Feature image via Instagram
Beloved internet weirdo Mallory Ortberg delved deep into life’s twisted corners to plumb something devastatingly human for a new short story collection, The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror. The collection incorporates an esoteric mix of source material including “Cinderella,” the Book of Genesis, Frog and Toad Are Friends and a few centuries-old theological texts for spice.
The Merry Spinster is The Toast co-founder’s second book. Texts from Jane Eyre (2014) was a New York Times bestseller. The stories are a natural follow up to The Toast’s “Children’s Stories Made Horrific” series, and Ortberg’s curiosity about religion, gender and human relationships provides themes that run through the stories. Ortberg reimagines Jacob’s fight with the Angel in Genesis as if the Angel were simply taking care of procedural business in “Fear Not: The Incident Log” and turns the Velveteen Rabbit into a sinister monster in “The Rabbit.”
“The Six Boy Coffins,” a mashup retelling of “The Six Swans” and “The Twelve Brothers” by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, examines the ways gender roles and their varied sufferings and expectations infiltrate families and questions what happens if we reject those roles.
“I’ll always want to make Toast readers, weird librarians and kids who read the Marvel version of Pilgrims Progress happy, but I also want to catch people who may not be familiar with my work elsewhere,” Ortberg said in an interview with Autostraddle. “I want it to reach people who are interested in weird religious undertones, power imbalances and shifting gender identities.”
If the book seems almost fixated on gender, it’s because Ortberg began participating in gender therapy and exploring identity while writing it, and “It turns out I’m trans!”
“I’ve spent a lot of time thinking through this and going to support groups, and I started medical transition after an initial ‘trial period’ to see how I felt about it. I’ve been dealing with realizing that the feelings I had before were not the whole story. How do I create a vision for the future that doesn’t negate the past? It was wild to have all of this come up consciously for me in the middle of writing the book. None of this has felt super shocking to me as if I had never thought about these things before, but it was bewildering to be writing this book and think ‘I’m going to be experienced very differently by the time I go on tour,'” says Ortberg.
Within a few months, Ortberg plans to start using a male name and pronouns publicly. Managing public perception has been an added challenge amid transition, which is part of why Ortberg left — and then returned to — social media.
“It was very like ‘better get down in a cellar, ma, storm’s abrewing.’ I had a pretty significant change in the way that I dressed and mediated my appearance.” Eventually, Ortberg said, “I became fascinated and surprised by my own face and my appearance, I found myself looking at myself constantly and there was this desire on the one hand for no one to notice and on the other hand for someone to say ‘I know exactly what you’re doing and I’m doing it too.’ There’s something so surreal about going into my closet and finding an item of clothing I used to wear happily and enjoy how I looked in it and having none of that connection to it now. I’m wondering, how can I make decisions if I might feel that way again? I have a few items of clothing that I try on again every couple months and think ‘maybe I’ll like it again,’ like a language I used to speak. But it hasn’t happened yet.”
Overall, reaction among friends and strangers has been mostly positive, a contrast to Ortberg’s fears around transitioning publicly. It’s a journey that’s far from over and a storyline that emerges throughout The Merry Spinster.
“The story I think about most often is ‘The Incident Report,'” Ortberg said. The story it’s based on happens “in the middle of Jacob’s overall life story. It just says he’s traveling to meet his brother and is camped by a river and suddenly he’s wrestling a man and the man is an angel and there’s no reason ever explained. I feel that profoundly, like something has been sent to me and I don’t even know why and I may never know but I have to struggle with it.”
There are no easy answers for the book’s characters, many of whom make absolutely dreadful (and sometimes deadly) choices. Even as Ortberg injects mysticism and spiritual elements into these well-known stories, the stories also operate around distinctly pedestrian modes of interaction — jealousy, scarcity, gaslighting, and pride undo many of the protagonists. These elements bring the stories closer to reality, even though we know (and we do know, right?) that a toy rabbit could not really suck the life out of its owner.
Though Ortberg writes advice professionally as Slate’s Dear Prudence, the author has no advice for The Merry Spinster‘s characters: “I don’t think the kind of book where characters would take the kind of advice I give would be a book I would want to read. I want characters to sink or swim under their own strengths and do something great and entertaining that I would like to read. Which I guess is bad advice!”
Instead, Ortberg draws on other lived expertise, from starting the process of gender transition to growing up in a religious household (“I’ve always had Bible stories rattling around in my brain, and I’ve always loved Thomas Aquinas and St. John of the Cross and those dudes…I am uniquely qualified to retell bible stories in a way I really enjoy, and I was qualified for this when I was 7 years old”). The Merry Spinster feels like a book that only Ortberg could have written, and perhaps only in this exact moment of life: a time of in-betweens, self-doubt, and doing things because they are true, whether they make sense or not.
When not retelling fairy tales and Bible stories, Ortberg publishes The Shatner Chatner, posts a lot of pictures of short-sleeved button downs and Murphy the dog on Instagram, and occasionally blesses us with videos of a lip-ringed Joan Didion.
The Merry Spinster is now available for preorder and will be in stores on March 13.