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The Red Shoes and Other Tattered Tales

The Red Shoes and Other Tattered Tales

by Karen Elizabeth Gordon
Best known for her Gothic language handbooks (reissued recently as The New Well-Tempered Sentence and The Deluxe Transitive Vampire), Karen Elizabeth Gordon here turns her extraordinary talents to fiction, and the result is as unconventional as her seductive grammar dramas.

The Red Shoes consists of tatters of a half-dozen tales (“The Glass Shoe,” &ldquo


Best known for her Gothic language handbooks (reissued recently as The New Well-Tempered Sentence and The Deluxe Transitive Vampire), Karen Elizabeth Gordon here turns her extraordinary talents to fiction, and the result is as unconventional as her seductive grammar dramas.

The Red Shoes consists of tatters of a half-dozen tales (“The Glass Shoe,” “The Gingerbread Variations,” “The Little Match Girl,” “Don Juan Is a Woman,” and the title story, among others) sewn together into a novel by two seamstresses. “Fabric, fabrication—such is the stuff of these lost chronicles come together here,” Gordon writes in her introduction. “Swinging their hatboxes, swaying their hips, chapters with torn slips wander in on high heels and blistered feet.”

Looking back to the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, but also casting sidelong glances at metafictional sugardaddies like Queneau, Nabokov, Cortazar, Gass, and Milorad Pavic, The Red Shoes is a Rabelaisian romp through the language of sensuality.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Gordon's isn't the only postmodernist pastiche parading down the pike... but in the company of the metafictional big boys, Gordon can hold her own." --Columbus Dispatch

Dalkey Archive Press

"One of the most innovative and enchanting books of recent time.... [Gordon] has constructed a novel in dictionary form in which ordinary words reveal secret worlds that cling passionately to one another in a merry, whirling, lexical dance." --Thomas Christensen, San Francisco Chronicle

Dalkey Archive Press

"[The Red Shoes] make[s] the mundane seem magical and transform[s] our earthbound language into a joy toy of infinite possibility.... The voice behind the dictionary is a wonderful creation--a nut in shining amour who comes at the world with both a resolutely girlish imagination and the lusty wisdom of the Wife of Bath. The most enjoyable aspect of The Red Shoes is its all-round lively writing." --Washington Post

Dalkey Archive Press

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Is a dress the same dress if you change the buttons, make the cuffs into a collar and slash the hem from ankle to thigh? A similar question could be asked of Gordon (The Deluxe Transitive Vampire). She has taken her 1989 Intimate Apparel: A Dictionary of the Senses and refashioned it, using many of the same text selections that appeared in the previous book. This new version may do little more than move it from the reference section where, as Gordon teases in her new afterword, "no one I know ever goes looking for diversion, delight, and debauchery," to fiction. It might be better shelved with poetry, since it seethes with alliteration and interior rhyme. It also demands more attention than readers who prefer a linear narrative may be willing to give in order to reap the full power of Gordon's wordplay and layered story lines. Told in dictionary form, with alphabetical sections ranging from absinthe to zipper, the book needs to be read not just straight through, but by weaving back and forth among footnotes, references and related characters and definitions. Gordon employs a multitude of characters and fairy-tale references, but it's not really a book about Yolanta or the Little Match Girl as much as it is a book about loving language. As in her earlier books, the imagery is sensual ("She sank her slight buttocks onto the bench and wiggled into her new kid gloves"). Gordon's use of language can almost be too lush and unconventional, but that is also the charm of this unusual, fascinating and sexy literary experiment. (Mar.)

Product Details

Dalkey Archive Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.55(w) x 8.53(h) x 0.54(d)

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Read an Excerpt


Ah, nothing in this world we live and dream is only what it seems. Here you have a dictionary that really a storybook without a proper ending--just a provocative, improper one. The stories in this rattled box do not so much break off as become attached to one another, while you become attached to them, and to the characters whose stories they are: the hapless hypochondriac with his faulty kneecap and bar of anodyne soap; Bedruthan with his knees knocking in fear at the ocean's frothy edge, and the deadpan, deadly sensuous mermaid he seeks, to return a lost tortoiseshell comb; Yolanta expatriating on the Continent with her langue maternelle, her passport--and a bookmark between her legs; a sassy Cinderella, last in reveries, breaking g,:asses in the dish, water, and unmasking social form and ceremony in her unabashed dealings with the prince; and many, many others, weaving in and out of each other while the two seamstresses, Elsbeth of the North and Anja of the South, stitch together their tattered tales and scattered lives into a fabrication they can all wear at once upon a time. And so can you. Baffled, perhaps, at first, you will find that you are slipping, slowly but silkily, into something more comfortable the further you read, the more familiar you become. Because this is an affectionate book that wants to be held, like any woman within it, and will hold your attention and call it back again to fulfill this most agreeable desire.

Fabric, fabrication--such is the stuff of these lost chronicles come together here. Swinging their hatboxes, swaying their hips, chapters with torn slips wander in on high heels and blistered feet. A wedding dress is being cut out and sewn by the same two seamstresses who are handstitching all these pieces into place, with time and meaning layered like the ultimate wedding cake.(*) A cloth of many colors unravels, interwoven as it is of the simply real, fabulously real, and the purely imaginary, and the threads, of various lengths and gleamings--well, some are invisible, SD a nearsighted couturiere bent over them has declared. A cloth of ecstatic flannel, narrative handkerchief, and wrinkled linen moods; fur hands, satin of solitude, handled-with-carelessness glass shoes. Out of a tailor's dummy's muslin epidermis is the flesh made word.

