“Magic for Beginners” by Kelly Link

Another entrancing collection of surreal suburban tales from the author of the underground hit "Stranger Things Happen."

Topics: Fiction, Books,

"Magic for Beginners" by Kelly Link

Even among cult writers, Kelly Link doesn’t quite fit. She’s still published by the small press she runs with her husband, but editors flock to her readings, famous writers reverently pass her books to each other, Michael Chabon has picked “Stone Animals” for this year’s Best American Short Story anthology, and her new collection, “Magic for Beginners,” was singled out as an editor’s choice in Entertainment Weekly.

“Magic for Beginners” shows even more clearly than her entrancing debut collection, “Stranger Things Happen,” how Link treads the near-invisible line between literary hit and writer’s writer. Her prose is fresh and unaffected, yet honed to the essential. So far, she’s produced only stories (though lately some have grown to novella length), works that delicately knit together crowd-pleasing genre and folk-tale elements with challenging experimentation. (This is essentially what the metafictionists of the 1970s professed to do; however, when Link does it, it works.) And always, the connective tissue is a funny, rueful view of human relations that for all the weird stuff going on, remains rooted in reality.

Take “The Hortlak,” in “Magic for Beginners,” which is like a Raymond Carver story on mescaline. Nineteen-year-old Eric works in the All-Night, a convenience store near the Canadian border, and pines for Charley, a woman whose work euthanizing dogs at an animal shelter has caused her to look “like someone had just set her favorite city on fire.” This might sound like a standard setup for an exercise in kitchen-sink realism, but wait. Eric’s fellow clerk, Batu, has taken over the neglected franchise and declared that the two of them are embarking on a mission that will “change the face of retail.” This revolution entails such innovations as rearranging the candy “according to chewiness and meltiness,” and then again so that the first letter of each candy spells out the first sentence in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Batu considers money passi; “I’m supposed to give you what you want,” Eric tells a baffled customer, “and then you give me what you want to give me.”



Perhaps this would seem eccentric if the All-Night didn’t also stand hard by something called the Ausible Chasm, a seemingly bottomless gorge from which emerge mild-mannered zombies attempting in vain to shop: “The things the zombies tried to purchase were plainly things that they had brought with them into the store … pieces of safety glass … empty soda bottles, handfuls of leaves, sticky dirty, dirty sticks.” Batu has the idea that the enigmatic zombies constitute a vast untapped market: “Once the All-Night figures out what dead people want to buy, it’s going to be like the discovery of America all over again.” Meanwhile, he encourages Eric’s crush (“The All-Night needs women”) but warns against getting in the car Charley uses to give the doomed dogs their last ride; it’s full of ghosts, “the wrong kind of ghosts. The kind who are never going to understand the least little thing about meaningful transactions.” And then there’s Batu’s collection of uncanny pajamas. (One customer, examining a pair, discovers that pages of her secret girlhood diary are printed on them.)

As peculiar and amusing as “The Hortlak” is, the story’s emotional tones never drift far from what you might expect in the life of a lonely teenager working the night shift at a rural 7-Eleven. Eric is torn between Charley’s angry pessimism and Batu’s absurd, gung-ho sense of purpose. Hey, doesn’t everyone buying milk at 4 a.m. act like the walking dead?

Most of the stories in “Magic for Beginners” wrestle with the difficulties of marriage and suburban family life, projects that can seem as surreal as Batu’s retail revolution. In “Stone Animals,” a family moves from New York to their dream house in the country, only to see their possessions become, one by one, “haunted” — that is, strange and repellent to them. A host of vigilant rabbits collects on their lawn, the mother keeps painting and repainting the rooms and eventually they all are apparently digested and transformed by their surroundings — not the suburb, but the natural landscape beneath it.

The least successful stories in this collection are too fractured and trippy to attain that quintessentially Linkian moment of transcendence, when the goings-on, however bizarre, cohere into a perfectly familiar state of mind. The title story, however, makes up for any number of misfires. It’s about a group of teenage friends united by their devotion to a TV series called “The Library,” a blend of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, produced by persons unknown and airing at unscheduled times on random channels, usually “the ones that are just static.” The five friends are “inseparable, invincible. They imagine that life will always be like this — like a television show in eternal syndication — that they will always have each other.”

Trouble looms. The main character, Jeremy, has parents who have stopped talking to each other. He thinks Elizabeth likes him, but he thinks he likes Talis and his buddy Kurt has told him hands off Talis or else. From a long-lost great aunt he has inherited a telephone booth located just off a freeway exit in Las Vegas. The story is both a mournful rumination on the perfection and fragility of adolescent friendships, and a valentine to the kind of pop culture that’s able to create community among misfits. (The whole story, by the way, is also another episode of “The Library.”) It’s impossible to think of another writer who could pull this off without sounding nostalgic or patronizing or excessively cerebral. There is, after all, only one Kelly Link.

Read more of our reviews of this summer’s best fiction.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site, magiciansbook.com.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>