special sleigh to ride behind the donkey during plowing season, so you could mash manure into the ground with a stick. We never had luxuries such as Death by Chocolate Cake! During the winter of ’38, we were so hungry we ate the seed corn. Then we ate the milk-cow. Then we ate Andrew. Andrew was our dog. Ask the children if they know where Hush Puppies come from. Then give them their dessert. (51-2)
Meanwhile, other recipes are actually moving along two stories, one a kind of crisis not of faith but works by the pastor(from a lamb chop recipe: “Ask yourself if, in your longing for clarity and order, you have negated contradiction and paradox… Fry three minutes on each side. Garnish with rosemary,” 55), the other a struggle between Janice Gibbs and her new stepmother (“Reply that you do not even consider this cooking,” 54).
The latter is part of the larger story of the novel, the bad decisions and hard times of Janice and a schoolteacher she had for a few months. Various parallels are made between the two women. The story is advanced by means of school assignments, email, a misguided advice blog, fiction within the fiction, and regular old fiction. Many of these would be gimmicks if done badly.
My idea of what the novel was changed a lot as I read it. A big change came in the chapter where the teacher is writing about her (bad) father:
Dostoevsky Give Us Some Hope
In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky tells this story:
A stingy old woman served only herself, save this – she once gave a turnip to a beggar… The intercessory spirit petitions God, who says: take that turnip, see if it will drag her out of hell. (30)
The woman grabs the turnip, and another soul grabs her, and another and another:
“My turnip!” the old woman shouts, when she sees linked souls looping behind her. She kicks. She thrashes.
The turnip breaks. They all fall back to hell.
The teacher, cataloguing her father’s rare acts of kindness, suspects that he, too, would kick and thrash.
Dostoevsky, or his character Grushenka, tells this story in Part III, Book VII, Chapter II, “An Onion.” Constance Garnett has “onion,” not “turnip.” Maybe translators disagree. Maybe Founds thought “turnip” was funnier (it is). The troubled Grushenka says “it’s a nice story” and identifies herself with the old woman. She calls herself “wicked,” aside from one good deed. Typically perverse Dostoevsky psychology – by the end of the story, few readers will find it so reassuring or “nice.”
When Mystical Creatures Attack ends with a heretical inversion of Grushenka’s parable of works and grace that is the farthest possible extension of the idea of novelistic sympathy. It is an audacious scene that would be worth seeing even if the rest of the book did not seem particularly funny.
I have been discussing the book with nicole at bibliographing. It has not been reviewed much by book bloggers. We worry that there is something wrong with the marketing. Maybe the graphics, all done by Founds herself (see above, borrowed from her website), or the blurbs, make the book look like something it is not, or something that it is but not merely.