Magic for Beginners

Author: Kelly Link

Type: Fiction, short stories

Published: 2005

I read it: March 2017

magic for beginners

“You can’t have everything,” the cheerleader says. “Not even in a story. You can’t have all the stories you want.”

“I know,” the Devil says. He whines. “But I still want it.”

Kelly Link acts as her own Devil throughout this nine-story collection, because even though she knows there is no perfect story, she still tries her damnedest to have it all. She also uses her last name to full and subtle effect: it only gradually dawned on me how much these stories are linked.

“The Faery Handbag” is a solid opener about a magic handbag and a library and disappeared people who may yet return. A piece of it is referenced in the very final story, “Lull,” the one that features the Devil. (But he plays only a partial role, as his story is sandwiched in between others that all twist in on themselves.) “The Hortlak” is a unique tale of roadside relationships that also features a zombie population. All of the stories are about relationships, of course. As for the more specific connections, “The Cannon” opens with a line from “The Hortlak” and the subject of the living dead is one of the main character’s obsessions in “Some Zombie Contingency Plans.” (This story also has a great take on altered states: “Will doesn’t use drugs anymore. It’s too much like being in a museum. It makes everything look like art, and makes everything feel like just before the zombies show up.”)

But when the book aims to include every level of weirdness it requires a high level of willingness for the reader to slide through the levels of magical realism. “Stone Animals” is a fine attempt at the struggles of domesticity that feels like a George Saunders story, though it could use a higher dose of humor. “The Great Divorce” features ghosts that are meant to emphasize the struggles of human connection, but don’t seem necessarily essential except for the fact that it’s fun to have ghosts in your story. This penchant for the bizarre is risky because it can make each story feel like a bit of a grab bag and not necessarily defined by internal rules.

The title story is puzzling yet enchanting, again playing with the idea of the reality of certain stories. It features a TV show that the characters love called The Library. Picture the best, most occult and interesting type of show you could imagine, and there you have it. The descriptions of the show itself are the most fascinating part of Link’s story, and I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing. It certainly sounds too unique to exist in anything but a story. And the centerpiece is “Catskin,” which I had read previously in McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales. Because it’s a more blatant fairy tale than the others and doesn’t try to overlap too much with modern life, it seems, ironically, the most grounded. It’s an elaborate tale of motherhood and revenge and identity, with literal skin-changing and a lot of cats.

So throughout the book there are times I wanted more, or less. I could probably  pick out a few favorites and leave the rest, although by the end I had appreciated the overall effect. If you tally up the lines like “This is the end of the story” and “This is a story about being lost in the woods,” you realize that the stories are somewhat aware of themselves. Which fits for Kelly Link, because on any given page any inanimate object could be aware of itself.

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