Title: Magic for Beginners
Author: Kelly Link
Publisher: Mariner Books
Publication Date: September 5, 2006
Reviewed by: Angie Edwards
My rating: 4/5
The nine stories in Link's second collection are the spitting image of those in her acclaimed debut, Stranger Things Happen: effervescent blends of quirky humor and pathos that transform stock themes of genre fiction into the stuff of delicate lyrical fantasy. In "Stone Animals," a house's haunting takes the unusual form of hordes of rabbits that camp out nightly on the front lawn. This proves just one of several benign but inexplicable phenomena that begin to pull apart the family newly moved into the house as surely as a more sinister supernatural influence might. The title story beautifully captures the unpredictable potential of teenage lives through its account of a group of adolescent schoolfriends whose experiences subtly parallel events in a surreal TV fantasy series. Zombies serve as the focus for a young man's anxieties about his future in "Some Zombie Contingency Plans" and offer suggestive counterpoint to the lives of two convenience store clerks who serve them in "The Hortlak." Not only does Link find fresh perspectives from which to explore familiar premises, she also forges ingenious connections between disparate images and narrative approaches to suggest a convincing alternate logic that shapes the worlds of her highly original fantasies.
Picture my face wearing one big question mark like the one you’ll see on a cartoon character. Can you see it? Well then, let’s get started.
The Faery Handbag
Can you believe that an entire village, including mythical creatures such as mermaids and dragons, can hide and survive in a magical handbag for hundreds of years? Would I lie to you? Maybe. Maybe not. But would Genevieve’s book-stealing, scrabble-loving grandmother who speaks fluent Baldeziwurleki lie to you about it? Maybe. Maybe not. You decide what you want to believe.
Eric and Batu works the night shift at the All-Night Convenience store where humans and zombies shop and can pay for their purchases with money or anything they feel is worth the product they buy. Charley’s job is to put dogs to sleep. It just so happens that both Eric and Batu are in love with her. All three these characters were rather nonsensical, and the plot didn’t make sense to me either. If The Hortlak is meant to be a metaphor for something, I didn’t get it. Still, the prose was done beautifully and gives it a whimsical feel. And even though I don’t like her at all, respect to you, Ms Link, for mentioning South African-born actress, Charlize Theron. (It’s Charlize I don’t like, just to be clear).
I still might not know what the hell a Hortlak is, but don’t hate me because I’m beautiful, okay?
If I thought The Hortlak didn’t make any sense, The Cannon makes even less sense if that’s possible. How much can there be said about a cannon, right? Well, Ms Link manages an entire essay about a cannon – gorgeous prose and all – and I’m sure it’s a metaphor for something or the other, but I guess I must be very slow today because, again, I didn’t get it. This reads like something that should be dissected in an English Lit college class to find all the hidden meanings that can be interpreted. As with the previous short, I lost myself in the beautiful writing and was left with lots to ponder, trying to figure out what the heck the cannon represents.
After the peculiarity of the previous two novellas, it was a relief to move back to the land of normal with, Stone Animals, or as normal as it gets in this short story compilation. I kinda liked the characters in this one. The kids, Carleton and Tilly, are unnervingly creepy, and they have a cat called, King Spanky. The parents, Henry and Catherine, with a new baby on the way, have a very complicated, yet loving, marriage. But what I liked most about it was how realistically their marriage is portrayed. Then there’s the new house they move into. And the rabbits. Things are beings whispered about this house by the locals, and really, what the friggity frack is up with all the rabbits?
It is made clear right at the beginning of Catskin that if you’re looking for a happy ending to this story, you shouldn’t read it. I, of course, am all for unconventional endings, so I continued reading. I adore cats and there was no way I was going to miss out on a story with cats in it. Catskin is a little hard to explain though. All I’m going to say is that it’s about cats, witches, children, princes, princesses, time, children living under houses, cats walking upright, a cat suit, red ants, and...it’s all very, very bizarre. Another metaphor maybe?
Some Zombie Contingency Plans
OK, there are still a couple more short stories, and I bet they’re all as weird as this one turned out to be. It seems to be the theme here. So, because I’m getting tired of the term weird / strange, and I’m assuming you are too, I just won’t use that word again to describe the rest of this anthology. Deal?
