“The Great Divorce” by Kelly Link

June 6, 2010 at 9:51 pm | Posted in Short Stories | 5 Comments
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Time to continue talking about Kelly Link’s Magic For Beginners.


The premise for “The Great Divorce” sounds more like a story from Ted Chiang than Kelly Link.  Just as Chiang’s “Hell Is the Absence of God” posited a world where religious truth was obvious and then explored how society would integrate it, “The Great Divorce” supposes a world where ghosts are real and therefore modern society has adapted to their presence.  But where Chiang uses this framework as a model to examine Christian ideas, Link uses it to explore the mundane.

One of Kelly Link’s gifts as a writer is her humorous prose and wordplay, but this is the only story in Magic for Beginners that I would describe as an actual satire.  It begins with the title, which in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce was a metaphor for the relationship of heaven and hell, but here refers to an actual divorce between a living man and his dead wife.  Throughout the story, Link has fun re-interpreting marriage cliches for a living/dead union.  The result is an enjoyable read, but very lightweight compared to the collection’s other stories.

The one confounding factor, the element that makes it recognizable as a Kelly Link story, is the narration.  Although at first the story seems centered on Alan, the living husband seeking a divorce, the viewpoint character turns out to be the hired medium Sarah Parminter (and then her cousin Fred for the details of the contrasting marriage).  Unlike most of the living, Sarah can see and hear dead people.  But while the narrative describes what she sees, we are never told what they tell her.  Of course, if she’s relating everything word for word that’s not an issue.  But at the end we find out that Sarah is providing what is at best a loose translation.  Although Lavvie can hear Sarah’s improvisations, we’re told she doesn’t care about the content: “All of it was true, after all.  I love you.  I don’t love you.” Then the story ends by lapsing into first person and exulting in its own unreliability.

If there was any hope of drawing Great Conclusions from the story, it was ended by the angry conclusion, which stops only a few steps short of saying that the ways of the dead are unknowable to the living.  Most of the story deals with professions of love and the degree to which they can be trusted, then in the end implies that nothing about the dead is trustworthy (and yet this is coming from a dead narrator).

This is probably my least favorite of the stories in this collection due to its relatively low aspirations, and along with “The Cannon” it was singled out in some reviews as a “dud” story, but it’s still both funny and thought-provoking throughout its short length. That this is arguably the weakest story in the collection says a lot about how great Magic for Beginners really is.

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