“The Faery Handbag” by Kelly Link
March 13, 2010 at 12:54 am | Posted in Short Stories | 4 Comments
Tags: Kelly Link
This is an in-depth analysis of Kelly Link’s story “The Faery Handbag”. As such, it will have many spoilers and should be avoided if you haven’t read the story. And if you haven’t, I highly recommend reading it and the other stories in the collection Magic For Beginners, but you can also read it online at Kelly Link’s official site. Once you’ve read it, meet me back here and we can talk about it what it means.
In my original estimation, “The Faery Handbag” was a mere mood piece. The narrator, Genevieve, describes her strange grandmother Zofia, her grandmother’s even stranger handbag and its purported properties, and finally relates the sad day her childhood friend disappeared into it. And that’s that. Not a very satisfying story, I thought in 2005. And I was right. Taken as a sequence of events, the story has little to offer.
I don’t think that any more. This story was reviewed by dozens of people online since it was in several collections, not to mention short and available for free when nominated for awards. The general consensus (Nicholas Whyte provides a good summary of the opinion at the time) is that it’s the most straightforward and accessible of Link’s stories. Even the people who really liked it seemed to interpret it simply as a matter of mood, praising the pleasant, fairy tale feel of it. Niall Harrison summed it up by saying “There’s no allegory, just pure story.” And I’m not picking on him, I thought the same at the time, and I could definitely be wrong now.
But I think this is a misreading, not because Niall and I weren’t smart enough to understand the story, but because Link’s folksy style and reputation as a “weird writer” like, say, Mieville instead of a “puzzle writer” like Gene Wolfe left us with our guards down. Right before saying it’s pure story, Niall mentions the narrator saying “it’s hard work telling everything in the right order” and seems to think this is just a whimsical bit of conversational writing. Maybe so. But I’ve spent so much time grappling with Gene Wolfe’s narrators that this kind of statement sets off alarm bells even in other people’s writing. From Wolfe this would be an unmistakable shot across the bow, a sign that the events are not in the right order, and that the reader must arrange them differently to understand the story.
To examine this further, I want to employ a little trick I’ve picked up (probably from someone else, but I’ve had the bad grace to forget the source), namely thinking about where a story starts and where it ends. Life is continuous, and to tell “the full story” of something one could start with the births of the relevant people, or even before, yet authors must choose to depict a certain window of time. If the author is good, it’s the window that best frames what they think the story is about. For me the classic example is Homer’s Iliad. Many people will tell you it’s about the Trojan War. If it were, you’d expect it to start with the Greeks arriving at Troy, or perhaps with Paris stealing Helen, and then end with the destruction of the city. Ridley Scott’s Troy, in fact, follows this structure. Homer does not. Helen’s kidnapping is referred to but not depicted, the arrival is told in flashback quite a way into the story, and the fall of the city is foreshadowed but not shown. This is because the Iliad isn’t about the Trojan War, it’s about the wrath of Achilles and its consequences.
A more recent example would be Lord of the Rings, which, if it were an adventure story about destroying an evil ring, begins too early and ends way, way, way too late. Relating how almost every main character dies is an enormous misstep in an adventure story, but the right thing to do if Lord of the Rings is about, as Tolkien claimed, “death and the search for deathlessness”. In this case, the Hollywood version preserved much of Tolkien’s choices in framing the story, except it told the story as an adventure story about destroying an evil ring, which made for a lot of impatient audiences at the end of Jackson’s Return of the King.
To get back on track, what does this tell us about “The Faery Handbag”? Although Jake opening the handbag in the movie theater doesn’t happen until close to the end of the story, it’s obvious from very early on that he’s disappeared into the bag. The fact that Jake goes in is not, therefore, what the story is building to. And yes, it does build and move from one place to another, although in my impatience to find facts and resolution I didn’t notice when I first read it. The fact that Jake goes in is important, but the story is much more interested in why he goes in, and this is indeed withheld until near the end.
To the teenage and somewhat self-absorbed Genevieve, it’s her fault he goes in. She told him the secret when she should have known he wouldn’t be able to resist trying it. But looking closer, Genevieve doesn’t appear to be particularly reliable when it comes to Jake. In the story’s opening anecdote, Jake is looking at clothes with girls. Genevieve concedes that this is not typical behavior for a teenage boy, but shrugs it off by saying Jake “always has a good time, no matter what he’s doing”. In describing the events that day she also mentions that Jake had a job, and once we have read the whole story we know this dates the anecdote to the point where the good times had stopped for Jake.
Combining all the details about Jake’s life paints a different picture than the one explicitly given by the narrator. Jake, we hear, was smarter than his peers, so much so the school moved him up two grades. Socially, the move was such a disaster his mother had to pull him out of school entirely. After two years of home school, his mother got cancer and he was forced to rejoin his age peers in seventh grade. According to Genevieve he was still smarter than everyone else, but he had learned “how to fit in”…but we don’t hear of him having any male friends. In ninth grade, his mother’s cancer returns and she dies (Jake smashes her ceramic frogs, the only time Genevieve mentions him expressing any emotion other than fondness for her). His father almost immediately starts dating his fencing coach. Genevieve never admits Jake is doing anything during this time other than, presumably, “always [having] a good time”, but then he carries out what looks suspiciously like a suicide attempt in the school pool. Genevieve makes it sound reasonable…they’d have gotten him out in time if anything had gone wrong…yet she was crying while telling her mother about it. Everyone starts calling Jake “Houdini” at this point, and it’s clear Jake wants to escape from his life. But surviving the Houdini reenactment just makes things worse, as MIT withdraws its acceptance following his expulsion. Jake, the child prodigy who has learned Latin and Greek, studied fencing and ballroom dancing, filmed a movie and wrote a novel, becomes a high school dropout working concessions at the local movie theater. When the chance to commit a different sort of suicide comes along in the form of the handbag, he doesn’t hesitate. “Everyone thinks Jake ran away,” Genevieve tells us, “except for my mother, who is convinced he was trying out another Houdini escape…” She implies that they are wrong, that Jake fell afoul of this supernatural influence essentially by accident, or perhaps her own negligence. But in fact both of these theories are accurate.
