Saturday, November 25, 2006

"Magic for Beginners" by Kelly Link

Last spring, when I reviewed the short fiction nominated for the Nebula and Hugo awards, I wrote briefly about Kelly Link's novella "Magic for Beginners" (which won the former award, and scandalously lost the latter to a forgettable and humorless piece by Connie Willis). It was clear to me at the time that Link's story was one of the finest and most fascinating pieces of short fiction I'd read in quite some time, but it was with some trepidation that I said so in my Hugo and Nebula roundups because, as I wrote at the time, I didn't feel qualified to say why. Which is fairly typical of my reactions to a lot of Link's writing--I like most of her stuff, and I can see that her stories are sophisticated, with a hell of a lot going on under the surface. Most of the time, however, I really don't get what she's trying to say.

A big part of my difficulties with Link's fiction has to do with the fact that I keep trying to read her as a fantasist, when actually she's a surrealist. When a fantasy writer introduces non-realistic elements into their fiction, the conventions of the genre dictate that these elements be taken at face value--in the Harry Potter universe, cars can be made to fly and certain magical creatures can conjure flashbacks of one's worst memories--or as a fairly straightforward metaphor for mundane objects, situations, or states of mind. Because she's a writer rooted in genre fiction--and, more importantly, because her stories evince an almost obsessive attention to detail and are usually written in a coldly analytical, matter-of-fact voice rather than the more dreamy attitude I tend to associate with magical realism--my kneejerk reaction when reading Link's fiction is to look for either an internally consistent fantasy world or a fairly obvious key that will allow me to decipher--to transform--her stories into everyday terms (this attitude probably has something to do with the fact that my favorite pieces in Link's first short story collection, Stranger Things Happen, were the ones that retold and remixed traditional fairy tales. Perhaps wisely, Link has moved away from this style in her more recent fiction). If you've read any of Link's fiction, you'll guess that I am, more often than not, frustrated in my search for either of these easy solutions. When I call Link a surrealist what I mean is that it's the gestalt effect of the fantastic elements in her stories that I should be reading for, the ambience that they--combined with her dry, almost journalistic authorial voice--create that is the point of her fiction, not any specific detail.

Which, to a genre reader, can be an extraordinarily frustrating attitude to be asked to espouse, especially when one considers that the surreal aspects of her stories require Link's readers provide their own emotional onramps into her fiction. Matt Cheney writes about Link's story "Stone Animals"--in which an urban family moves to the country and begins to experience a haunting that ultimately alienates them from each other and themselves--that it 'both employs and parodies the basic elements of suburban psychological realism, the sort of scaffolding John Cheever and so many other writers hung their words and laundry on.' He's obviously right, but whereas in Cheever's fiction, the use of psychological realism enabled--and still does enable--readers who weren't suburban middle managers and bored 50s housewives to put themselves in his characters' shoes, Link's use of surreal elements creates a barrier between her characters and her readers. Unless you've been where her characters are--unless you've felt the vertigo that comes with not recognizing yourself as a spouse, a parent, a homeowner, like the family in "Stone Animals," or watched your dead-end future come into focus, like the well-meaning retail clerk in "The Hortlak"--you won't be able to get there by reading about them. You'll end up looking at them through a glass, appreciating their predicament, but never quite empathizing with it.

I think the reason that so many genre readers--people like Niall, who's been promising an essay about it for months, and Alison, who tried to get a discussion about it started--fell head over heels for "Magic for Beginners" (the story is, sadly, no longer available online, but it can be read in the collection of the same name, which, in spite of the reservations expressed in the above paragraph, I do recommend, if only for the ensuing head rush) is that, for once, we did have the necessary emotional onramp. The story is as pitch-perfect a recreation of fandom and the fannish mentality as anything I've read since William Gibson's Pattern Recognition, with the added benefit of being as affectionate, and as nostalgic as hell, concentrating as it does on one's first, juvenile fannish experience--the kind that becomes inextricably intertwined with one's own progress towards adulthood.

"Magic for Beginners" achieves this synthesis by playing merry hell with levels of meta-fictionality. The story opens by introducing us to the character Fox, who appears on the television show The Library, but when the next paragraph begins to describe The Library, its protagonist is a boy named Jeremy Mars. Jeremy lives a fairly ordinary life in a small town in Vermont with two parents and a small group of friends, of whom the story says that the two most important things they have in common are a geographical location and an obsessive love of a television show also called The Library. This show does feature a character named Fox, and it does take place in a library. Its storylines involves pirate-wizards, magical swords, women giving birth to snakes, and villains called the Forbidden Books. The Library--the internal Library, that is--is not a regularly scheduled show. It appears on TV at irregular intervals, on channels that usually show nothing but snow. There are no credits and the commercials advertise nonexistent products. Most of the characters--Fox included--are played by a different actor every episode, and are recognizable only by their costumes.

