“Lull” by Kelly Link

March 14, 2011 at 12:44 am | Posted in Short Stories | 2 Comments

It’s been long enough since I last posted about Kelly Link’s anthology Magic For Beginners that it’s doubtful anyone remembers I was doing it. Well, I was, and finally I’m getting around to writing about “Lull”, the last story in the collection. Like everything except the title story, “Lull” is freely available in the collection’s electronic form from Kelly Link’s site.

The delay in getting to this story was, of course, mostly a matter of procrastination on my part, but there was another issue as well: my reaction to the story. Namely, I didn’t particularly like it. Now, if you read this blog very often you know I’m not shy about giving negative reviews when I don’t like something, and when it comes to short stories in particular I’ve long since accepted the fact that I just don’t like most of them. Kelly Link’s stories have been a different matter thus far, however, and with the possible exception of “The Cannon” I’ve liked every single story in Magic For Beginners. What really gave me pause, however, was the fact that when I first read “Magic For Beginners” I didn’t like it either, and my objections were similar to my problems with “Lull”. If I eventually changed my mind about that story, who’s to say I wouldn’t about this one as well? Even worse than that experience, when I first read “The Faery Handbag” I didn’t like the story and thought I understood it. In other words, I didn’t even get that I didn’t get it. Could the same thing be happening with “Lull”? It’s possible. But at this point, after several rereads months apart, I feel that if I don’t get it now I’m never going to get it.

So what’s this story about? Like “Magic For Beginners”, it’s a story of stories, with several different “levels” of story. But where “Magic For Beginners” was a story not just of stories but about stories, I believe “Lull” is about regret, or perhaps more specifically our relationship with the past. The men playing cards feel as though they have no place in the present and that something went wrong in their lives that has made them unable to realize their potential. Susan is so affected by the loss of her brother that she can only think about somehow getting him back. The journey of the woman in the innermost story back to the beginning of time is presented as a sort of rejuvenation, an undoing of her tangled life that will allow for something fresh and new. The Susan at the end of the story directly cites the immutability of the past as the source of the problems with her relationship with Ed.

The cheerleader’s backwards life might seem an answer to many of these concerns. And sure enough, the cheerleader doesn’t seem emotionally impacted by her parents’ death. Why should she, she hasn’t met them yet! But her life is one that is devoid of agency. The causal arrows of her world still point in the normal direction, so she cannot cause anything to happen. Wanting to have a good childhood before confronting her rather disturbing destiny of pre-birth non-existence, all she can do is appeal to the Devil for help.

This brings us to my problems with the story. If the cheerleader is living backwards, is she saying all her words backwards? In what sense is she alive at all? This is not the sort of story that is interested in technical questions of that kind, and I can with some effort suspend my disbelief on that count. There’s a much more fundamental problem, however, and that is the way the various levels of story within story interact with each other. Unlike in “Magic for Beginners”, where there was crossover that could be explained, the conceptual bleed between “Lull”‘s stories resists any attempt to rationalize them. Starlight doesn’t know Ed and Susan, but they show up in her story anyway, as does Ed’s strange house and even the men playing cards themselves. There are some details that might have pointed to some explanation, but again they don’t resolve: “Starlight” is surely an alias, and Ed actually calls her “Susan” once, but Susan works at SETI, not a phone service. The previous occupant of Ed’s house was apparently a Satanist, but how this meaningfully connects with the cheerleader’s story or anything else isn’t obvious (in a very positive article about the story, Jeffrey Ford, though not truly venturing an interpretation, cites as important the fact the Devil is the “Father of Time”…which still would not explain much if it were true, and isn’t true in any case).

