Magic For Beginners by Kelly Link
March 13, 2010 at 12:22 am | Posted in 5 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 9 Comments
Tags: Kelly Link
I have an interesting history with Kelly Link’s work. When her first collection, Stranger Things Happen, came out I read a ton of good reviews. I didn’t seek it out, though. I like so few short stories that I only read collections if I’ve already read something by the author and been really impressed. But I do sometimes read award nominees, so I read Link’s “The Faery Handbag” along with the other novelettes on the 2005 Nebula shortlist. I’m afraid I wasn’t too impressed. The story seemed like it was all style and no substance, the exact opposite of my tastes in fiction, short or otherwise. More on that in a moment. Later I read a second story, her novella “Magic For Beginners”, when it was also nominated for something, although I don’t remember which award since I didn’t write anything down and it was nominated for (and won) many awards. This time I was more impressed, getting caught up in the imagination of the fictional TV show “The Library” and intrigued by the story’s strange metafictional overlaps. Then the story ended without seeming to resolve anything. Frustrated, I wrote the story off as yet another one of those stories, so common in science fiction and fantasy, that is all setup and no delivery. An interesting story, certainly, but a tease.
But a funny thing happened. The story stuck with me. Several years later, I had forgotten almost all the details, but what little I could remember was fascinating. Was the story really that strange or was my memory playing tricks on me? And so I returned to the story. Yes, it really was that strange. In fact, it was far stranger than I remembered. It was also beautiful. Reading through it the second time, I read more slowly and this time was not impatient to get to the end of the story to learn the answers to its questions (since I knew none would be provided). It had been the almost deranged nature of “The Library” that stuck in my mind, but now I found so much more: the touching, understated anecdotes of the main character’s friendships, the way his parents marriage was breaking apart due to his father’s fiction, and most of all the simple but affecting prose that tied it all together.
I went back and reread the story a third time a few months later, and realized it was my absolute favorite short story. Now, understand, I don’t think I’ve read more than maybe a hundred short stories in my life. Well, two hundred, maybe, since I’ve plowed through a few big collections of stories I mostly didn’t think much of, like Ascent of Wonder and Arthur C Clarke’s collected stories. A lot of people online have read orders of magnitude more. But small sample size or not, I was amazed that somehow, even though “Magic For Beginners” broke all the rules I thought I had for liking stories, I loved it.
So far I’ve been talking mainly about the story “Magic For Beginners” and not the collection of the same name, which is what I am actually trying to review here. You’d think that after realizing how much I liked the story “Magic For Beginners” I would have rushed to read the rest of the collection. I’d like to say I don’t know what I was thinking, but I still remember: well, I liked that one story from Kelly Link, but that was some sort of amazing alignment, and the rest of her work must surely be the empty exercises in style I had originally thought she trafficked in. Eventually I realized how silly that was and sat down to read the collection, promising myself that at the very least I had another reread of the title story to look forward to. The collection’s first story is “The Faery Handbag”, and I felt apprehensive. On the strength of basically one story I now thought Kelly Link was some sort of genius short story writer, and I couldn’t believe “The Faery Handbag” was as weak a story as I remembered. On the other hand, if I read it and found out it was a great story, I’d have to come on here and try to explain why I was wrong.
Well, I’ve read it again, and it’s a great story. That was a really strong year for novelettes, and I’d have to reread Benjamen Rosenbaum’s “Biographical Notes…” and Christopher Rowe’s “Voluntary State” to be certain, but it’s hard to believe it wasn’t the best of those nominated. More importantly, it was way better than I realized the first time. So here I am. Why was I wrong? The story hasn’t changed, so I have to attribute the difference in reaction to myself as a reader.
Whenever I talk about short stories, I always say I like stories that, to me, are recognizable as stories. That is to say, a narrative that starts in one place and builds up to somewhere else. Maybe that’s not the dictionary definition of a story, but that’s what American culture has taught me to expect. For me the ideal short story writer is Ted Chiang, whose stories aren’t content to just move characters through a situation, but simultaneously move the reader through ideas in pursuit of synthesis. But all too many stories, especially shorter ones, don’t seem to go anywhere. They are content to stay in one place, paint a single image, moment, or thought, and that’s it. I call them mood pieces, and from me that’s not a compliment. While they might be pleasant to read, I don’t feel it’s worth my time to read even good ones, and they’re not always good.