These idiosyncrasies aside, there's nothing that's not familiar about the all-consuming devotion with which Jeremy and his friends incorporate The Library into their everyday lives. They watch--and re-watch--the episodes together, as a communal experience, discuss and analyze the events of each episode, and dress up as their favorite characters. I don't imagine there are many people reading this post who can't sympathize, or offer an example of similar behavior. For me, it was The X-Files, but I imagine there are people my age who might offer up Babylon 5 as their first fannish love, and folks a bit older who first geeked out over Star Trek: The Next Generation. Whatever television show it was that once captured your heart to the extent that it became part of your life, "Magic for Beginners" will read, in some ways, like excerpts from your own adolescence. The events of the story are jump-started by an episode of the show-within-a-show-within-a-story in which Fox appears to die, and the question of whether that death is real (for the kind of negotiable value of real we tend to attach to the deaths of fictional characters) is as consuming to Jeremy and his friends as any of the real events of their lives.
What Jeremy likes about showers is the way you can stand there, surrounded by water and yet in absolutely no danger of drowning, and not think about things like whether you fucked up on the Spanish assignment, or why your mother is looking so worried. Instead you can think about things like if there's water on Mars, and whether or not Karl is shaving, and if so, who is he trying to fool, and what the statue of George Washington meant when it said to Fox, during their desperate, bloody fight, "You have a long journey ahead of you," and "Everything depends on this." And is Fox really dead?
What we forget--what Link encourages us to forget--while reading "Magic for Beginners" is that there is an extra layer of fictionality between us and Fox. Jeremy is the star of his own television show, this one a naturalistic family drama about a kid dealing with such prosaic issues as an imperious best friend, two girls who might be interested in him, and his parents' imperiled marriage. As the story progresses, the two fictional layers begin to pancake into one another. Jeremy's mother prepares to take a break from her marriage by going on a road trip to Las Vegas, where she has recently inherited a phone booth and a wedding chapel, with her son (the reason for the quarrel between Jeremy's parents is yet another conflation of fact and fiction; Jeremy's father, a horror writer, wrote his son into a novel and then gave him a brain tumor. "I figured I could save you--I'm the author, after all," he tells his son, "but you got sicker and sicker"). This decision obviously precipitates a catastrophic shake-up of Jeremy's life, and it is yet again typical of Link's deft understanding of the importance that a fannish love can have in a person's life that the possibility of jeopardizing a nascent romantic relationship with a girl is held up as an equally gruesome side effect of the road trip as the risk of missing the next installment of The Library. As the date of the trip approaches, Jeremy begins to have dreams in which Fox asks for his help. He calls his phone booth and the character answers, urging him to save her by performing certain tasks. As the story approaches its end, the two shows come together into a Buffy-ish blend of soap and supernatural (and at the risk of sounding facetious, I think it's possible to argue that Kelly Link would be writing very different stories if Buffy the Vampire Slayer hadn't existed).

I've read responses to "Magic for Beginners" that criticize the story for cutting off just where a traditional fantasy about children sucked into their favorite imaginary universe would kick off. Jeremy performs the task necessary to save Fox's life--stealing certain, apparently quite dangerous, books from a library in Iowa and leaving them in the phone booth for Fox to find--but we never learn whether Fox was really there, whether she exists in the universe of Jeremy's show. The story ends with Jeremy in Las Vegas, on the phone with his friends in Vermont as a new episode of The Library starts. We don't get to see whether Fox is really dead, and if she isn't, we'll never learn whether it's Jeremy's actions that have decided that outcome. But, of course, the point of Link's novella wasn't the story but the story about the story, about how we appreciate, become obsessed with, and fall in love with stories. However much remains opaque about "Magic for Beginners" (the title, for instance, is leaving me entirely blank), that much is obvious. Link leaves us in a state of fannish anticipation, and it is to her credit that by that point, we are fans. Whether or not we got there by bringing our own emotional baggage to the story, once we're able to penetrate the glass surrounding Link's fiction, we can't help but be won over. "You've never seen The Library on TV, but I bet you wish you had," Link's narrator tells us at the story's beginning. By the time we turn the last page, this is very much the case.

6 comments:

KindKit said...

I first read "Magic for Beginners" when it appeared in Fantasy and Science Fiction last year, and I loved it. It's certainly my favorite "genre" short story ever, and possibly my favorite short story full stop. Everything about it is fabulous, from the prose to the affectionate attitude towards fandom that you mention (it's disheartening how many creators seem to have contempt for their fans). The best thing, though, is how Link reclaims the promise of fantasy fiction which is so often unfulfilled--the promise of wonder. One can read a thousand bog-standard high-fantasy novels with wizards and lost princesses and prophecies and not feel a moment of it. But Link captures wonder, then twists it, melts it down, forges it anew and makes it wonderful all over again.

chris said...

I just came across your blog while looking for thoughts about Kelly Link's work, and I must tell you that I found your post extremely thoughtful and insightful. I’m especially interested in this distinction you make between fantastic and surrealistic writing.

Keep up the great work; I intend to return often!

Fred said...

I agree, and you hit upon a lot of my own feelings about Link's most recent short stories. It definitely feels like she's taken her own recent advice -- to write "more ambitious work....stories and characters and narrative twists that only you are strange enough to write" -- to heart. And so while her stories are never easy to shake, they're also increasingly less easy to understand.

Anonymous said...

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Thedward Blevins said...

I find it amusing that you find the title "Magic for Beginners" opaque since I didn't get it until reading your take on the story (despite my existing familiarity with the story).

The key part being: "... as affectionate, and as nostalgic as hell, concentrating as it does on one's first, juvenile fannish experience--the kind that becomes inextricably intertwined with one's own progress towards adulthood." I instantly recognized that the "magic" of the title to be that first fannish engagement.

Thedward Blevins said...

I find it amusing that you find the title "Magic for Beginners" opaque since I didn't get it until reading your take on the story (despite my existing familiarity with the story).

The key part being: "... as affectionate, and as nostalgic as hell, concentrating as it does on one's first, juvenile fannish experience--the kind that becomes inextricably intertwined with one's own progress towards adulthood." I instantly recognized that the "magic" of the title to be that first fannish engagement.

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