In a recent review, Martin Lewis discussed how important plausibility is for the enjoyment of fiction, briefly in the main review but then at length with Adam Roberts in the comments. I don’t want to say that for me to enjoy a story like “Lull” it must not have the sort of loose ends I’ve described, if only because that sounds a little too much like the arguments of those who dismiss the entire fantasy genre. I think a reasonable test, along the lines of the one Martin applies to Picasso in those comments, is to ask whether or not the departure from realism serves an aesthetic purpose. In the case of “Lull” the issue is not so much “realism” as consistency. The fact these stories are connected in irrational ways is a constant distraction, at least for me, and what does this narrative discord have to do with the story’s theme? If all the story’s levels were flattened, their tenuous connections were removed, and they were presented one after another in a piece titled “Four Very Short Stories About Regret”, would something be lost?

My answers to these questions are “nothing” and “no”, and that’s why in the end I feel the story doesn’t work. The individual elements are all interesting and written with Link’s characteristic humor and deft characterization, but the whole is less than the sum of its parts, all of which are too short and simple to be satisfying stories when forced to stand on their own.

“Magic For Beginners” by Kelly Link

August 7, 2010 at 10:31 pm | Posted in Short Stories | 5 Comments

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.

“The Great Divorce” by Kelly Link

June 6, 2010 at 9:51 pm | Posted in Short Stories | 5 Comments

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.

“Some Zombie Contingency Plans” by Kelly Link

May 18, 2010 at 1:43 am | Posted in Short Stories | 7 Comments

Back to my series on stories from Kelly Link’s Magic For Beginners. I haven’t graphed it but I suspect the time between these posts is rising exponentially. All I can say in my defense is these are hard stories to write about. If I’d known how hard it would be I wouldn’t have committed to it, but I’m glad I did. I’m learning a lot, and hopefully other people will find it helpful too.

If you haven’t read the story, it’s available online on Kelly Link’s web site. As usual, spoilers ahead.

There’s not a lot of discussion of this story online, and a lot of what is out there isn’t really about the story at all.  In his New York Times review of Magic For Beginners, Michael Knight questioned whether the zombies in “Some Zombie Contingency Plans” were supposed to be a metaphor. In a blog posting I can’t find any more, Scott Westerfeld jumped all over this, denouncing the tendancy for mainstream reviews to insist on metaphorical readings for science fiction and fantasy at the expense of literal interpretations. Quite a lot of discussion resulted in the genre community, mostly approving expansions of Westerfeld’s argument.

Looking back on it all five years later I’m a little perplexed. Don’t get me wrong, I agree with the general point Westerfeld apparently made (I hesitate to say definitely because, like a scholar studying a lost work of antiquity, I can only read Westerfeld’s original article in the quotations that others made in surviving texts): mainstream authors and critics alike too often think fiction is only relevant if it is directly, immediately applicable to the present moment. Apart from what Tolkien said about it, is Lord of the Rings really improved by reading the One Ring as a metaphor for nuclear weapons? Surely the answer is no, and an alternate version of the text that fit this reading better would be far poorer than the real one.

Unfortunately, however, Westerfeld wasn’t talking about Lord of the Rings, he was talking about “Some Zombie Contingency Plans” and as a very few people in the comments from the discussions I linked noted, there really aren’t any zombies in it. Insomuch as there are any, I agree with the New York Times reviewer that they can best be understood metaphorically. Like most of Kelly Link’s stories there is a single fantastic departure from the real world, but it’s not zombies at all, but rather a small, unassuming painting that the main character finds in a dark museum room.

The bane of modern literary discussion is that hardly anyone has read the same stuff, and I assume that most people commenting in those discussions hadn’t actually read the story, so I can understand the mistake. But anyone who had read any Kelly Link story probably should have known better. After all, even if the reviewer’s reading wasn’t really correct, feeling confused by a Kelly Link story isn’t a crime, is it? I hope not, because I am invariably confused after reading one of her stories for the first time. Multiple readings don’t always dispel it, either, and this story is a good example.

