By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Michael Cunningham
Narrated by: Claire Danes
In The Snow Queen, Michael Cunningham cleverly riffs on more than choice in an innocent question–Would you like Coke or Pepsi? Cunningham’s story is about human choices, responsibilities, and compulsions. Cunningham’s first chapters flesh out details of three personalities, Tyler’s, Barrett’s, and Liz’s. (Beth is another important character, but more as she relates to the three main characters than as an individual.) Tyler is a musician. Barrett is Tyler’s younger brother. Liz is a kind of caretaker for both Tyler and Barrett, even though Tyler is in his early 40s and Liz is in her early 50s. Barrett, the youngest of the three, is employed by Liz in her clothing store.
The characters of Tyler, Barrett, and Liz are largely defined by relationship to each other, their friends, and their lovers. Tyler’s fiancée is Beth, a woman dying from cancer. Tyler loves Beth and stands by her when she is expected to die from cancer. Beth mysteriously appears in remission for two months with no apparent cancer; during remission, her relationship with Tyler oddly becomes more distant. Beth dies several months later from cancer’s re-emergence.
Tyler’s best friend and companion is his brother, Barrett. Barrett lives with Tyler and Beth. Barrett sees a vision in the sky, just before Beth’s miraculous remission and wonders if the vision and miracle are related. In the beginning, Barrett has boy-toy boyfriends, but near the end of Cunningham’s story, the last boyfriend seems to be something more than a boy-toy; possibly a life-time partner. As a couple, Barrett loves his brother and Beth but, since childhood, Barrett has felt preternaturally responsible for his older brother. Liz, who lives in her own place, has young boyfriends; at the same time, she is Tyler’s secret conjugal partner. Liz cares for Tyler’s, Beth’s, and Barrett’s well-being in different ways; i.e. Liz offers sex to Tyler as a substitute for his dying fiancée; she employs and counsels Beth in her illness, and she employs Barrett in her store . Tyler, Barrett, Liz, and Beth are a kind of family that chooses to be together to cope with the storms of life.
Fairytale enters the story from a cocaine-induced light that appears to Liz and Barrett, at different times in their lives. The light sparkles like ice and snow. This is the same light that Barrett sees before Beth’s cancer remission. Reminding one of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytale, the light in the sky is like a sparkling shard of a glass mirror, it enters the eye and is capable of piercing the heart. In entering the eye, it distorts reality. In piercing the heart, it kills.
As snow, the glass shard is a patronymic name for cocaine, cocaine that distorts vision and sometimes kills. Barrett’s Catholic’ upbringing makes him think the light appears like the eye of God. But Liz associates the ethereal light with drug use because drugs were involved in both appearances. The effect is to make Barrett wonder if he is chosen for some special purpose, a purpose reinforced by his deceased mother’s comments about his special purpose in life. Liz is skeptical about any religious meaning in the light but tells a story about her father and her sister that makes her wonder. The wonder is that her sister disappears soon after the light appears. Her sister returns after a year but she seems a different and defeated human being to Liz. The sparkle of snow and ice (cocaine), or Hans Christian Anderson’s mirror shard, distorts Barrett’s and Liz’s view of life.
Cunningham is painting a picture of the Gen Xers, the post-baby-boom generation.
The picture is of families that extend son’s and daughter’s childhood into late adulthood. Though not a traditional mother-father-child’ family, the two brothers, Liz, and Beth have become a family. Tyler is in his mid-40s and is still living like a child. Beth is Tyler’s fiancée, living a pre-marital life with Tyler; i.e. a life together that seems dependent on the terminal character of Beth’s illness. Barrett is a well-educated and intelligent younger brother that lives with Tyler and Tyler’s fiancée and works as a sales person in Liz’s boutique. Liz is re-living her youth in her mid-fifties by dating men half her age but she supports the Tyler-Beth-Barrett household through her employment of Beth and Barrett in the boutique. Tyler’s talent as a song writer and performer helps pay the bills but his song writing and performance is not enough to claim fame or wealth. Tyler is addicted to cocaine. He thinks he needs it to be a creative artist but comes to the conclusion that cocaine is hindering his talent and begins experimenting with heroine. All Cunningham’s characters seem lost in a storm of snow and ice.
Barrett, in his thirties, takes the first steps toward a mature and stable relationship with a partner that may break the bond with his unconventional and enabling family. Liz, now in her mid-50s, is thinking about taking a vacation in California; possibly with Tyler, but only if he quits drugs. Beth has died from cancer. The storm of snow and ice seems to be lifting for Barrett and Liz at the end of Cunningham’s story. But, Tyler appears to have had his heart pierced by the broken mirror that looks like snow and has turned to ice; i.e. snowy cocaine has turned to heroin.
Tyler loses his fiancée, seems on the edge of losing his brother, and finally, his caretaker and ex-secret-lover. Tyler’s choice is Coke; while Barrett’s and Liz’s choice is Pepsi. Cunningham infers Americans are enabling dependence by children on their conventional and unconventional families; i.e. allowing children to remain adolescents for too long. Drugs are a curse that distorts reality like broken shards of Hans Christian Anderson’s glass mirror. Religion is an opiate of the masses. Gen Xers are growing up too late in their lives. Winter is a time of dormancy for Gen Xers; spring may be coming, but Cunningham’s story is not reassuring.