Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners

Since I’ve written twice about Kelly Link’s stories for my weekly “short stories I am reading and think you should read too” thing, it’s pretty well established around here that I love Kelly Link. Her writing is the biggest reason for this, but it’s also everything that surrounds her writing and the way she puts it into the world. Kelly Link’s short stories fall somewhere between literary fiction and fantasy and horror and science fiction, but they’re so slippery that even “slipstream” can’t capture what these stories are. Her first two collections came out from the press she runs with her partner Gavin Grant, and they publish a fantastic lit zine, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, which I’m inordinately fond of because one of my stories got published in it back in high school.*

One more reason I love Small Beer, and then I’ll move on to the interview. As I’ve mentioned before, when I came into Peace Corps I couldn’t bring many books with me. I found room for some Norton Anthologies (poor choice) and Cheever and some Voice of Witness book from McSweeney’s, but most of my books, including Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners, got boxed up and are now sitting in a storage facility somewhere in New Jersey. (I hope.) Magic for Beginners, though, is one of the books Small Beer has made available for free download under a creative commons license**, so! I was able to reread the book, laying on my floor in front of my space heater, delighting in remembering how much I love Link’s writing.

The collection’s first story, “The Faery Handbag” is one of my favorites, which you’ve probably figured out since I gave it its own post a while back. The story is about a teenage girl whose grandmother, Zofia, has just died/disappeared into the faery handbag of the title, and whose boyfriend also has disappeared into the handbag. The handbag can be opened in one of three ways. One way it’s just a handbag, holding books or knitting needles; another way, “the wrong way,” is the skinless dog, guardian of the handbag; a third way opens to the residents of Zofia’s old village in Baldeziwurlekistan, and maybe Rustan, Zofia’s Russian husband, and maybe the narrator’s boyfriend. Link gets this voice perfectly, so the story is kind of sad and kind of hopeful as the narrator is trying to find the handbag so she can do her job and guard it and find her boyfriend again, though since time passes differently inside the handbag, he may come out the same age as he was when he went in and she’ll be a hundred.

“The Hortlak” takes place in The All-Night Convenience, staffed by Eric and Batu. Eric’s in love with Charley, who takes shelter dogs on car rides before they are put to sleep, and the store is frequented by Canadians and also zombies, who come out of the Ausible Chasm. Charley “looked like someone from a Greek play, Electra, or Cassandra. She looked like someone had just set her favorite city on fire”, and Eric never really understands what the zombies want when they come into the store, and Batu sleeps in the back and has a seemingly endless supply of pajamas and is working on some plans to revolutionize sales and customer service. These may have to do with figuring out just what zombies want and how to sell to them, because:

Not even Batu knew what the zombies were up to. Sometimes he said that they were just another thing you had to deal with in retail. 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.

I love the guessing about what goes on down in the Ausible Chasm, about the zombies’ lives:

Maybe his friend Dave had been telling the truth and there was a country down there that you could visit, just like Canada. Maybe when the zombies 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, birdsnesty tangles, all the other debris real people didn’t know the value of.

I’m gonna leap over the next two stories, “The Cannon” and “Stone Animals”, which are not among my favorites. Link’s style is superb as always, but “Stone Animals” especially drags on longer than I can stand. I like the weirdness in Link’s writing, my inability to identify the worlds of her stories as our world or a fantasy world, but in “Stone Animals” that aspect of her writing isn’t there for me. There are weird things, for sure, and plenty of them. In another world I would probably appreciate the way Link takes the struggles and problems of an ordinary marriage (weighted by children, a move to a new home, a long commute to work) and fits into them magical or just odd elements, but in this world I don’t.