Maybe confusion is part of the intended effect. Perhaps that sounds like a desperate move for me to make, and it is, but give it a chance. The story is, after all, an examination of the fluidity of identity. In a story whose main character shifts to match his surroundings, should we be surprised the story itself veers from mundane to horror by way of surrealism? The first line sets out to tell the reader what the story is about: “This is a story about being lost in the woods.” If we are taking everything in the story literally, this is a shocking announcement to find on a second read-through, because no one is lost in the woods in the main narrative. No one is in the woods at all, actually.

But reading the story a second time reveals plenty of reasons to think the story is playing games with meaning. Early on, for example, there is an extended discussion of the main character’s views on art. The first time through, these are mildly amusing, but nothing more. Reading it a second time, however, familiar with the later revelation of the main character’s real name, Arthur (“but everybody called him Art. Ha ha.”), the whole section takes on an ingenious double meaning:

  • “Art was why Soap was in prison.”
  • “Soap still didn’t know much about art.”
  • “Great art came out of great suffering. Soap had gone through a lot of shit because of art.”

There’s plenty more where that came from, I didn’t make an exhaustive list. The climax of this section comes when art and soap are actually compared: “There was a difference between art, which you just looked at, and things like soap, which you used. […] A lot of people said things like “That’s not art” when whatever they were talking about could clearly not have been anything else except art.”

Now try not to cringe as I point out that Soap’s mysterious painting is…a piece of art. He can slide from identity to identity, but the painting stays with him. The fact that the zombie-infested woods of the scanty alternate narrative seems to be what Soap sees in the painting reinforces the idea that it’s mirroring his subconsciousness (his friend Mike sees his own obsession, icebergs, instead).

In a previous post I noted that while reading the collection I noticed several pairs of stories that seemed to cover similar themes. I see this story and “Catskin” as a pair about identity. “Catskin”, in my view, focused on how changes to the appearance of characters did not alter their essence. I think “Some Zombie Contingency Plans” seems to argue that while you can fool people about who you are, your actions still have consequences.

Unlike in “Catskin” there’s no fantastic element to the shifts of identity. Even aside from the main character’s direct shifts, it happens constantly: Mike and Art pretending to be legitimate guests at museum parties, Carly pretending to be the friend of the girl whose parents own the house, and even Art giving his mother a urinal cake as if it were soap. Yet Mike and Art still went to prison for their role in the museum theft. Carly’s pretense that it’s someone else’s house being ruined by the party will eventually be ended by her parents’ return. And while we don’t know the outcome of Soap’s escapade at the end of the story, nothing before it in the story implies these flimsy constructions are stable, and therefore it seems likely that he’ll be charged with theft and perhaps kidnapping when it’s all over.

One final similarity with “Catskin” is that while Soap/Art’s ability to present different faces to the world seems clever, it hasn’t brought him any happiness. He’s conscious of how people don’t see the real him, and even though he can exploit this, he finds it frustrating and tiresome. This seems to be the root of his attraction to thinking about zombies. One of the reasons he likes zombies, we’re told in the early wordplay section, is that they “don’t care about art.” Later, when he considers his place in the world, he comes back to the zombies: “Nobody really knows him. If they did, they wouldn’t like him…He tells himself everything will be different when the zombies show up.” Although this sounds a bit like wish-fulfillment, the way Carly dreams of being president and loved by everyone, I suspect that Soap isn’t wishing for a world where his contingency plans will mark him as a visionary, he’s wishing for a world where it’s just him and the zombies. Zombies don’t misrepresent themselves, and they treat everyone the same (“Zombies don’t discriminate”…note also that everyone at the house party is described solely in racial terms). He knows how zombies will act towards him and he knows how he’d need to act with zombies.

Seen this way, a world overrun zombies is in a way less fantastic than the real one, a world far more ordered and therefore more manageable. It’s not necessarily a healthy viewpoint…Soap in general doesn’t seem like he’s in great shape, psychologically…but it represents a somewhat counter-intuitive view of fantasy in general. Supposedly fantasy is a genre with far more possibilities than boring old real life, yet it’s so often the case that fantasy settings are actually gravely simplified affairs far less frustratingly complex than the real world. I don’t know how confident I am that this reading is really what Kelly Link intended, but how great is it that a story that five years ago was assumed to be a champion of genre fantasy might actually be a criticism of it? If so, Kelly Link’s work points to ways in which the fantastic really can be used to broaden perspectives rather than narrow them.

