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Magic for Beginners book cover

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have already seen publication in various venues over the last couple of years, as well as a few original, previously unpublished stories.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.

Geneva Melzack recently escaped from academic philosophy and now has a proper job in university admin in London.



Geneva Melzack recently escaped from academic philosophy and now has a proper job in university admin in London.
8 comments on “Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link”
Hannah Wolf Bowen

(Because Niall said I had to could.)
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.
Can we talk a little about collections and what makes them tick (or not)?
I've been thinking about it, lately, in the context of this collection and others. And I think it has something to do with scope and consistency. That is, with having stories that aren't all the same story, but that fit well together, are that writer's stories.
Give up scope (or range, if that's a better word) and you end up with a group of stories that may be individually fantastic, but that feel too much the same when read as a group. Give up consistency and--I'm not sure what happens, exactly. But I think you'd not have what people (just me?) read collections for.
Of course, I could be wrong.

Hannah

Er. I guess I don't get to use italics and strikethroughs in these comments.
Oops.
Now I know.

Sorry about that; the HTML should be switched on now.
I think you're right about collections taking on an extra dimension if the stories are that writer's stories. Of the collections I've read this year, for instance, James Alan Gardner's Gravity Wells was good, but ranged over so many styles that it was hard to get a sense of what his voice is (people also complain about this with Ian McDonald and David Mitchell); whereas Margo Lanagan's Black Juice was superb in part because there was more ground to compare and contrast the stories.
Two points to throw out there. First, I think maybe good collections give you insight into what makes an author tick, whereas a good anthology may give you insight into what makes short stories tick, as a form.
Second, do you read collections in order or skip around? I have been known to do both. I remember Graham saying, though, that he's read at least one collection, I think it was by Gene Wolfe, where the running order was important but not obviously important, such that if you didn't read from front to back you'd miss some of the connections. And I know writers often pay a lot of attention to the running order of their collections. (In the case of Magic for Beginners, I don't think it's a coincidence that it begins with 'The Faery Handbag', arguably the Link that works best as an 'entry-level' story.)
(And I didn't say you had to post. I just encouraged you. :p)

chance

I'll almost always read collections in order, at least the first time through - I think it makes a difference in how the stories play off each other. Anthologies though, I pick and choose what seems interesting, much as I do in a magazine.

Hannah

Some of it may be the old what-do-_you_-read-for question, and voice _is_ one of my biggies. I'm not sure I'd pick up a collection (left to my own devices) if I didn't have some sense of and interest in the writer's voice. I might even be unlikely to realize that I liked that writer unless someone pointed out that I'd like X story and Y and Z stories and they were all by the same person.
Do you think of the Gardner (and McDonald, and Mitchell) collections as--I can't figure out how to parse what I'm trying to ask. As good collections? Or as good groups of stories? If that makes any sense?
I read collections (and anthologies) in order. Doing otherwise is another thing that never occured to me. I am unclever and unimaginative! I considered it when everyone was saying to save "Singing My Sister Down" for last, but then I talked to a friend who pointed out that the writers/editors chose the orders they chose for a reason. I figured that was good enough for me.
(I will skip stories, but generally not stories I'm planning to go back and reread. The only exception would be a very long story when I don't have the time or brainpower.)

Geneva

I've been trying to think about which collections and anthologies work for me, as collections/anthologies, and which don't.
I tend to prefer single author collections, I suspect because I do like the way they can act as a showcase of a writer's work, displaying a genuine development of themes and writing style. Much like viewing an artist's portfolio, I suppose. You can get a feel for an author's style, voice, aims, and preoccupations with a collection.
Though sometimes single author collections can be very intense. I find that with some authors (egs. Gene Wolfe, R.A. Lafferty, Cordwainer Smith) I can't read their collections all in one go. I have to take breaks, because each of their stories are so densely realised/intense on their own that reading them all consecutively can be just too much for the brain to take. I still like having them all in a collection though, even if the collection is something I can only deal with my dipping in and out of.
It's harder to find anthologies that work for me in the same way as single author collections. Anthologies that have worked very well for me recently are The Faery Reel and Firebirds. Both felt like the stories in them complemented each other, not quite in the same way as in a single author collection, as they didn't reveal much about the authors' styles/preoccupations, but it did feel like the anthologies as a whole came together in exploring a genre/form. They felt like they were revealing something about fairy tales and about young adult sf/fantasy respectively. The Faery Reel in particular worked very well at producing an anthology that went beyond the individual stories in it to express something interesting about the culture of story-telling and myth/fairy tale.

Hannah: When I was talking about Mitchell, I admit I was thinking of Cloud Atlas rather than a collection per se. The book has six incredibly well-distinguished voices, and I couldn't say if any of them were him; but because it's a novel, the stories have common concerns, so you still get a sense of authorial presence. With the Gardner collection, it was more like 'oh, this one's like Ellison' or 'oh, this one's like Lafferty'; and not that they weren't mostly good stories, but it was a bit more like reading an anthology. Which is not a criticism, since I think Geneva's points about what anthologies can do well are spot-on, just an observation.
That said, I'm not sure how high up the scale voice is for me. I can also relate to what Geneva said about a collection being too overpowering to read in one sitting (Trujillo is a good example), but I don't think I always count that as a good thing. The flipside of intense is same-y. And at the risk of splitting semantic hairs, there are plenty of authors whose voice isn't distinctive but whose concerns are; I don't think Greg Egan, for example, is a great stylist, but I will read any story he writes because I like the way he thinks.

Getting here late, but just to respond to Niall's line about Gene Wolfe collections: yes, that was me who made that point. I was thinking of _Endangered Species_, a book of otherwise unconnected stories, with an (unannounced) cluster of four or so in the middle which are linked in very cunning ways. But that's Gene Wolfe for ya. I think also, in _Strange Travelers_, the last story is a sort of sequel to the first.

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