Words themselves are the intimate attire of thoughts and feelings. Here they are turned inside out to see what's going on beneath the surface of everyday presences, garments and forms. And if a book can wear a jacket, the notion of a book can be turned inside-out, too--for much of the story here is in the notes, and not in the body of the text . . . the very body we find on the final undulation: nude with sunbeam for zipper. Facing things in this manner, we watch estrangements disappear. Death, whose name we avoid pronouncing, is just the girl next door.

Like a diaphanous nightgown, language both hides and reveals. There is no way of getting at the naked truth, even if it's wearing the Emperor's New Clothes, or the Empress's New Clothos. We follow our Mother Tongue into her boudoir, anyway, hoping for a glimpse of something never yet beheld--and come face to face with our own reflections in her most private mirror, veiled meanings in a gossamer heap on the floor. And still there are enough words left in the old girl's voice to sing us to sleep once again. "I've got you uncovered," she says.


Anja, a wanderlusting seamstress from Croatia, whose territorial seams are in confusion of late. It is thanks to Anja's chance find (a tailor's dummy stuffed with shredded manuscripts) that these tales have come to light and are taking some sort of shape--as she sorts and stitches their tatters with her Scandinavian colleague, Elsbeth.

Bedruthan, a reluctant romantic--and gigantic--hero of Cornish coast and legend, courageously searching for a mermaid whose only property has floated into his hands (or did he kind it in the sands?).

Cinderella, resiliently abused stepchild whose secret rebellions in both fact and fantasy forge her liberty. Seeing past mere wish fulfillment, she unmasks social form and ceremony in her unabashed dealings with the prince.

Columbine, a commedia dell' arte trouper in contempo clothing who performs with her rowdy pals Pantalone, Pedrolino, Grattiano, Arlecchino, Burattino, Flavinia, and Franceschina on both sides of the Adriatic.

Effie (short for Ephemera, and the twin sister of Errata), a Mediterranean nymph pursued by a faun who looks like Blaise Cendrars.

Elsbeth, Anja's Danish collaborator, whose niece is enjoying a strange captivity: the red shoes, running us all amok. Elsbeth once floored a quipspeak critic for saying this book is coming apart at the seamstresses. It's coming together, she solemnly avers.

Hansel and Gretl, siblings with the usual spats until they unite in their plot to overthrow The Gingerbread Variations witch. For once, however, we see that sorceress's side of the story, too: at least one grim glimpse.

Jacob Other, linguist, pan-discipline critic, poet, novelist, occasional usher at the Opera. Fast friends with fellow expatriate Yolanta, whom he met in a boulangerie.

Jonquil Mapp, oscillating inamorata of Torquil. Got her B.A. in geography from Amplochacha U.

Little match girl, locked out of the Nordic holidays, selling marches and burning her frozen fingers, hallucinating from cold end hunger, telling her Dark Night of the Body to us all.

Morpheus, god of dreams, invoked, supplicated, wooed by our insomniac author.

Red Shoes didn't stand still long enough for us to get a good description.

Timofey, precociously fed on Slavic lit, later the lover of Nadia--but now he's a specter afraid of the dark, at work on his own post humous lexicon.

Torquil, Jonquil's weekend roustabout after their first carnal marathon at the Last Judgment Pinball Machine Motel.

Yolanta, raving bibliophile, expatriate writer and Paris correspondent for Exquisite Corpse. Does translations when desperate, strikes many as ill-mannered (the French as mal elevee), although the baker defends her character and keeps a shelf of books behind his baguettes so as not to disrupt her delusions.

SUPPORTING (and cavorting) CAST includes:

A penguin who sniffs perfume, a clochard who steals gloves, a femme fatale who steals bouquets. An innkeeping couple on the road through the Balkans, a doctor in Baden-Baden, a pig and a hermit named Henri. An apparition who brings his custom to Anja, as Hans Christian Andersen does to Elsbeth. A peasant and his wild young bride attracted to the ocean. (He's an aficionado of metafiction, she of swift sensations. ) Another peasant with a shoe to repair and a balletomanic daughter. Many cows, most of them lowing, one dead (on a bus). A hypochondriac with jet-set appointments. An unidentified neuter pronoun with wet feet and a taste for beer. A blini woman who supports her own cast of characters on the road in Mother Russia. Don Juanita heats up the socks, but not in the laundromat with poker players or with the milliner, once a shivering model. A man in a red cape poses a mild threat and provides the musical background.


She drenched him with an absinthe regard.

See dusk; lips.

Well, you don't have to. I'll tell you right now that she proceeded to let out a wild shrill hiccup, and when we kept questioning her about the parchment enwrapping her salmon, and the lost Albanian, she excused herself to the powder room "and galloped off in a chorus of evasive whispers."

But you'll kind yourself in their company again soon enough, wondering if dessert will ever arrive so he can lean across the table to ask, "Don't you want the rest of your clafouti?" and rend its remains with his fork.


It was a meaningless act, but we knew its implications.

"a meaningless act"

One of the propositions subjected to philosophic inquiry in Carnal Knowledge. "The closeness that comes in handfuls" eludes one's grasp when "the metaphysical stuff gets out of hand."


"Here, they just didn't get dry enough," he said with concern for her warfare as he dabbed at her tears with a corner of her own babushka, which could also turn into a flour sack(*) should the shortage of occasion demand.

They camped out in pockets of the Motherland's big apron. Don't see pockets.


Down the alley slouched a beast en route to the Apocalypse.

Not all that rough a beast, this one. He had shaved that morning, and his swagging carriage made alluring ripples in the silk shirt on his back.

Meet the Author

Karen Elizabeth Gordon is the author of seven books, including her mischievous language handbooks "The Deluxe Transitive Vampire", "The New Well-Tempered Sentence", and "Torn Wings and Faux Pas". She divides her time between California and France.

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