“Catskin” by Kelly Link

April 23, 2010 at 1:38 am | Posted in Short Stories | 4 Comments

This is another post in my very slow series of individual takes on stories from Kelly Link’s Magic For Beginners. As usual, there will be a lot of spoilers as I discuss the story, and not a lot of actual reviewing…all the stories in this collection are good.

Of all the stories in Magic For Beginners, “Catskin” is the closest to a traditional fairy tale. “The Cannon” has elements of folklore as well, but it is grounded in something like the modern world and told from a narrative distance. “Catskin”, on the other hand, while including some references to modern life with brief mentions of school buses and department stores, spends most of its time on orphans, witches, and princesses. To put it another way, while most of Kelly Link’s stories are modern stories encroached upon by the fantastic, this feels more like a fantastic story being encroached upon by the modern world. The story’s schizoid setting and narrative flourishes, talking of ants making nests in the reader’s yard and cats walking into other stories, make it feel like a traditional fairy tale being recited from memory by a parent who is making up details around the edges as they go along.

This is still Kelly Link, though, so while the story feels like a fairy tale, the content is something else entirely. There’s very little magic, and what there is takes place almost entirely off screen. In fact, beyond the setting itself, the story is concerned with a single fantastic element: everyone in the story has an unnatural fluidity of identity. Early in the story, the witch’s son Jack is said to be not a normal child, but one grown from “a little bundle of feathers and twigs and eggshell all tied up with a tatty piece of string”. At first, this appears to be just more narrative window dressing, but many more transformations soon appear: the central image of Small (and others) wearing cat skins and somehow becoming cats, the witch’s cats being forged by the house fire into gold coins, and the way the Witch’s Revenge turns out to be a cat skin wrapped around ants.

It’s easy to get caught up in the details of all this: the way Small and the Witch’s Revenge actually feed themselves for a time by licking fat off the cat-coins, the way both witches in the story emit ants when killed, or Jack and Flora’s suspiciously romantic sibling relationship (can a bundle of twigs commit incest?). But I think that would be missing the point. This is in the fairy tale mode, and the details around the story appear to be there for color rather than to present a coherent system. Perhaps someone can figure out a metaphorical explanation for the way Small’s mother gives birth to her house but Lack must construct his from his own excrement, but I’m willing to call it equal parts humorous and disturbing and leave it at that.

Through all the trappings, this is really a story about Small, a young boy whose mother has died. Right from the start, the story warns the reader there will be no happy ending, and sure enough, Small never really recovers from this loss. In a real fairy tale, a child would be sad at first, but swept away by the excitement of the adventure. The ability to become a cat, in particular, ought to be wonderful, even exhilarating. Small doesn’t seem too impressed. He obediently follows the Witch’s Revenge’s orders, but there is never a sense that this is what he wants to be doing.

In fact, the story provides several direct glimpses at what he actually wants. Upon reaching the briar patch near Lack’s mansion, Small imagines living a quiet life there with the Witch’s Revenge, but she has other ideas. When he meets Jack and Flora again, he is delighted by the reunion and hopes they’ll stay with him in the house, but they don’t want to stay. Finally, at the end of the story, he wants to see his mother again.

What Small really wants is for things to go back to the way they were before his mother died, but her magic cannot achieve this. Wearing the cat suit is a distraction, a way to temporarily submerge into the carefree identity of a cat, but this is only skin-deep. Living in the village, the Witch’s Revenge tells him not to wear the skin, because he is supposed to be growing up into a man, not giving up his humanity in favor of an animal existence. In any case, despite the magic that makes this transformation possible, he is still a boy, not a cat, and as a boy he misses his mother. That these transformations are superficial is underlined again and again in the story. When Small catches the cats in Lack’s mansion, it’s because he “had worn his cat suit longer” and thus was more agile than they were, for example. The darkly humorous discussion of what the Witch’s Revenge did with the bag of cats relies on the fact that these are really children, not cats, as does the joke the Witch’s Revenge makes later about saving the cat suits Jack and Flora’s spouses came in.

