Fables

The latest issue of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern consists of eight tiny hardcover books, each of which contains a single original, illustrated fable. Jess Benjamin, former McSweeney’s intern, playfully lists the essential elements of a fable as “some talking animals, a human or two, a moral take-away, and a pithy delivery.” On a more serious note, she continues to explain her love of the fable:

The power of the fable lies in its ability to say what it means and mean what it says. Its messages are compelling because they are not hidden, elegant because they are uncluttered, timeless because they are honest….The fable represents an alternative to the blind groping we confront on a daily basis. It reels us back in, reminding us that sometimes it’s okay to be handed a meaning in under five hundred words, that sometimes it’s okay to be taught a lesson, again.

I thought that was a pretty uplifting look at these little moral tales, and I pretty much loved all eight of them. They really do, as Benjamin says, “smack us at the end, gently, right between the eyes,” though. My favorite, “Poor Little Egg-Boy Hatched in a Shul,” by Nathan Englander, is a good example of that. The egg-boy, through a lie of omission, betrays his sister; by the time his guilt overcomes him and he is ready to do what’s right and admit to it:

The egg-boy opened his mouth and discovered he’d waited too long. Ready to talk, there were no words left.
His tongue had turned to bacon.

Reading this, it’s not like I learned a new moral truth—but it did feel good to be taught a lesson again, somehow, even in a simple, short, wacky little story about an egg-boy. I remember not being a big fan of fables as a child, I think at the time I thought they were too moralizing. But now I appreciate that simplicity more.