Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link
Reviewed by Geneva Melzack
20 September 2005
Magic for Beginners is Kelly Link's second collection of short fiction, following her debut collection Stranger Things Happen. The new volume brings together a number of stories that have already seen publication in various venues over the last couple of years, as well as a few original, previously unpublished stories.
One of the comments commonly made about science fiction is that it is a genre that is in conversation with itself. The stories in Magic for Beginners are in conversation not just with the science fiction genre, but also with the genres of horror, fantasy, and fairy tale. More than this, though, they are stories that enter into conversation with the social and cultural traditions of the people who read and are fans of genres such as science fiction, horror, fantasy, and fairy tale. Not to mention that they are stories that also succeed in engaging with the broader traditions of short fiction as a literary form, and even with the traditions of other narrative forms such as oral storytelling and televisual serialisation.
It is the ability to trace such conversations within this collection that makes the book as a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Which isn't to denigrate any of the individual stories in this collection, but is to say that having the opportunity to read them all in close proximity to one another enhances the experience of reading each of them. The previously published stories in Magic for Beginners acquire a sense of integrated power and resonance in the context of this collection that in some cases was absent from their earlier appearances in various journals and anthologies.
What makes the stories in Magic for Beginners particularly fascinating, and sometimes perplexing, is the way in which the conversations they're conducting with literary genres, forms, and traditions are begging questions rather than trying to provide answers. This questioning colours each story in the collection with a pervasive and delicious uncertainty. These are not stories to read if you want the cosy comfort of conviction. These are stories that sit in an unsettlingly indefinite space. They’re challenging, daring the reader to come forward and confront ambiguity head on, but if you’re willing to accept this challenge they’re also stories that are compelling and rewarding and even tender.
Magic for Beginners opens with the Hugo award-winning tale "The Faery Handbag". As the title suggests, this is one of the stories in the collection that enters into conversation with the conventions and traditions of fairy tale. The other story that does this is "Catskin", but these two stories are very different from one another and feel very much to be addressing different aspects of the fairy tale tradition. "The Faery Handbag" is a whimsical tale, which plays with the way that fairies and fairy tales exist in the shady corners, on the fringes of our ordinary, everyday world. It is a story in which magic and myth are to be found peeking through the cracks in our regular lives and our regular fiction. "Catskin", meanwhile, deals with the sinister otherness of fairy tale. It is a story in which the fairy-tale magic is dark and primal and more than a little disturbing. This menacing magic constitutes the whole of the story; it is central, overpowering, dreadful. The fairy tale in "Catskin" is something in which it’s possible to completely lose yourself, not something that simply hovers around the edges of things. It is the part of fairy tale that borders on horror.
And horror is another genre that a number of the stories in Magic for Beginners, while not necessarily belonging to exactly, are definitely engaging with. A prime example of this is the story "Some Zombie Contingency Plans" in which no actual zombies appear, but the main character (who has no name and many) spends much of his time pondering and worrying about them. Actual zombies feature in "The Hortlak", but they are certainly not your typical horror zombies. Instead they are calm, cryptic zombies, endearingly failing to make their language, wants and needs understood to the staff at the All-Night Convenience store, who are keen to try to cater for them. Other stories in the collection are variously populated with ghosts and devils and other, less familiar curiosities.
In fact, the stories in Magic for Beginners that feature typical horror tropes – zombies, ghosts, and other related dead people – feel much more like thoughtful mimetic short fiction than they do horror most of the time. The stories themselves are mostly about ordinary human situations, relationships, and experiences, and the zombies and the ghosts feel very much a part of the humanity of the stories. The zombies and ghosts are not simply faceless monsters, Others to be feared; instead they’re people’s wives and children and customers. Link has a real talent for painting the substance of human relationships with a very few well-chosen words, in the manner of some of the real masters of short fiction, such as Raymond Carver. The situations she’s writing about are often just the sort of situations that could form the basis for a typical Carver short story: a man who has just gotten out of prison, a family who move into a new house and are trying to settle in, a group of men friends playing poker together. These are the sorts of personal, human settings you see in mimetic short fiction, and Link handles them with a fierce and insightful delicacy. The possibilities, in these stories, of hauntings and of ghosts and devils and aliens and conspiracy theories serve only to make the human relationships even more real and more human. Link’s stories explore the way in which our storytelling impulses, our imaginations, build and affect our lives and relationships with one another just as much as any concrete, practical factors do.
The two real masterpieces in the collection, and the two pieces that bring together almost all of what’s just been said about Link’s fiction, are "Stone Animals", and the title story, "Magic for Beginners". These are stories in which you really want to savour practically every line, because each sentence, each exchange of dialogue, speaks volumes. They’re stories featuring very powerful relationships, very powerful admissions of human emotion, and they’re both stories without conclusion. Each of them ends on a note of potential. Each is a story about domesticity, featuring ordinary families, but at the same time that domesticity is very far from cosy, and those families don’t seem entirely ordinary. They are stories that carry an undertone of surrealism and strangeness and both come loaded full of the feelings that none of us ever quite learn how to deal with.
The only story in Magic for Beginners that doesn’t quite work is the shortest story in the collection, "The Cannon", which is a mythic story told as a series of questions and answers. Perhaps because of its disjointed form and its length, "The Cannon" never feels quite as complete as any of the other stories here. It feels too opaque, too scattered, and never manages to come together into anything properly meaningful or recognisable. However, the half-formed nature of this story turns it into something almost akin to poetry, and Link’s lyrical way with words certainly does nothing to discourage this impression.
Apart from this one curious failure, Magic for Beginners is a collection of beautifully poignant, and sometimes sinister, pieces of short fiction. Many of the characters, objects, and items in the stories are haunted—in "Stone Animals" there are haunted toothbrushes, microwaves, alarm clocks, pet cats, and computers—but actually, by the end of the book we’re tempted to feel that the stories themselves are haunted. They’re haunting too, of course, and some of them will follow you around for days like a bad mood if you let them, but it’s more than that: they do feel as if they are themselves haunted. Haunted by unseen characters who have perhaps just skipped away over onto the next page just as you turned over, or by hidden words that have buried themselves somewhere in the binding instead of sitting out on the page where they should be. Just as the main character in "Some Zombie Contingency Plans" is called by many names but is never revealed to have any official one, these stories can have many interpretations but can’t possibly be pinned down to a single meaning. Nothing within these pages is ever simply what it appears to be. Revel in that.