The tragedy of Small’s life is that his grief prevents him from adjusting to the life his mother has arranged for him to grow into. He doesn’t have friends, and while the story makes a joke about him being big enough not to need them, that’s not much consolation. The cat who in a fairy tale would have turned into a princess for him to marry was lost, though of course Small is too young to be disappointed, he wants a mother, not a wife. The fact that his mother is still with him, sort of, just makes this worse. The final scene hammers home the point that for all the magic of these transformations, they do not change what lies at the core of people. The Witch’s Revenge talks and thinks like Small’s mother, but she’s really a colony of ants in a cat suit, not his mother, and there’s nothing she can do to change that no matter how much Small pleads with her. Unlike in fairy tales, the realities of life cannot be escaped.

“Stone Animals” by Kelly Link

March 31, 2010 at 1:16 am | Posted in Short Stories | 3 Comments

After a bit of a delay, I’m back with another post in my series of individual takes on stories from Kelly Link’s Magic For Beginners. There will be spoilers so if you haven’t read the story, do yourself a favor and read it first. It’s very good.

Reading through Magic For Beginners I’ve been struck how pairs of apparently very different stories share themes. Maybe it’s just in my head, but the stories are arranged next to each other in the collection, which makes me think Kelly Link noticed these connections as well. “Stone Animals” isn’t actually adjacent to “The Hortlak” (“The Cannon” sits between them) but I still see the stories as similar in that they are both about estrangement from normal life. Tens of thousands of stories (at least) have been written about alienation, but what Link depicts in these two stories strikes me as subtly different. Instead of just failing to fit into normal society, the characters in both “The Hortlak” and “Stone Animals” fall away from it. They want to fit in, yes, but their problem is not that they fail to find their place in society, but rather they even locate society any more. This is, perhaps, not quite so immediately relevant for the reader as the more typical alienation stories, but it sure is creepy.

Despite this somewhat meager connection, the stories are different in ways that are useful to contrast. “The Hortlak” is strange and dreamlike from start to finish, while “Stone Animals” starts out almost normal and then builds toward a violently dislocating conclusion. Both stories are third person, but “The Hortlak” sticks to Eric’s perspective while “Stone Animals” flits between different characters. “Stone Animals” is also the more serious story, although it is also funny at times.

But perhaps the biggest difference between the two stories is the reaction of the characters to their predicament. Where Eric and Charley in “The Hortlak” are passive, wishing for a better life but unable to work towards it, the characters in “Stone Animals” are trying to wrest control of their lives away from the strange forces that are pulling them apart. Even a minor character like the real estate agent is caught in this struggle. “Nobody ever remembered her name,” we’re told, “which is why she had to wear too-tight skirts.” Later, we learn that she wants to take a striking pseudonym when and if her book is published. Notice she’s not able to reverse her fundamental problem: nothing on heaven or earth, it seems, can undo the problem with her name. But she’s actively working around the problem regardless.

The family has far larger issues, of course, but they approach them in the same way, starting with the house. The house is haunted, but just like the zombies in “The Hortlak”, the word turns out to mean something different from what the reader would expect. Link uses the word “haunted” to indicate that something is somehow other from the viewpoint character. This is actually a much more sensible definition, in that it describes a feeling we actually feel in the real world when placed in unfamiliar surroundings. The family loves the house (or the parents do, at least) but although they now own it, it is strange and different. The story speaks of the parents “colonizing the bedroom” by filling it with “things that belong to them”. In a normal house, this would indeed offset the unfamiliarity. The main fantastic element of “Stone Animals” is the idea that this house is unrelentingly other, to the point that the family’s familiar possessions become unfamiliar through contact with the house instead of the reverse.

