by Robert Coover
"You are one of the lucky ones, the old crone says, wagging a gnarled finger at her. Your sisters were locked away in iron towers, lamed and stuck in kitchens, sent to live with savage beasts. They had their hands and feet cut off, were exiled, raped, imprisoned, reviled, monstrously deformed, turned to stone, and killed. Even worse: many of them had their dreams come true. My sisters? Yes, well long ago. Dead now of course."
There are three characters: the Prince, the Beauty, and the Old Crone. The action: the Prince is struggling through the briars, his confidence waining as the thorns thicken, and he obsessively turns over and over his mission, his destiny, the possible outcomes, and the reasons why, eventually drowning in his thoughts.
The Beauty sleeps and dreams of "princes" waking her with odd and disturbing sexual acts - her father, dead princes, a gang of drunken peasants etc. She believes they are all trying to remove the thorn from her, which pricks her in a hidden place. She is comforted by her frequent trips to the safety of the kitchen/ nursery/ her parents room (in the dream state it can be all at once), where she speaks with the Old Crone, the fabled fairy responsible for her pricking. The author claims Sleeping Beauty has no memory, but she has memories of remembering, so (I assume) is left with a constant state of deja vu. She knows she is asleep, and is trapped in this dream-thick stasis.
The Crone tells stories of other Sleeping Beauties to the sleeping princess, each story a mixture of actual Sleeping Beauty stories, and other tales of horror. It never ends well for the princess, as she is raped, killed, eaten, and/ or neglected in every story. It is unclear whether the Old Crone is torturing her for fun, corrupting her innocence to spoil her for the waking world, or preparing her for potential disappointment. It is revealed that the Crone is both the Good Fairy and the Bad Fairy, and even she is unclear which gift was kinder: endless sleep, or death as an innocent.
The reader takes the lazy river through each of their stream-of-consciousness. Nothing really changes. The characters each hit a breaking point, but then they give up. You get the impression that they are all trapped here, and the story will constantly cycle back to where we found them at the beginning -- maybe with a new prince, after this one, too, dies in the thorns.
And there are no quotation marks. Post-modernism drives me crazy that way.
All in all, it is an intriguing exploration of archetypes: what it means to be the questing prince, what it means to be the sleeping beauty, what it means to be the old crone. However, if you are looking for a coherent narrative, this is not the book for you. If you want incisive poetry, go forth and enjoy.