Magic for Beginners

Kelly Link‘s new short story collection, Magic for Beginners, leaves me as much at a loss for words as her previous collection did. Stories at once mundane (a New York family moves out to the suburbs; the husband is scarcely ever home, with his long commute and well-over-40-hours corporate job) and fantastic (the suburban house is oddly haunted; rabbits ridden by tiny people, armed with spears, throng on the front lawn) continually metamorphose, implode, or fall into dizzyingly self-referential mise-en-abime loops. One moment a bunch of middle-age guys, all failures in life, are sitting around a table drinking beer and playing poker; the next, a cheerleader is in a closet with the devil, experiencing her life flow backwards, and telling the devil a story about one of the guys sitting around the table… Then there’s the one about the TV series that unfolds entirely in an enormous library, with all sorts of supernatural happenings, and different actors play the same character each episode, only it seems the people who watch this series are also characters inside it, unless it is rather that the TV fiction somehow leaks into the “real” world… only there’s also all the stuff about teen awkwardness about sex, and wedding chapels in Las Vegas, and going on to the roof at night and looking at the stars…

Link’s stories have the dizzying ontological dislocations of Borges, but they also seem bizarrely, unreasonably cheerful (even when they are describing deeply troubling things), which is mostly because of the narrating voice, who remains bouncy like a fairytale storyteller, and yet remains matter-of-fact, no matter how outrageous what is being said. You can see this in the openings of her stories: “There once was a man whose wife was dead. She was dead when he fell in love with her, and she was dead for the twelve years they lived together….” Or again: “Fox is a television character, and she isn’t dead yet. But she will be, soon. She’s a character on a television show called The Library. You’ve never seen The Library on TV, but I bet you wish you had.” The more convoluted and crazy the narrative line becomes, the more blithely the narrator tells us about it, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. It is impossible to describe what these stories are like (in precisely the way that, according to certain philosophers, it would be impossible for a human being to experience what it is like to be a bat. And yet the stories do somehow convey this alien sensibility, that cannot be positively described).

The stories in Magic for Beginners are vertiginously weightless: they have an excessive clarity, I want to say, that makes them impossible to summarize or pin down. Nothing could be more postmodern, in the way the stories have no center, in the way all their affects are free-floating and highly mutable, in the way even their anxieties and terrors seem strangely objective or ambient, strangely devoid of any interiority. And yet they are also devoid of the cartoony hyperrealism, the flippant irony, the ultra-commodification, and the obsessive allusiveness, that we usually consider markers of the “postmodern.” (They are also too slippery, and too free of any programmatic transgressiveness, to be properly called “surrealist”). I want to say (though I am unable, for now, to say it at all convincingly; and though even to suggest it makes me seem, oxymoronically, like a monstrously upbeat and cheerful Adorno) that Kelly Link’s writing presupposes, and is only conceivable within, a world like ours that has been entirely colonized and subsumed by global capital; and yet, this writing proposes and enacts a sort of singular aestheticism that is utterly irreducible to this global totality.

2 Responses to “Magic for Beginners”

  1. Edward Basse says:

    “sounds of saturn”, in a sense. sounds like a william basinski composition. enjoy:

  2. Nick says:

    Nice to hear such eloquent praise for Kelly Lynch. Been a fan of her work for a while, and have taught Stranger Things Happen in both Study of Fiction and Intro. to Creative Writing for the past few years. Like you say, the sort of free-and-easy voice of her narration sometimes masks the disturbing undertones that are brewing in her stories…

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