In his interesting 2004 review of the story, Matthew Chaney speaks of the story as “full of binaries, a world falling apart for lack of gray areas.” I don’t think this is quite right. Other than Tilly dividing the yard, I don’t see a lot of binaries in the story. Even the haunted objects are themselves gray areas: owned by the family yet claimed by the house. Although the feeling of haunting can’t be explained away, it’s not so dramatic that they are always sure which items are haunted. Henry’s work is alluded to but never directly shown, and their problems don’t end when he’s at home (arguably they intensify).

I think a more useful approach to the story is to look at the struggles for control. Everyone in the family is trying to impose control on their world, and all of them are failing:

Catherine paints the house repeatedly and eventually even writes on the walls, trying to impose her personality on her surroundings, but she is never satisfied. She plants a garden, but the rabbits consume everything she plants. She chafes and complains about the physical limitations imposed by her pregnancy and the way it has made her own body unfamiliar. When she thinks about why she loves Henry, she thinks about how she’s able decide what clothes to dress him in. Even her initial endorsement of the house is directly attributed to the effect the house has on Tilly.

As for Tilly, she can’t stop herself from sleepwalking, so she denies that it happens in the first place. She sees her brother as a possession, we’re told. She marks out the yard as a way of ordering him around, and when he eventually has the temerity to violate her rules she is so disturbed she decides he too is haunted. Carleton, younger and less sophisticated, deals most directly with the rabbits that personify the otherness of the house, first trying to buy them off with Tilly’s things and then finally chasing them with a stick.

Henry is probably the least active character. At times he seems the most connected to the real world. He’s the least willing to just accept that an object is haunted. “Our stuff is fine,” he tells Catherine. “I love our stuff.” Unlike the other characters, he goes back to New York and admits he loves his job there. But there is another line of imagery that actually associates him closer with the house than any of the others. Early in the story, Catherine gives him a robe which the narrator says has “heraldric animals” on it, but of course these are rabbits. When he puts it on, Catherine describes him as the “king of rabbits…the plenipotentiary of Rabbitaly” and appears to regret giving it to him. And he is completely unable to meet Catherine’s friends, even when he’s in the house at the same time. In the end, of course, he joins the rabbits as a sort of antagonist to Catherine’s dinner party.

I interpret this as relating to the main dynamic in the story: Catherine and Henry’s struggling marriage. Henry is clearly the object of most of Catherine’s desires for control. Long before they ever go to the haunted house, Catherine lies about an affair to provoke Henry into giving her more attention. When the positive effects of this maneuver fade, she seems to have instigated the family’s move out into the countryside. Viewed in this light, Henry’s connection with the house and the rabbits is clear. Although he is going along with Catherine’s stated desires, unlike her he is already content. He loves his job and seems to be satisfied with his level of involvement with his family. Her attempt to control him via the house is failing, and this manifests as problems with the house in addition to her issues with Henry himself.

I think that Catherine is really the story’s main character and that despite the omniscient narrator, the story is in some sense from her perspective. This has the virtue of explaining why the scenes at Henry’s job are so indistinct in an otherwise vivid story, for we see only what Catherine herself really understands about it: the taskmaster boss and the long nights. This interpretation is strengthened, I think, by the way the story ends. In the last crescendo of estrangement, everyone but Catherine end up directly engaged with the rabbits: Carleton chases rabbits, Tilly is led into a hidden passage by a rabbit, and Henry rides at the head of a sort of rabbit army. Catherine is not actually shown but is presumably still eating dinner with her friends and thus is not taking part in the dislocation. The house has claimed her possessions one by one and now has finally claimed the other members of her family. They too have become haunted.

“The Cannon” by Kelly Link

March 17, 2010 at 3:06 am | Posted in Short Stories | 7 Comments

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.

