I read Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners in fall of 2009 for a class on fantasy. These stories are classified as “slipstream,” something a little different, but I find that in general I really enjoy slipstream. Here’s my take on her collection of short stories:
This and that, but it all comes together.
I read the blurb on the back and all of the praise before I actually began reading Magic for Beginners, and I was fully aware that I was going to read slipstream fiction. This knowledge set expectations on my part, and I was not disappointed.
Link’s voice is perfect for this subgenre, lilting and musical, and uses it to good effect, contrasting the lyrical quality of her writing with the horrific subject matter.
I imagine that if I had begun reading this book with the idea that I would be reading something more classically set in the fantasy genre, I might have been disappointed. But I know that when I read slipstream, particularly slipstream short stories, that I’ll be working a little harder, stretching my own imagination a little further and most likely left without a sense of closure.
The term “cognitive dissonance” has been put forth by Kessel and Kelly in their anthology Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology (p. xi). According to the entry on Wikipedia, “[c]ognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously.”
Link seems to grasp this concept and run with it. In “Stone Animals,” the reader experiences the dissonance between the concrete relatable problem of marital trouble with the ephemeral problem of a haunted existence. The tension of each separate issue winds about the other and heightens each.
In “The Faery Handbag” the characters are so utterly believable: a Scrabble playing grandmother with a weird, giant handbag; a grieving granddaughter with a quirky, neurotic friend. The story is so utterly unbelievable: a handbag that holds a world, a demon dog and your wallet, the people who leave the bag to visit.
In “The Hortlak,” we come to know Eric, an everyman’s kind of guy who has a secret crush on Charley. He likes his job and his boss, nevermind the fact that the boss wears surreal pajamas and zombies frequent the All-Night.
I was able to accept the unbelievable as merely a part of the story and allow it to heighten the tension I felt at the more mundane elements. Reading slipstream fiction requires a willing suspension of disbelief that can sometimes be hard to achieve, but Link made it easy for me. It’s the cognitive dissonance that makes the stories more interesting than the sum of their parts.
I’ve come to expect this cognitive dissonance from slipstream fiction. It’s the skill with which the author spins the contrasting elements that makes or breaks the story for me. Despite the fact that these were short stories, I was immediately invested in the characters. Link uses her voice and a masterful sense of cognitive dissonance to immerse me fully in the story so that I just run with it and accept the impossible in the everyday world.
“Some Zombie Contingency Plans” started out fine. An ex-con named Soap. That’s intriguing enough. Come on, you know the thought the crossed your mind– the one about prisoners dropping the soap– and I was a little concerned about where the story was going. Concerned enough to keep me reading. It was all downhill from there.
“This is a story about being lost in the woods.”
That’s the first line. I had a fleeting hope that maybe this would make up for Tana French’s book. Alas. The commonality– child disappearance– bothered me just as much in this short story as it did in French’s book. I could not find the thread linking the art theft with Carly’s neglect of Leo’s disappearance. This was the first story in Magic for Beginners that left me feeling completely lost. I could not picture the characters or the setting, as generic as they seemed. If I can’t see the characters, relate to them in some way, all is lost.
“The Great Divorce” redeemed Link for me a bit. It wasn’t the story itself that did the redeeming, it was the imagery she created. I loved the mental image of a ghost sitting in bougainvillea, of the ghost children in the lines at Disney. While I read the story I had a hazy image of Alan and Sarah discussing Alan’s marriage to Lavvie and it was a lovely, evocative image, but the story itself left me feeling vaguely depressed and flat.
The last two stories disappointed me. They had potential for the same kind of imagery, but never lived up to it. Magic for Beginners could have been fantastic– a librarian superhero of sorts. I could envision bits and pieces of Fox, but not the whole. I knew she was beautiful and I knew she had a tail, but what about the rest of her? Furry or smooth? There was very little consistency in the setting so I had trouble actually immersing myself in the story. In “Stone Animals” I didn’t have this trouble. I could see the house and the bunnies and so was able to immerse.
“Lull” very nearly caused me to put the book down and give up. Too much, too little all at once. We had three different storylines going on in “Lull” and I never felt like I knew enough about any one of them at a time to fully “get” it. I was definitely intrigued with the backward storytelling, but it wasn’t enough to drag me willingly on the journey. And that’s what the last half of the book felt like– a vague journey on a train with dirty windows.
Link’s works comes highly recommended if you’re looking to stretch your idea of genre.