Between the Covers
Storytelling Sorcery: Kelly Link Returns with Magic for Beginners
By Alan Williams
Jul 22, 2005

"Part of you is always traveling faster, always traveling ahead. Even when you are moving it is never fast enough to satisfy that part of you."

The opening lines of "Travels with the Snow Queen," a short story from Kelly Link's first collection, Stranger Things Happen, captures the beguiling intelligence that guides readers through her debut stories. That thread tracing the terrain into Link's subverted worlds — by turn, mythological, horrific, bittersweet, and hilarious — all but vanishes in her second collection, Magic for Beginners. If the brilliant stories in Stranger Things Happen may be understood as guides to the thorny journeys that her characters undertake while musing on the enterprise of storytelling, then the stories in her sophomore book share the same concern but without the same hand holding.

Generalizing Link's stories is, on the one hand, as pointless as catching a firefly: once its incandescent mystery is in your grasp, the wonder of it cannot be described any easier. On the other hand, the nine stories in Magic for Beginners beg for an overarching unity. They almost come off as far-flung cousins of one another with little in common except for their deceptively adolescent narration accompanied by a pithy, untouchable wisdom. They are more bizarre and unwieldy, less dreamy in mood and crystalline in style, than her previous work and pose greater challenges. The second-person guides and maps and structural devices showing the way are replaced by different narrators who play hide-and-seek throughout many of the stories.

Link is, hands down, one of the most fascinating writers practicing the craft today. Co-editor of the twice-yearly Lady Rosebud's Wristlet and co-founder of Small Beer Press, along with husband Gavin Grant, Link's fiction is a sublime blend of myriad genres, with more structure borrowed from the fairy tale and more substance from fantasy. It is easy to locate many authors and inspirations in the forest of Link's fiction, notably Angela Carter, who has a memorial park named after her in the title story. Yet describing Link as a collector of parts, which every writer is to some degree, diminishes the visionary aspect of her stories to transform each genre into something entirely new. Her works feel less like literary refractions or recombinations than organic designs that have simply appeared out of nowhere and are governed by their own tricky rules and quantum logic.

"Some Zombie Contingency Plans," for example, has no literary predecessor. It begins, "This is a story about being lost in the woods," only to follow a guy named Soap, though "Soap isn't his real name." He crashes a seemingly random party, befriends the hostess, Carly, and ends up in her bedroom discussing his fears of impending zombie invasions and the events surrounding a crime he committed that sent him to prison. Throughout the story, intermittent events in the woods transpire, and separate from the main action involving the two main characters: a chase, the emptying of graves, a speculation about things (probably women) that go bump in the night. They are jarring references to the main action, although they never specifically address it. These scenes, as it turns out, have something to do with zombies and something to do with the revelation of a painting's possible subject, but ostensibly, they're about storytelling and how readers may inhabit a narrative, and feel as if they know or are being shown the way, but still find themselves lost.

A far more benign species of zombie appears in "The Hortlak." Eric and Batu work alternate shifts and sleep in a storage closet at the All-Night, an isolated convenience store located on the edge of the Ausible Chasm. They are equally intrigued by Charley, who works the night shift at an animal shelter and takes dogs out for one last joy ride before putting them down; consequently, her car is full of canine ghosts. The zombies live at the bottom of the chasm and climb out to wander the aisles of the All-Night and try to make transactions with found objects:

"They were the kind of customer that you couldn't ever satisfy, the kind of customer who wanted something you couldn't give them, who had no other currency, except currency that was sinister, unwholesome, confusing, and probably dangerous... Maybe the zombies wanted to give Eric something... Eventually, when it was clear Eric didn't understand, the zombies drifted off, away from the counter and around the aisles again, or out the doors, making their way like raccoons, scuttling back across the road... The zombie customers made Eric feel guilty. He hadn't been trying hard enough. The zombies were never rude, or impatient, or tried to shoplift things. He hoped that they found what they were looking for. After all, he would be dead someday too, and on the other side of the counter... Maybe when they got all the way to the bottom, they got into zippy zombie cars and drove off to their zombie jobs, or back home again, to their sexy zombie wives, or maybe they went off to the zombie bank to make their deposits of stones, leaves, linty, birdnesty tangles, all the other debris real people didn't know the value of."

"The Hortlak" is as bizarre as it is oddly familiar. These insecure flights of fancy are not entirely outrageous even while involving the undead. Zombies, for Link's characters, are as real as mortal speculation about them and serve as quirky, potent reminders of the need to surpass the limits of one's character in order to break free of one's circumstances, for better or worse.

Then again, in an attempt to ward off the "firefly effect," they are simply zombies. As Soap believes, and rightly so, "Zombies weren't complicated... Zombies weren't much of anything." Likewise, attempts to traditionally explain zombies, or much of anything in Magic for Beginners, borders on the highfalutin and downright absurd. Imagine the book as the love child between Calvino and Donnie Darko: explanations simply spawn more fractal-like explanations.

"Catskin" is a story a la the Brothers Quay about Small, the youngest son of an unnamed and murdered witch, and a cat named The Witch's Revenge, grafted onto the template of Puss 'n Boots. There is an early lesson in how the children of witches are bought, stolen, "grown like a cyst," or "made out of things in her garden, or bits of trash that the cats brought her." Readers are cautioned: "If you are looking for a happy ending in this story, then perhaps you should stop reading here and picture these children, these parents, these reunions." Readers are later instructed to listen their mothers, interrogated about having seen witches and their appearances, and informed that whether possible events in the lives of two princesses came to pass: "Small never knew, and neither do I, and neither shall you."

Another largely absent first-person narrator appears in "Lull," a series of stories within stories that deals with the forward and backward movement of time — a coincidental similarity in miniature to David Mitchell's novel, Cloud Atlas.

So wherefore these fickle narrators who abruptly intrude or nefariously insinuate themselves into these stories? The relationship between storyteller and narrative, and between the act of narrating and the story itself, is the consistent strain through the mystery of Link's work, but much of Magic for Beginners occurs in the wide chasm between these massive topics. The stories function with such a flair for the peculiar that the high school literature question "Is the narrator reliable?" is made to sound like the cheesy punch line to an outdated joke.

Stranger things happened indeed — these follow-up stories. As the narrative voice that won Link so many fans becomes more clandestine, it serves to remind readers that there is no longer a guide, no longer a path. They are abandoned and, in order to get out, must create their own magic.

Upon the release of Magic for Beginners, Small Beer Press made Kelly Link's first novel, Stranger Things Happen, available online for free.

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