“The Hortlak” by Kelly Link

March 14, 2010 at 1:15 am | Posted in Short Stories | 8 Comments

This is a spoiler-heavy post about Kelly Link’s story “The Hortlak” and should be avoided if you haven’t read the story yet. I say yet, because it’s an excellent story and I highly recommend you do read it. I read it in the collection Magic For Beginners, but it’s also available online at Kelly Link’s official site.

Unlike “The Faery Handbag”, there isn’t a lot of comment about “The Hortlak” online. That’s a shame, because it’s an amazing story. Where “The Faery Handbag” related facts and only alluded to the inner lives of its characters, “The Hortlak” makes the inner lives of its characters evident but lets the reality surrounding them remain a dreamlike haze. Although the prose is still fairly simple, there are a couple of very memorable images, like the All-Night as the Enterprise on a voyage of discovery and Charley’s burning city.

Like most of Link’s stories, “The Hortlak” seemingly ends without resolution. Instead of explaining its mysteries, or bringing Eric’s “relationship” with Charley to any conclusion, the story is content to describe the growing disconnection of its three characters from society. For Batu and Charley, this is done by relating events from “off-screen” while the narrative focuses on Eric and follows him as he gets pulled farther and farther from normality and deeper into the twilight world of the All-Night.

“You’re just like my dogs,” Charley says to Eric. The parallels are striking. Like the dogs, Eric has been left behind by his family. He doesn’t understand his situation, and though he wants to be free, he doesn’t know how to achieve freedom. The windows of Charley’s car are rolled “so far down that these dogs could jump out, if they wanted, when she stops the car at a light. But the dogs don’t jump.” Eric could likewise walk out of the All-Night at any time, but he doesn’t. His feelings for Charley are a sort of puppy-love crush. And in the story’s final scene, he is explicitly described as chasing her car like a dog.

Charley’s dogs are destined for death. Is Eric? Everyone dies eventually, but Eric is working at what Batu eventually describes as a waystation on the road between life and death. Both Batu and Charley ask him if he has gone down into the chasm. “Someday I will, I guess,” he says to Batu. In fact, everyone around Eric seems associated with death in different ways. Charley kills dogs. Eric’s mother seems to have gone to kill his father. As for Batu: most of his pajamas depict death in various forms, he kills company managers in Eric’s dreams, and of course he dodges the question when Eric asks him if he’s ever killed anyone. Eric himself is the exception, but according to Charley he’s there because he doesn’t “flip out” when around death.

Apparently “hortlak” means ghost or revenant in Turkish. It’s tempting to take the fact the word is singular and try to pick out Eric or Batu as being already dead. Certainly they seem to be heading in that direction. Right at the beginning, the zombies are said to not come when “real people” are around, raising the obvious question: are Eric and Batu real people? The story specifically states that zombies don’t come when Charley is there, putting her at least in the “real people” column. Yet at the end of the story, a zombie comes up while she’s talking to Eric and acknowledges them both on the way in and out of the All-Night, suggesting that she too is sliding away from life.

Charley also wants to escape to a better life but is just as trapped as Eric. Her description of how a hibernating bear wakes up angry and goes on a rampage appears to be what she wishes for herself. She’s in hibernation, just going through her routine, but getting steadily more angry, and at some point she will break out with sudden violence and force. That she attempts to do so not by quitting her job and leaving town but by biting the man at the shelter is more evidence of the effect her association with death is having on her. Eric could just walk out of the All-Night and Charley could just stop going to her job, but each of them are tied to their dysfunctional lives by bonds they can’t break.

Sadly I don’t have a grand unified theory that explains every detail of the story, but perhaps that’s intended, since from what I can tell the story is about the struggle to understand what is ultimately incomprehensible. Batu spends his time studying the zombies, making notes on a notepad and trying to figure out what they want. Eric studies Batu, trying to figure out why he’s studying zombies, why he doesn’t need sleep, and the origin of his bizarre pajamas. All three speaking characters speculate about the nature of the world at the bottom of the chasm, the land of the dead. The obvious metaphor seems to be human societies grappling with death and its implications throughout the ages.

