“Lull” by Kelly Link

March 14, 2011 at 12:44 am | Posted in Short Stories | 1 Comment
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It’s been long enough since I last posted about Kelly Link’s anthology Magic For Beginners that it’s doubtful anyone remembers I was doing it. Well, I was, and finally I’m getting around to writing about “Lull”, the last story in the collection. Like everything except the title story, “Lull” is freely available in the collection’s electronic form from Kelly Link’s site.

The delay in getting to this story was, of course, mostly a matter of procrastination on my part, but there was another issue as well: my reaction to the story. Namely, I didn’t particularly like it. Now, if you read this blog very often you know I’m not shy about giving negative reviews when I don’t like something, and when it comes to short stories in particular I’ve long since accepted the fact that I just don’t like most of them. Kelly Link’s stories have been a different matter thus far, however, and with the possible exception of “The Cannon” I’ve liked every single story in Magic For Beginners. What really gave me pause, however, was the fact that when I first read “Magic For Beginners” I didn’t like it either, and my objections were similar to my problems with “Lull”. If I eventually changed my mind about that story, who’s to say I wouldn’t about this one as well? Even worse than that experience, when I first read “The Faery Handbag” I didn’t like the story and thought I understood it. In other words, I didn’t even get that I didn’t get it. Could the same thing be happening with “Lull”? It’s possible. But at this point, after several rereads months apart, I feel that if I don’t get it now I’m never going to get it.

So what’s this story about? Like “Magic For Beginners”, it’s a story of stories, with several different “levels” of story. But where “Magic For Beginners” was a story not just of stories but about stories, I believe “Lull” is about regret, or perhaps more specifically our relationship with the past. The men playing cards feel as though they have no place in the present and that something went wrong in their lives that has made them unable to realize their potential. Susan is so affected by the loss of her brother that she can only think about somehow getting him back. The journey of the woman in the innermost story back to the beginning of time is presented as a sort of rejuvenation, an undoing of her tangled life that will allow for something fresh and new. The Susan at the end of the story directly cites the immutability of the past as the source of the problems with her relationship with Ed.

The cheerleader’s backwards life might seem an answer to many of these concerns. And sure enough, the cheerleader doesn’t seem emotionally impacted by her parents’ death. Why should she, she hasn’t met them yet! But her life is one that is devoid of agency. The causal arrows of her world still point in the normal direction, so she cannot cause anything to happen. Wanting to have a good childhood before confronting her rather disturbing destiny of pre-birth non-existence, all she can do is appeal to the Devil for help.

This brings us to my problems with the story. If the cheerleader is living backwards, is she saying all her words backwards? In what sense is she alive at all? This is not the sort of story that is interested in technical questions of that kind, and I can with some effort suspend my disbelief on that count. There’s a much more fundamental problem, however, and that is the way the various levels of story within story interact with each other. Unlike in “Magic for Beginners”, where there was crossover that could be explained, the conceptual bleed between “Lull”‘s stories resists any attempt to rationalize them. Starlight doesn’t know Ed and Susan, but they show up in her story anyway, as does Ed’s strange house and even the men playing cards themselves. There are some details that might have pointed to some explanation, but again they don’t resolve: “Starlight” is surely an alias, and Ed actually calls her “Susan” once, but Susan works at SETI, not a phone service. The previous occupant of Ed’s house was apparently a Satanist, but how this meaningfully connects with the cheerleader’s story or anything else isn’t obvious (in a very positive article about the story, Jeffrey Ford, though not truly venturing an interpretation, cites as important the fact the Devil is the “Father of Time”…which still would not explain much if it were true, and isn’t true in any case).

In a recent review, Martin Lewis discussed how important plausibility is for the enjoyment of fiction, briefly in the main review but then at length with Adam Roberts in the comments. I don’t want to say that for me to enjoy a story like “Lull” it must not have the sort of loose ends I’ve described, if only because that sounds a little too much like the arguments of those who dismiss the entire fantasy genre. I think a reasonable test, along the lines of the one Martin applies to Picasso in those comments, is to ask whether or not the departure from realism serves an aesthetic purpose. In the case of “Lull” the issue is not so much “realism” as consistency. The fact these stories are connected in irrational ways is a constant distraction, at least for me, and what does this narrative discord have to do with the story’s theme? If all the story’s levels were flattened, their tenuous connections were removed, and they were presented one after another in a piece titled “Four Very Short Stories About Regret”, would something be lost?

My answers to these questions are “nothing” and “no”, and that’s why in the end I feel the story doesn’t work. The individual elements are all interesting and written with Link’s characteristic humor and deft characterization, but the whole is less than the sum of its parts, all of which are too short and simple to be satisfying stories when forced to stand on their own.

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