Twice-Told Tales: Andrei Codrescu's Arabian Nights and 6 Other Famous Retellings

Andrei Codrescu has always been interested in the ways stories are told. As a poet, essayist, novelist, and founder of the avant-garde journal Exquisite Corpse – not to mention his hilarious NPR commentaries – Codrescu has made a name for himself as a master at both creating and exploding narrative forms.

On Thursday, June 2, 2011, Codrescu visits the Plaza Branch of the Kansas City Public Library to discuss his newest novel, a smart, dizzingly adventurous, and hysterical retelling of the Arabian Nights – Whatever Gets You Through the Night: A Story of Sheherezade and the Arabian Entertainments. (Please RSVP if you wish to attend this free event.)

As its Lennon-saluting title implies, WGYTTN draws on contemporary pop culture and satire in revisiting the legend of how princess Sheherezade saved her own life and the lives of Baghdad’s virgins through a feat of serial storytelling. Each night, Sheherezade kept ravenous, bride-killing king Sharyar in agonizing suspense by telling him a story that ended in a cliffhanger, to be resumed the next day.  

Lacing his retelling with extensive footnotes, Codrescu turns the Arabian Nights into a commentary on what the act of storytelling means in an age of media saturation and endless explanation.

Codrescu isn’t the first writer to revisit a classic tale while turning the craft of fiction on its head. From Italo Calvino to The Stinky Cheese Man, modern writers have been reinterpreting ancient works to often delirious effect.

Here are six noteworthy retellings of famous stories of yore. Share your own favorite tales retold in the comments. (Book descriptions provided by Syndetics, except where indicated.)

Snow White by Donald Barthelme (1966)
Retells: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
In his first novel, postmodern pioneer Barthelme reinvents Grimm’s dark-haired heroine as an urban dweller living not with Dopey, Sleepy, etc., but with Kevin, Edward, Hubert, Henry, Clem, Dan, and Bill, who make a living washing buildings and cooking up Chinese baby food. Sending up the Disney ethos, Barthelme recasts the famous fairy tale as an absurdist commentary on modern life. (J.H.)

Grendel by John Gardner (1971)
Retells: Beowulf
As in Resurrection (1966) and The Wreckage of Agathon (1970) Gardner demonstrates his agility at juggling metaphysical notions while telling a diverting tale. Here he has used as a means of discovering man's unsavory ways that muzziest of monsters, Grendel, from the Beowulf chronicle. As in the original, Grendel is a bewildering combination of amorphous threats and grisly specifics –  he bellows in the wilds and crunches through hapless inhabitants of the mead hall. But Grendel, the essence of primal violence, is also a learning creature. (NoveList)

Chimera by John Barth (1972)
Retells: Arabian Nights, et al
In Chimera, John Barth injects his signature wit into the tales of Scheherezade of the Arabian Nights; Perseus, the slayer of Medusa; and Bellerophon, who tamed the winged horse Pegasus. In a book that the Washington Post called “stylishly maned, tragically songful, and serpentinely elegant,” Barth retells these tales from varying perspectives, examining the myths’ relationship to reality and their resonance with the contemporary world.

Bluebeard’s Egg and Other Stories by Margaret Atwood (1986)
Retells: Bluebeard” et al
This excellent book of short stories by one of Canada's best-known authors glitters with vivid characterizations and examples of finely crafted story telling. She opens with humorous, gently satirical stories about childhood and adolescence. Her title story skillfully portrays a woman's fear and grief as she begins to question her husband's faithfulness and her own perceptions, while other stories show the despair of characters who are trying to salvage lost relationships or to establish new ones.

Burning Your Boats by Angela Carter (1996)
Retells: Various folk and fairy tales
A powerful and disturbing writer, Angela Carter created haunting fiction about travelers surviving their passage through a disintegrating universe. Often based on myth or fairy tale-borrowed or invented for the occasion-her work evokes the most powerful aspects of sexuality and selfhood, of life and death, of apocalypse.

The Great Night by Chris Adrian (2011)
Retells: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
On Midsummer Eve 2008, three people, each on the run from a failed relationship, become trapped in San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park, the secret home of Titania, Oberon, and their court. On this night, something awful is happening in the faerie kingdom: in a fit of sadness over the end of her marriage, which broke up in the wake of the death of her adopted son, Titania has set loose an ancient menace, and the chaos that ensues will threaten the lives of immortals and mortals alike.

-- Jason Harper