“The Cannon” by Kelly Link
March 17, 2010 at 3:06 am | Posted in Short Stories | 6 Comments
Tags: Kelly Link
This is another in my series of posts about stories from Kelly Link’s Magic For Beginners. Again, there will be spoilers (if that’s even possible for a story like this one).
This is probably the strangest story in Magic For Beginners. Not strange in terms of its content, which veers unpredictably between farce, fantasy, and folklore, but in terms of its structure. It’s by far the shortest story in the collection but also one of the most antagonistic to the reader, for all of the oddities in its form serve to obfuscate.
First there is the interview format. Although rare, this is not an inherently confusing form. The interrogation section of Cloud Atlas, for example, was very accessible. However “The Cannon” seems mainly to use the form as a method of anonymizing the speakers. The first time I read the story, I didn’t quite follow that there are at least two distinct people answering questions (the person whose brother is being fired from the cannon at the beginning and end of the story and Venus Shebby, who tells of her sojourn in the land of “beautiful people”). Then there is the identity of the questioner and their relationship with the person who has a brother. Although the questioner is probably female (the questioner’s appearance is directly compared to that of the young Venus Shebby) and the person with a brother probably male (has an affair with a married woman), I don’t think that’s certain.
The setting is likewise indistinct. It seems rooted in the modern world, since it has an Episcopalian church, the cannon was connected with real cities like Cairo and Prague, and there are references to Napoleon and Beethoven. On the other hand, this is also a place where a “master gunner” marries a cannon, people fired from cannons can travel thus to distant lands, and a time after “all the wars were over and done with”.
Finally, the prose itself dances between temporarily serious statements, wordplay, and fairy tales. In particular, at times there’s the use of an almost poetic repetition, including the first lines of the story: “Q: And who will be fired out of the cannon? A: My brother will be fired out of the cannon.” Although at times the story seems to want to be taken seriously, such as when it turns out that Venus Shebby is probably a circus freak wearing a thrift store carpet to substantiate her made up story while she sells access to “photographs” of the strange people she claims to have met, it never stays serious long enough to allow for a literal interpretation.
There are certainly some pretty satisfying allegorical readings, but these too are diffuse. The story of the affair seems fairly straightforward: when the husband walks in on them, their lives completely change, and it is as if they are launched from a cannon. The people having the affair completely lose their place in society, although (typical!) the woman never returns to polite society while the man eventually recovers his position (grabbing the steeple suggests a public show of religious penitence).
But two of the other major anecdotes involving the cannon, the brother and his wives and Venus Shebby’s story, both strongly associate the cannon with death. The brother, upon being fired, shall never return, and where he will end up is unknown. His wives are loaded in after him like the old Hindu funerals. When Venus wants to leave the land of the beautiful people, she wraps herself in a funeral shroud before loading herself into her ice cannon. It is also in these sections of the story that the cannon is described the language of the inevitable, firing because it must be fired rather than through any real human agency. Even the story of the master gunner, perhaps a reference to the fetishization of technology in general and guns in particular but mostly played for laughs, culminates in the dead gunner’s body being fired from his “wife” the cannon.
Most reviews of Magic For Beginners, if they mentioned this story at all, felt it was the weakest or at least most insignificant in the collection. I don’t disagree, but it’s still a fun read with its unique structure and humor, and word for word it’s probably as thought provoking as the other stories.