Now, on to zombie contingency plans we go. Here are two questions for you to contemplate. One. Do you think zombies are attracted to suburbs the same way tornadoes are attracted to trailer parks? Secondly, could it be that they are attracted to the aforementioned suburbs because the windows of all the houses in these suburbs drive them nuts? It doesn’t really matter, but those are two relatively good questions, don’t you think? No? Well, Soap, the main character who is an escaped prisoner, seems to think so. This crazy short story is also about art, icebergs, and of course, zombies.
The Great Divorce
Let me try and make sense of this. There once was a man, in a time when the living could marry the dead (or vice versa), who married a dead woman, who bore him three children – all dead – and after twelve years of marriage he suspected she’s having an affair. Apparently, divorcing the dead isn’t as common as marrying the dead. The children communicates with their father via an Ouija board, asking him to take them to Disneyland, because divorce is always hardest on the kids...aaaaaaand several pages later, after trying to arrange the themes of divorce, the living, the dead, mediums, and Disneyland into one neat sensible picture, I was so lost I felt I needed a strong drink just to help me get back to reality. And no, I don’t drink. All I got from this is that divorcing a ghost is as difficult and painful as divorcing a living person.
I promised earlier I won’t use the-word-that-shall-not-be-repeated, remember?
Magic for Beginners
My head’s still a-spinnin’.
Why do people sometimes ask: “May I ask you a question”? Don’t they realize that by doing that they’re already asking a question? What if your answer is: “No, you may not ask me a question”. What then? Can they take back the unintended question? It boggles the mind. It does. Like Lull. Lull is hard to explain, but simple to understand...if you’re high on some kind of hallucinogenic – which I assure you is a foreign concept to me. Therefore, I can’t tell you what it’s about or what the point of it is, but here are a few keywords that stuck with me which might give you an indication of what to expect: trampoline, evil spirits, Tarzan door, sleepwalking, pepper, drunk peacocks, booby traps, lopsided haircuts.
See what I mean?
It’s also about the devil and a cheerleader, friendship, marriage, houses, teenagers, and divorce – I think.
The line that got me laughing:
What’s a nice alien like you doing in a galaxy like this?
In the context of the story, that line was a classic.
There you have it, folks. What felt like being trapped in an endless tornado of crazy confusion that left my head spinning (yes, like in The Exorcist), we’ve FINALLY reached the end.
The thing about these short stories is that they are all unique and incredibly you-know-what. The writing is just lovely, and whether the stories made sense to me or not, they were quite an experience to read. I don’t think this anthology would be everybody’s taste. You definitely have to be in a certain frame of mind to be able to fully absorb this kind of writing style. But I would recommend it without hesitation to anyone looking for something that is way out there and miles from the norm. Go ahead, give it a chance! I’ll wait for you on the other side, pointing and laughing, when you come stumbling out of this weird-ass anthology hurricane. That is, if you’re brave enough to read it all the way to the end, muahahahahaha!
ABOUT the AUTHOR
Kelly Link's debut collection, Stranger Things Happen, was a Firecracker nominee, a Village Voice Favorite Book and a Salon Book of the Year -- Salon called the collection "...an alchemical mixture of Borges, Raymond Chandler, and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Stories from the collection have won the Nebula, the James Tiptree Jr., and the World Fantasy Awards. Her second collection, Magic for Beginners, was a Book Sense pick (and a Best of Book Sense pick); and selected for best of the year lists by Time Magazine, Salon, Boldtype, Village Voice, San Francisco Chronicle, and The Capitol Times. It was published in paperback by Harcourt. Kelly is an editor for the Online Writing Workshop and has been a reader and judge for various literary awards. With Gavin J. Grant and Ellen Datlow she edits The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror (St. Martin's Press). She also edited the anthology, Trampoline. Kelly has visited a number of schools and workshops including Stonecoast in Maine, Washington University, Yale, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, Brookdale Community College, Brookdale, NJ, Lenoir-Rhyne College, Hickory, NC, the Imagination Workshop at Cleveland State University, New England Institute of Art & Communications, Brookline, MA, Clarion East at Michigan State University, Clarion West in Seattle, WA, and Clarion South in Brisbane, Australia. Kelly lives in Northampton, MA. She received her BA from Columbia University and her MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Kelly and her husband, Gavin J. Grant, publish a twice-yearly zine, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet -- as well as books -- as Small Beer Press.
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