“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 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • 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>