I came to Jenny Diski late. In that, I am not unlike Heidi Julavits, who in her Foreword to Diski’s collection of fractured fairy tales, The Vanishing Princess, acknowledges, “My Diski gateway was her nonfiction and when it came to her fiction, I began with her short stories.” Indeed, I might take this a little further, which is to say that what has drawn me most to Diski is her disregard of genre lines. Take In Gratitude, her memoir of dying, published just days before her death in 2016. There, Diski eclipses the boundary between two forms: the cancer memoir, which she doesn’t want to write (“Embarrassment at first,” she grumbles, “to the exclusion of all other feelings. But embarrassment curled at the edges with a weariness”) and the coming-of-age saga, which in her case involves not only the usual familial indignities but also a stint in a psychiatric hospital and a few years as (yes) Doris Lessing’s ward. It’s the stuff, in other words, of fiction, or it could be — although it also resists being rendered as a coherent single narrative. The genius of the book, as well as, say, Skating to Antarctica or The Sixties, which cover some of the same material, is that Diski is too smart to try.
Something similar is at work in The Vanishing Princess, which was published in England in 1995 but is only now being issued in the United States. Gathering a dozen stories, some of which first appeared in New Statesman and the London Review of Books, it seems to be a book of updated myths or legends before revealing its true, and more subversive, intent. “There was once a princess who lived in a tower,” Diski begins the first story, “The Vanishing Princess or The Origin of Cubism.” The competing titles, and the tension or disconnection between them, offers a hint of what she had in mind. Diski makes this clear as the opening paragraph continues: “It is hard to say precisely if she was imprisoned there. Certainly, she had always been there, and she had never left the circular room at the top of the long winding staircase. But since she had never tried to leave it, it wouldn’t be quite accurate to say that she was imprisoned.” Yes, she is saying, we are in the territory of the folk tale, but the outcome, the movement of the narrative, will not necessarily unfold as we might expect.
That’s because Diski is less interested in the conventions of the fairy tale than she is in exploding them, reframing them as part of a more recognizable world. Let’s stay with that introductory story for a moment, which seeks, actively, to discomfort us but makes the archetypal human in some complicated ways. “She had never thought of herself as known in the outside world,” Diski writes of her protagonist, “and felt a strange distress at the idea of existing in someone’s mind as something to be found.” What we are observing is the onset of agency, self-awareness in the most challenging, and contradictory, sense. I think of Judith Butler, her ideas on addressability and how we are exposed in another’s gaze. This is the experience Diski is tracking, both for us and for her character.
At the heart of this endeavor is a kind of power: that of consciousness, yes, but also of intention. The women Diski evokes in these pages are adrift but not, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say they are in a process of becoming. Take “Shit and Gold” (what a terrific title), which turns the tables on the Rumpelstiltskin story, giving power to the princess rather than to the troll. “I’ve got a better idea,” the princess insists when he says he will return her newborn if she can correctly guess his name. “More interesting for both of us. Why don’t you give me three days to make you forget your name?” That the mechanism of this forgetting is the princess’s sexual prowess is perhaps another cliché — or it could be, but Diski refuses to leave it there. Instead, sexuality yields to power, which means Rumpelstiltskin is not only fucked out but also dominated, made to do the princess’s bidding while she takes over the running of the kingdom from her husband, who is revealed to be a charlatan, stupefied and neutered by his greed.
There’s a knowing aspect to this writing; “[I]t has probably crossed your mind,” the princess confides, “that it’s a damn strange thing for a girl to become a wife purely on the grounds of being able to spin straw into gold . . . That’s how it goes in this corner of the narrative world . . . we have no choice, characters such as we.” And yet, this knowing is the point. What such a story has to offer is not merely its own narrative but a critique that questions every assumption of the form. This emerges also in The Vanishing Princess‘s more naturalistic efforts, which share a certain restlessness, a dissatisfaction, with the ways such stories have been told. “Everything about human transactions, on the other hand, was devious, including attempts at openness,” Diski writes in “Short Circuit,” about a woman who wants her lover to be unfaithful — so the relationship will work. “Housewife,” on the other hand, imagines a woman who is herself unfaithful to her loving husband — or so it appears until the final paragraphs, when Diski reveals a dynamic between the couple that is more nuanced and complex. Nothing is what we think it is, not even narrative itself. This is vividly articulated in “Strictempo,” which revisits (or pre-visits) the territory of In Gratitude and Skating to Antarctica to tell the story of a teenager committed to a psych ward, although the experience is less a cause of damage than relief. “So,” Diski writes, in a line that could come from one of her memoirs, “at fifteen, in the year the Beatles recorded ‘Love Me Do,’ she danced her old-fashioned dance and closed down the part of her mind that wrestled with the future.” Neurosis, in other words, as protective mechanism, the only rational response to the irrationality of her world.
What this suggests is the consistency of Diski’s vision, the coherence of her sensibility. It is that I miss most about her, that articulated worldview. It centers her writing like a compass or wayfinder, less a matter of predictability than one of inquiry. “It was not,” she writes, “so much that time repeated itself, round and round, and over and over again, but that it almost did.”