Friday, July 27, 2012

Book Review: Magic For Beginners, by Kelly Link


I love that Kelly Link has made a career out of the short form; it's risky and it's brave, and it's the fabulous and fleeting opposite of the trilogy epidemic* rampant in today's fantasy and paranormal genres.

The stories in  in Magic for Beginners are also fabulous and fleeting, some ethereal and full of dream logic, others quirky and postmodern. I'd have given it a full five stars, but there were two stories ("The Cannon" and "Catskin") that didn't really work for me, perhaps because I find that Link is better when she's injecting magic, melancholy  and her odd brand of whimsy into the everyday, rather than writing entirely in the more dreamlike fairytale vein. I won't dwell, because the rest of the stories are so wonderful I'm half-convinced I must be wrong about those two.  (Also, how great are Shelley Jackson's adorably creepy illustrations? I love the updated Leonardo which graces the cover.)

Most of the stories in Magic for Beginners are about average people in very peculiar situations. "The Hortlak" introduces us to Eric, a young man who works at the All-Night Convenience, an "experiment in retail" on the edge of "Zomburbia." Batu, Eric's co-worker, wants to discover what zombies like to buy, in hopes of creating a whole new market. Unfortunately the zombies, while not dangerous, can't seem to grasp anything more complex than the barter system, and bring in "shiny things, broken things . . . empty soda bottles, handfuls of leaves, sticky dirt and dirty sticks," to trade.  In "Some Zombie Contingency Plans," we meet yet another young man; this one steals art, thinks about zombies, crashes parties, and loves to talk to  strangers about their . . . zombie contingency plans. (There are no actual zombies in this story, but there is this great line: "Art is for people who are not worried about zombies." Think about it.)

It's not all about zombies, though. The titular story is (in part, anyway) about obsessive teenage fans of an ephemeral cult TV show called "The Library," which has "no regular schedule, no credits, and sometimes not even dialogue." In "The Great Divorce" we meet Alan and Lavvie -- he's alive, and she's dead, and they are negotiating their divorce with the help of a medium.

My favorites of all are "The Faery Handbag" and "Stone Animals." In the former, a young woman named Genevieve recounts the tale of a missing family heirloom: her Grandmother Zofia's "huge, black, and kind of hairy" handbag, which contains an entire town, a savage beast, her grandfather Rustan (he comes out to visit with Zofia every decade or so), and finally, Genevieve's own boyfriend, Jake. "Stone Animals" upends the classic haunted house story when a family moves into a beautiful old house, only to find that their things -- soap, flatware, the television, the cat, and their youngest child -- have become haunted. There is also a plague of rabbits on their front lawn. I can't begin to tell you what the ending of the story signifies,but oddly, that's perfectly okay. Expected, even.

Some of Link's stories circle back upon themselves with a self-referential postmodern glee (the closing story "Lull" in particular); other times they come untethered and float (or run, or drive) away. But at the center there is always a hint of darkness, of things lost, loneliness, the self-consciousness of the outsider or the obsessive. It's Link's potent mixture of cleverness, whimsy and pathos that makes her stories not only odd, but oddly moving.

* Not that there's anything wrong with a big, juicy trilogy -- or even more, say ASoIaF. It just seems these days it's expected that every book written need be the first in a series. Sometimes one book is the exact perfect number of books.

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