So how does this relate to Kelly Link’s stories? Upon first reading, they almost always seem like “mere” mood pieces to me. They usually do not have action-driven narratives, for one thing, and one of Link’s strengths is the way she evokes different moods with her prose. When her stories end, the major issues they have raised, or at least what on first reading seem like the major issues, go unresolved. But when I reread her stories I find there is indeed narrative motion, just not in an obvious, conventional way. The best way I can describe the difference is that, where an ordinary story drives you down a road past interesting scenery to a perhaps surprising destination, Link’s stories seem to stay in one place, looking at one odd scene, but upon closer inspection have shifted the angle during the story so that the same scene now appears different. If you don’t pay attention, you won’t realize the angle is different at all, and if you miss that then you certainly won’t see what the story is really supposed to show.
I mentioned earlier that Link is very evocative, and while her different stories aim at different moods and emotions, they all have an underlying strangeness, a sort of dream-logic. There are other writers who achieve similar effects (Catherynne Valente’s story “The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew” is a recent example) but for me I associate this most strongly with Gene Wolfe, most notably in his Book of the New Sun. I think a quick comparison of Wolfe and Link is instructive. Reading Book of the New Sun for the first time (not long before I would first encounter Link’s “The Faery Handbag”) I marveled at how the story seemed to flow more like a dream than reality. I had absolutely no ability to predict what would happen, since events didn’t seem to proceed according to the usual rules. Yet in spite of it all, I felt sure that there were indeed rules. The story was not intrinsically surreal, it merely seemed so because I didn’t properly understand the story and its world. If I just studied it carefully enough, it would all make sense. It’s obvious I’m not the only one who feels this way, for over the years hundreds or even thousands of people have tried to piece together Wolfe’s puzzles, coming up with such elaborate theories and explanatory systems that the Wolfe mailing list sometimes seems more like the Talmud than a group of fans talking about a favorite author. But many others who encounter Wolfe’s work seem to miss the undercurrents entirely, and accuse the “scholars” of projecting on to a hopelessly vague text.
Reading “The Faery Handbag” for the first time I was in the latter camp. The story seemed like a series of strange facts without any satisfying logic to connect them. When I came to “Magic For Beginners”, I felt the same way, but this time I was particularly frustrated, because even a superficial reading of the story finds so many fascinating details that I desperately wanted to believe there was a secret knowledge that would illuminate them. Still, after my first reading, I wrote it off. I couldn’t figure out what the story meant, so there was no meaning. Maybe hipsters like this sort of thing, I thought, but I want stories to make sense.
Rereading those stories while reading the collection, as well as reading the collection’s other stories for the first time, I now think there is indeed plenty of meaning to be found in Links stories–if the reader is willing to search for it. Link’s puzzles are of a different nature than Wolfe’s, but they are indeed puzzles with solutions and not just exercises in style. Unfortunately, perhaps because other people have similar reactions to my initial one, there isn’t a lot of analysis of Link’s stories online. Writing about “Magic For Beginners” in 2006, Abigail Nussbaum wrote that she couldn’t explain the story, but believed an explanation existed and even asked, “Would somebody smarter than I am please start writing about these stories?” I’m definitely not smarter than she is, and I’ve spent a good part of this review confessing my faults as a reader, but since the intervening four years have gone by without a lot of analysis, I’m going to take a shot at it.
But before I get into that, this is still technically a review of the collection. If you can’t tell, I really like this collection. If you haven’t read it, I absolutely recommend you do so at the earliest opportunity. If you have read it, then stick around and I’ll try not to embarrass myself too much while reviewing and interpreting the individual stories. I should mention I haven’t even read Stranger Things Happen so I’m particularly unqualified to understand Link’s work, but this is a blog and not a dissertation, so I’m not letting that stop me. In any case, I certainly don’t claim to understand everything about these stories. In fact, having only read a few of them once, I’m confident that right now I don’t understand anything about those yet. But I’m going to reread them one at a time and then do the best I can to understand them. Still, even if I end up more confused than when I started, it’s an excuse to spend more time with some of the best short stories I’ve ever read, so I figure I’ll still come out ahead.
Individual story posts: