“Magic For Beginners” by Kelly Link
August 7, 2010 at 10:31 pm | Posted in Short Stories | 5 Comments
Tags: Kelly Link
It’s been a while since I posted an article in my series about Kelly Link’s Magic For Beginners (or anything, for that matter) but hopefully this will be worth the wait. We’ve finally gotten to the title story. I’ll readily confess once again to not having read enough short fiction, but of those I’ve read, this is my absolute favorite story. If you haven’t read it, you should definitely read it before reading my discussion of it. Theoretically it’s not available online any more but Kelly Link’s site has a link to it.
It was this story, “Magic For Beginners”, that made me want to read more Kelly Link. I’m happy to report that, rereading it once again after reading the rest of the collection that shares its name, reading more Kelly Link has actually helped me appreciate this story even more. Reading it in isolation, a lot of my reaction centered around characteristics of the story that are common to almost all of Link’s stories, most especially the sudden and initially frustrating ending and the way the story feels like a puzzle story with no solution. Becoming acclimated to this kind of writing has allowed me to focus on what makes this story unique.
Abigail Nussbaum has written about how the story captures the experience of fandom and done a better job than I would, so just read that if you haven’t and then come back. However, while the fandom aspect is a major theme and probably the root of the story’s appeal, I think that the story has a far broader scope. It’s really about fiction: stories, the people who create them, and the people who enjoy them. It’s easy to imagine a great Kelly Link story about the ups and downs of being an intense fan of a television show, not least because that story is embedded in this one, but “Magic For Beginners” is after bigger game right from the first sentence of its second paragraph. You probably remember the way the story opens: “Fox is a television character, and she isn’t dead yet. But she will be, soon. She’s a character on a television show called The Library. You’ve never seen The Library on TV, but I bet you wish you had.”
This opening salvo of second person is the authorial equivalent of Babe Ruth pointing towards where he’s about to hit the home run, and sure enough, few readers make it to the end of “Magic For Beginners” without really wanting to see some episodes of the strange underground television show where a magician named Fox fights pirates and Forbidden Books in an enormous library. That’s what I remembered months after first reading the story. But when I came back to it and and reread this story for the first time, the first sentence of the second paragraph was almost a shock: “In one episode of The Library, a boy named Jeremy Mars, fifteen years old, sits on the roof of his house in Plantagenet, Vermont.”
Throughout the story, the levels of metafiction are deliberately confused. On my first read-through, I simply forgot about the conceit (as I thought it) that Jeremy is a television show character whenever possible. The wild fantasy of the inner The Library is, I think, an act of misdirection, making the outer television show seem mundane and realistic when it is in fact a fantasy as well…the sort of fantasy Kelly Link often writes, in fact, the sort where strange magic impinges on an otherwise ordinary world. The truth is Fox is a character in a short story called “Magic For Beginners” as well as two different television shows both called The Library. For that matter, I believe she is also in Jeremy’s father’s unpublished novel. This would be hard enough to keep track of, but later in the story the various levels are actually traversed in different ways. To keep things straight, I’ll refer to the show with Jeremy and his friends as TL-Outer and the show with Fox and Prince Wing as TL-Inner.
The most obvious connection between the two television shows is that Fox starts talking to Jeremy on the phone. There must be many fans of TL-Inner, so why would Fox pick him to help her? Before she talks to him directly, she sends a message to him through Talis’ dream, and Talis’ report provides an answer: “She gave me a phone number. She was in trouble. She said you were in trouble.” Fox is definitely in trouble, having been killed by Prince Wing. Is Jeremy in trouble? His parents are fighting and he’s about to be separated from his friends, but is that really comparable to Fox’s problems? I believe he’s got a far worse problem, but more on this in a moment, because the connection between TL-Inner and TL-Outer is a lot deeper than just Fox’s ability to somehow cross the fictional divide.
I say somehow, but in fact the story hides how this happens in plain sight. After Fox has died, the statue of George Washington takes her outside the Library. That is to say, the physical Library that is the setting of TL-Inner, but by being outside that library she is apparently able to appear outside TL-Inner itself, i.e. in TL-Outer. Link is uncharacteristically clear about just where TL-Inner is: “Outside The Library, everything is dusty and red and alien, as if George Washington has carried Fox out of The Library and onto the surface of Mars.” Note that TL-Inner’s setting is referred to with the same capitalization as the show itself. And Mars is, of course, Jeremy’s last name.
