The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold
Kate Bernheimer
(Fc2/Black Ice) $11.95

"He gave me some leather pants to wear. The pants were so heavy on my legs that I understood how we are all animals." This is the voice of Ketzia Gold, a protagonist who can say anything, gliding between surreal dreamscape and nightmare, the natural world and the fantastic. "A word processor, strictly defined, is rarely required to think," she says from a later vantage point, repressing any externalized passions as she finds solace in her typing job with a group of private detectives. "[T]his might be considered a rotten profession for someone who when young was considered at least halfway intelligent. But I beg to differ.... I faithfully record many tales here at Triple D Co. that serve to wake up the soul."

The stories at Triple D Co. are of suspected adulterers who are not adulterers at all, caught only in "natural" acts. They're stories of workmen's comp claimants forced to stay home watching TV. Of the TV watchers Ketzia brilliantly says, "When I figured out the difference between them and me--they only receive information while I am an information processor--I recognized the true dread of their existence."

Ketzia is many things. She is a naked body prone on a bed behind a one-way mirror in a hot, hourly-rate motel, and at the same time a girl-child under a Christmas tree with a demented family dog, Hansel. The Christmas tree is a forest, Hansel in the forest, Ketzia's father a tippler. "For a short, but rather confusing time when I was younger, my sisters and I turned into flowers. We were left to grow in a window box all day, and only my sister was allowed inside at night...." Now Ketzia is a flower. At 14, Ketzia is a liar, already in love with her trophy-winning future husband, Adam.

Throughout the book, sexuality seeps out from somewhere behind the words, through images. I asked Bernheimer if this was intentional. She said, "Because the novel is based on traditional fairy-tale plots and motifs, sexuality is the linchpin. Traditionally, fairy tales functioned as sex education. Yet the tellers used codes--think of 'The Beast'--to soften the blow for their little listeners. The language of my novel reflects this same effort to conceal yet convey an erotic message."

The novel conveys the harsh world of sibling power struggles, winners and losers, and the heartbreak of a floundering marriage. All of this is delivered through the constant dark glimmer of fairy-tale imagery. Bernheimer explained, "Fairy tales were often bawdy stories not meant for children, but as adult entertainment. There's Red Riding Hood, climbing in bed with the wolf. ...In its 'original' Italian version, Red Riding Hood performs an actual striptease on the bed. We don't see that anymore, because the story was subsequently repackaged for children. But somehow, the erotic element remains: She still clambers into bed with the wolf, after all. As much as we'd like to deny it, there's an underlying erotic element to the tale that both distresses and attracts."

Ketzia is locked in this world that both distresses and attracts.

"The suggestive flashbacks to Ketzia's childhood are meant to invoke the ominous erotic landscape that traditional fairy tales, upon inspection, troublingly reveal. And the 'flash forwards' to her future as a transcriptionist who practices her typing by keyboarding fairy tales from books is meant to echo the work of those who gathered oral folklore from the woods and translated it for popular consumption, such as the Grimms," said Bernheimer. "In her future, Ketzia has suppressed her sadness under the guise of cheerful dignity. She has decided that it is more important to remember life tenderly than to foreground her sexual sufferings. This is a play on the homogenization of fairy tales in popular culture, which asks that we overlook fairy tales' dark side."

Bernheimer's easy, hypnotic language deftly carries readers through the complexity of the disparate yet merged worlds of Ketzia Gold: childhood, adulthood and victimhood, sensuality and innocence, visions and longing.