But then, “Catskin”. My one complaint about Kelly Link has never even been about Kelly Link; it’s that whenever her work is anthologized it’s “Catskin” that’s chosen. She’s written a lot of stories and a lot of stories that are better than the stories other people are writing, and I’ve never understood why it’s this story that’s always selected. Reading it after a couple years with no “Catskin” sightings, though, I can better understand why this is the Big Story, at least in terms of best of collections: because it is a really good and sad and weird story about witches and children and cats and revenge. At story’s opening a witch is dying, poisoned by her enemy, Lack. She pants “as if she were giving birth to her own death” and she names the inheritances of her three children Flora, Jack and Small. Small is the one we’ll follow, and the youngest, and I’m going to give into temptation again and quote Link:

Small, who still slept in the witch’s bed, was the youngest of the witch’s children. (Perhaps not as young as you think.) He sat upon the bed, and although he didn’t cry, it was only because witch’s children have no one to teach them the use of crying. His heart was breaking.

To Small the witch gives her revenge. After her death Small takes up with one of the witch’s cats, The Witch’s Revenge, and they make a suit of catskin to keep him warm – so Small for the rest of the story looks sort of like a giant, weirdly colored cat himself, and then they do what they are meant to, and seek the witch’s revenge against Lack.

“Some Zombie Contingency Plans” takes place in some hazy place that is mostly our world but sometimes not, narrated by a man, Soap, who has been in prison for stealing a painting and thinks a lot about art and when he tires of that works on his zombie contingency plans. Zombies because:

Zombies didn’t discriminate. Everyone tasted equally good as far as zombies were concerned. And anyone could be a zombie. You didn’t have to be special, or good at sports, or good-looking. You didn’t have to smell good, or wear the right kind of clothes, or listen to the right kind of music. You just had to be slow.

Soap liked this about zombies.

Soap makes a habit of crashing parties and this story is about that, and about zombies, and about art: he crashes a party and he talks to a girl and then he leaves, but things aren’t quite the same behind him.

“The Great Divorce” isn’t one of my favorites from the collection, but its premise is nevertheless almost irresistible to me:

It has been only in the last two decades that the living have been in the habit of marrying the dead, and it is still not common practice. Divorcing the dead is still less common. More usual is that the living husband – or wife – who regrets a marriage no longer acknowledges the admittedly tenuous presence of his spouse. Bigamy is easily accomplished when one’s first wife is dead. It may not even be bigamy. And yet, where there are children concerned, the dissolution of a mixed marriage becomes stickier.

This story is at times very funny for the understated way Link writes of relationships between the living and the dead, for the complaints that are at end the same complaints that living couples have.

My feelings on “Lull” are mixed; it’s a long story, and it’s more like one story that leads into another that leads into another, with these stories sometimes circling back around and tying into each other or referencing each other in unexpected ways. There are some beautiful lines in this story, and my complaint with it is just that when I was beginning to fall in love with one of the stories and its characters, they would begin telling a story about some other characters.

I’m proving again that I don’t know how to review story collections (surely there is a more efficient way of doing this than writing reviews of each story – which will land me in trouble if I ever get around to reading the complete Cheever or Nabokov), but please don’t let my long winded writing turn you off. Kelly Link is an incredible writer, one who plays with narrative and genre and who makes me fall back in love with short stories every time I read her.

*So now I give up the ghost. Yes, I love Small Beer Press and Kelly Link because they liked one of my stories about eight years ago (oh my god, I’m starting to get old), but the reason that made me so happy is that their press was the first one I looked at and admired and thought that I could emulate in my own small press that I ran for a couple years. So here’s my thing with book blogs, and why I like them: because I’m allowed to tell you these things, and now you know why I can’t review Kelly Link but can only gush about Kelly Link.

** Side note, but an important one. Definitely download this book if you’re curious about Link, but better yet buy it. Two of the collection’s stories, “The Faery Handbag” and “Magic for Beginners,” aren’t included in the download. You can find “The Faery Handbag” online but “Magic for Beginners” is all wacky – at least on my computer – and I’ve never been able to load more than the first page of the story. That’s why I don’t get into that story in this review, which I admit is kind of lame on my part.

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