The story seems pessimistic about this enterprise. Everyone’s speculations amount to painting the zombies as being just like them, living in a mirror-suburb with pets and bars and cars. Yet even as they advance it, they also regard the idea as vaguely preposterous. Since the zombies are clearly unable or unwilling to interact appropriately in real suburbs, why would anyone think they would live in suburbs themselves? It’s a failure of imagination. But despite all the efforts by Eric and Batu to sift the evidence, the only way to find out is to go down into the chasm and see for themselves. Even the testimony of an eyewitness (“Dave”, perhaps a stand-in for mystics and prophets) is not helpful because he wasn’t judged to be reliable (just going into the chasm and coming back, one suspects, is proof of unreliability). Batu seems secretly knowledgeable about different types of ghosts and the chasm itself, but his bias towards seeing everything through the lens of retail means he misinterprets whatever genuine information he does have. To Batu, the zombies are trying to buy things in the store and just getting it wrong, somehow.

Eric seems to have the opposite worldview from Batu, given he is “always thinking of products no one would ever want to buy, and that no one would ever try to sell.” Sure enough, Eric understands that they are simply returning objects from the real world that have been dropped into theirs (that Eric is right is clear from the way the zombies laboriously put all the snow back in the parking lot after Batu shovels it into the chasm). But Eric doesn’t understand them any more than Batu does, at least in part because Batu is holding back information. The scene where zombies give Batu a new set of pajamas strongly implies that Batu has had previous “transactions” of this nature with the zombies and kept it secret from Eric. However, while I’d love to be proved wrong, I don’t think a “solution” to precisely what that scene means is in the story.

Of course, there’s a more metafictional way to interpret the general theme of struggling to understand the incomprehensible. It might be just an inside joke, but at least one of the zombies’ cryptic lines is actually a line from a different Kelly Link story (“The Cannon”, which follows “The Hortlak” in Magic For Beginners). So perhaps Batu’s struggles to understand the zombies parallel my struggles to understand Link’s stories. Eric’s desperate questions of Charley and Batu at the end of the story remind me of how some fans of Lost are obsessed with “answers” to the show’s mythological questions. “The Hortlak” may provide a warning to those fans. When Eric finally gets a straight answer about Batu’s strange pajamas, he’s not happy about it. But really, was there an explanation that would be any more satisfying than “experimental CIA pajamas”? For any piece of surrealism, it may be that an explanation is going to have to amount to some variant of the Simpsons, “A wizard did it!”

But Kelly Link’s writing also shows that just because you aren’t given an answer to, say, what lies at the bottom of the chasm, doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the story. If you like the metaphorical approach, I guess it might be saying you don’t have to know anything about an afterlife to enjoy your life here and now. In fact, it’s Eric’s fascination with Batu’s quest that seems to be keeping him from living the sort of life he wants. The only way he can think to break out of Batu’s orbit is by throwing himself at Charley. By the end of the story, as these two influences pull him in opposite directions, he veers back and forth. But Charley is just as stuck as he is in the influence of the chasm and doesn’t offer a genuine way out. Her car seems to offer deliverance, but (as Batu says in his own way) it’s too loaded down with emotional baggage.

Of course, the woman who finds her teenage diary written on Batu’s pajamas has another strategy for coping with the unknown, and while screaming and running away may not seem particularly enlightened, she at least showed the initiative to turn away from the strangeness and escape. In most genre stories, rejecting the fantastic is a sure path to a bad end. It’s a measure of how unusual “The Hortlak” is that in her rejection of the fantastic, that woman shows the path Eric should have taken, while his curiosity, friendship, and even love all lead him back to the All-Night and stagnation.

“The Faery Handbag” by Kelly Link

March 13, 2010 at 12:54 am | Posted in Short Stories | 6 Comments

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.

Magic For Beginners by Kelly Link

March 13, 2010 at 12:22 am | Posted in 5 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 9 Comments

CoverI 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:

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