“You’re better off without him, Genevieve, I think,” is Zofia’s conclusion about Jake. Reading it the first time, I thought she was mad in a petty sort of way because she didn’t like anyone else touching her handbag, but now I think she’s mad that Jake has left Genevieve. Using the same language one uses with a distraught person threatening suicide, she desperately talks Genevieve out of immediately following Jake into the handbag. Zofia tries to suggest she can go in after Jake, but obviously Genevieve would follow, so she must find some other solution. Genevieve doesn’t understand what happens at the library, but whatever happened was clearly premeditated (Zofia apologizes in advance), and the results suggest her grandmother gave her life to get the handbag safely away from Genevieve.
From my survey of the opinions posted at the time, most people reacting to the story regarded the handbag as charming. How delightful, a purse with fairies and a village in it, people said. A few even interpreted the use of the fantastic in the story as portraying a happier world, a world in which wonderful adventures into handbags are possible. But there’s another way to look at taking a trip to an unknown place, a trip that completely cuts you off from your friends and family, a trip that might enable you to meet people from long ago, a trip you might come back from but only in brief, surreal moments, a trip that requires passing a vicious, supernatural dog…yes, death.
But if the handbag is as grim as all that, why do so many readers come away thinking it’s delightful? There’s no question that Kelly Link buried this reading where it wasn’t easy to find (assuming I’m not just projecting it on to the story), so it’s natural to ask, was this a mistake? Is this a failure of communication we can attribute to authorial error? Maybe. Yet who is really to blame for the submerging of the handbag’s nature? Is it Kelly Link, or the narrator, Genevieve? I argue it is the latter. For one thing, Genevieve is too self-centered to assign Jake any responsibility, acting like he’s a five year old who has wandered away from his mother. But even more importantly, admitting that Jake intentionally ran away would mean admitting Jake either didn’t love her nearly as much as she thought, or else was so self-centered himself that he didn’t think of the effect his departure would have on Genevieve. My guess is that it was some of both.
However, it’s not just Genevieve who copes with her loss by misrepresenting the handbag. I’ve spent most of my time on Jake, but consider Zofia’s life. To her granddaughter, Zofia seems cheerful, quirky, and mysterious, so it’s easy to come away thinking she’s just been having a grand old time her whole life. But like Jake, her life doesn’t look quite as good when viewed carefully. Everyone she knew as a child is gone, disappeared into the handbag. The entire world of her childhood is gone, in fact, to the point that it’s not on any maps. According to Genevieve’s narration, presumably relaying the way Zofia portrayed it, this wasn’t a big deal. She liked movies and had fallen in love anyway. But the man she fell in love with disappears into the handbag too, leaving her to raise her daughter alone. No big deal, again. He was lousy husband. Since then, she has kept the handbag a secret, and it is implied this was done to protect the village.
But should we believe Zofia? “I am a wonderful liar,” she says in another one of those moments that in Gene Wolfe’s work would be a clear signpost for the reader to tread carefully. “Promise me you won’t believe a single word.” Any time a character in a fantasy story says something fantastic happened and is thought to be a liar, we know they’re surely telling the truth. This seems to be the narrator’s take here. But I think Zofia has told the truth about the events of her life (more or less: she appears to have pulled a Usual Suspects and made up a fake name for her village based on available Scrabble tiles) but lied about their emotional significance.
In fact, Zofia has lost her childhood and her husband to the handbag’s almost-death, and has spent her life “taking care of” the handbag. Not because the people inside need protection, since they already have some sort of Cerberus guarding the way, but instead to keep the handbag from having the same effect on other people’s lives it has already had on hers. She tells her granddaughter about the handbag so she can take up this burden, but she’s not ready, and Zofia dies to get the handbag away from Genevieve, at least until Genevieve is a little older and wiser. But this was too late, the cycle is already repeating again: Genevieve has lost her boyfriend much as Zofia lost her husband, and now she is mythologizing her story in the same self-deceiving way Zofia did. Consciously or unconsciously, they lie to themselves and anyone else that going into the handbag is just going on an adventure, painting it as an object of romance instead of tragedy. This helps them deal with their loss, but also helps perpetuate it down the generations.
Earlier I noted this story is said to be one of Kelly Link’s simplest and most accessible stories. This is probably true. I think this is the most straight-forward and easily understood of the stories in Magic For Beginners (with the possible exception of the relatively short story “The Cannon”). Unlike the collection’s other stories, the fantastic here is confined to a single object with several well-defined rules. The handbag’s origin is not reliably explained and what happens when Zofia dies is not clear, but the facts surrounding Genevieve’s life are not in dispute. This isn’t true for most of the other stories, which makes them much more difficult to interpret. Whether that makes “The Faery Handbag” the best story in the collection or not depends on what you, the reader, want to take away from a short story. It will take more work to understand less about “The Hortlak”, which I’ll be posting about next time, but there may be more meaning in its ambiguity.