It’s worth pausing to recall who is responsible for creating TL-Inner. The story tells us that “No one has ever claimed responsibility for inventing The Library.” and that “No one has ever interviewed one of the actors, or stumbled across a set, film crew, or script…” So where does the show come from? While it’s not spelled out, I think it’s reasonable to conclude that the show is constructed by, or at least directly tied into, Jeremy’s subconscious (that something like this might seem “reasonable to conclude” is probably the effect of spending so much time carefully reading Link’s fiction). Fox is in trouble, then, because Jeremy is in trouble.
This being Kelly Link, there’s no secret decoder ring that makes everything fall into perfect order. But I think it’s also worth mentioning that again and again Fox is linked with Elizabeth and Talis. One of the seemingly throwaway details of about TL-Inner, that its characters are recognized by their costumes since the actors change each episode, seems significant in light of the show’s connection with Jeremy’s mind. For one thing, this sounds a lot like how different people might, at different times, play the part of “The Love Interest” in Jeremy’s head. Fox’s death is possibly linked to Jeremy’s separation from Elizabeth and Talis, a separation that could kill any chance of an actual romance. Another oddity of the costume element is that when ordinary people dress up as Fox they are much closer to actually being Fox than one would expect. No one would think that a fan dressed in a Han Solo costume has any connection to the “real” Han Solo. Even if that person was standing on a Star Wars set in the costume, in our minds Han Solo is mostly about Harrison Ford, not a particular costume. But when Elizabeth dresses up as Fox, in a sense she has just as much connection to the Fox character as a “real” Fox actor. Talis is even dressed up as dead Fox when she delivers Fox’s message to Jeremy. The connection becomes complete later, when both Elizabeth and Talis are explicitly Fox actors in Jeremy’s dream.
Let’s get back to Jeremy’s predicament. Fox tells him, via Talis, that he’s in trouble. He might agree. Being yanked away from his friends by his parents’ marital problems might seem like the end of the world to a young teenager. If this was just a story about fandom, that would be enough. But this is a story about fiction, and it is fiction that has threatened his parents’ relationship. Despite their complaints, it is clear that Jeremy’s parents still love each other, but his father’s novel about Jeremy has sparked a crisis. Jeremy’s mother seems to feel that because Jeremy dies in his father’s novel, this puts Jeremy himself in danger, perhaps through some sort of sympathetic magic. In fairness, Jeremy’s father doesn’t seem happy about this either, not to mention somewhat perplexed: “I figured I could save you — I’m the author, after all — but you got sicker and sicker.”
What’s important here is the authorship question. From the seemingly author-less nature of TL-Inner to Karl trying to speak with the author of TL-Outer on the phone, the story makes sure we are thinking about the nature of authorship. “He put you in one of his books,” Jeremy’s mother says, making it clear where she feels the responsibility lies. Yet his father claims to have had no control. But isn’t Jeremy’s mother the one who’s clearly correct? The author controls the story. One answer is that the author is here is Kelly Link, not Gordon Mars. The characters in TL-Outer don’t know who is responsible for TL-Inner, but we do: Kelly Link, again. But I think Link points to another answer when Jeremy’s dad easily guesses that Fox is dead: “That’s the problem with being a writer, Jeremy knows. Even the biggest and most startling twists are rarely twists for you. You know how every story goes.”
Insomuch as that’s true, writers can only predict the future of stories, not real life. Real life doesn’t follow the patterns of fiction. Yet Jeremy is not person in real life…he’s a character on a television show. I think what Link is implying is that his father, being a writer, can guess how the story of TL-Outer goes even though he’s a TL-Outer character himself. This is why he can’t save Jeremy: he might be the author of his novel, but he’s not the author of TL-Outer. If this interpretation is correct, then Jeremy really is in trouble: he’s going to die of a brain tumor.
If that seems depressing, then don’t worry, there’s some good news. Dying of a brain tumor is final in the real world, but on a television show (particularly fantasy shows) death can be somewhat more temporary. The way Jeremy’s father describes his novel, it sounds like a mundane story, the sort of story in which death is just as permanent as real life, but this is more misdirection. It might seem realistic compared to the bizarre world of TL-Inner or the giant spider novels that Jeremy’s father usually writes, but TL-Outer is still a fantasy story with telegenic geeks who receive messages in dreams and watch a television show that is apparently beamed out of the main character’s subconscious. Jeremy and Fox have two things in common, the story tells us: “They’re both made-up people. They’re both dead.” But everyone takes it almost for granted (it’s that “almost” that preserves the dramatic tension) that Fox will be resurrected somehow. We can likewise take it almost for granted that death isn’t the end of the road for Jeremy. At long last the reason for the story’s title seems apparent: From the outset Fox is described as a magician, and while Jeremy is just a beginner, if they can save Fox, then together they can save Jeremy.