The faery handbag: It's huge and black and kind of hairy. Even when your eyes are closed, it feels black. As black as black ever gets, like if you touch it, your hand might get stuck in it, like tar or black quicksand or when you stretch out your hand at night, to turn on a light, but all you feel is darkness.
Fairies live inside it. I know what that sounds like, but it's true.
Kelly Link's second collection of short fiction, Magic for Beginners (2005; due out in the UK next year), has been something of a phenomenon since it appeared from Small Beer Press (co-founded by Link herself), winning much adulation together with Locus, Nebula, and Hugo awards.
Of the nine stories here, most are set in the everyday world, weaving fantastical elements – zombies, shapeshifting, magic – through ordinary human joys and pains: troubled marriages, sibling bickering, first loves, generation gaps, growing pains. The fantasy is not the focus; it is a prism, a special effect, a slant upon the world, and we rarely learn the how or why of it. The nature of the random hauntings and the army of rabbits (!) that afflict the protagonists of 'Stone Animals', for example, are never explained; they might be real, they might be products of the children's imagination, they might simply be expressions of the stress suffered by a young family moving home and coping with infidelity. Either way, the effect is to both spice up and reinforce the emotional realism of the tale – to make it more universal, perhaps, by making it more bizarre.
Link's strength lies in her acute insight into what makes us, and our relationships, tick – and in her use of whimsy, dream logic, pop culture and warm humour to explore such issues. In 'The Faery Handbag' (available online here), the formidable Zofia ("She looked like a spy or ballerina or a lady pirate or a rock star. She acted like one too") embarrasses her daughter and inspires her granddaughter with her eccentricity and her tales of the old country - a familiar enough scenario (certainly struck a chord with me...), except that Zofia's homeland is a place named Baldeziwurlekistan, her handbag is like the TARDIS as imagined by the Brothers Grimm, and her tales are odder than most:
The Baldeziwurlekistanians used their tiles and board to communicate with the people who lived under the hill. The people who lived under the hill knew the future. The Baldeziwurlekistanians gave them fermented milk and honey, and the young women of the village used to go and lie out on the hill and sleep under the stars. Apparently the people under the hill were pretty cute. The important thing was that you never went down into the hill and spent the night there, no matter how cute the guy from under the hill was. If you did, even if you only spent a single night under the hill, when you came out again a hundred years might have passed. [...]
Every once in a while, a woman from under the hill would marry a man from the village, even though it never ended well. The problem was that the women under the hill were terrible cooks. They couldn't get used to the way time worked in the village, which meant that supper always got burnt, or else it wasn't cooked long enough. But they couldn't stand to be criticized. It hurt their feelings. If their village husband complained, or even if he looked like he wanted to complain, that was it. The woman from under the hill went back to her home, and even if her husband went and begged and pleaded and apologized, it might be three years or thirty years or a few generations before she came back out.
It is Link's willingness to take her themes and ideas – ranging from brief, witty tangents to story-length conceits, like the haunted appliances of 'Stone Animals' – and run with them to their gleefully (il)logical conclusions that makes Magic for Beginners such an infectious, moving, and often quite unsettling reading experience. This is storytelling at its most exuberant and crafty: plain-spoken weirdness, postmodern artlessness. Link finds the dislocation in the everyday, rendering the fantastical in deadpan matter-of-fact prose, addressed to the reader as much as it is broadcast live from its characters’ heads. Take, for example, the neon-drenched daze (and charm) of 'Hortlack', about a convenience store whose workforce (numbering two: naive Eric and wacky dreamer Batu) decide to make the shop into an entirely self-sufficient home, and whose patrons are mostly zombies:
The zombies were like Canadians, in that they looked enough like real people at first, to fool you. But when you looked closer, you saw they were from some other place, where things were different: where even the same things, the things that went on everywhere, were just a little bit different.
At other times, the authorial directness is a feint, a way of calling attention to – and discomforting us with – what we don't know. Stories like 'Some Zombie Contingency Plans' – in which a man with a murky past gatecrashes a teenager's parent-free birthday party – work their slow-burn creepiness to a substantial degree through understatement, partial reveals, and the gaps we are invited to fill in ourselves:
It's not his name, but let's call him Soap. That's what they called him in prison, although not for the reasons you're thinking.
What initially appears to be a throwaway remark, here, soon blossoms into the engine driving the story. "Soap" takes up and sheds names (and thus identities) like the drunken party-goers do their inhibitions, and for all the backstory his ruminations give us, the disorientating effect of his unnaming – so contrary to what we might expect from a third-person narrative that so flaunts its omniscience – ripples through the story, robbing the reader of firm ground and keeping his motives shadowed until the final bait-and-switch (and beyond).
Finally, Link occasionally shows us what is going on by cheekily invoking the exact opposite – thus, of course, putting both images in our heads:
She leaned forward and kissed Jeremy and then she wasn't kissing him. It was all very fast and surprising, but they didn't fall off the roof. Nobody falls off the roof in this story.
The simultaneity jars our expectations – and, arguably, produces a kind of double-vision, one that makes us both observers and experiencers, jolting us with the unexpected in narrative technique just as the characters are jolted with the unexpected in their emotional lives.
That last extract comes from the real triumph of the collection - the title-piece, 'Magic For Beginners', which is stunning right from its charming opening hook:
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.
But if we're drawn in by the quirky narration – which cheerfully wrong-foots us, then addresses us directly – we stay for the characters, for the almost unbearably close (if always slyly amusing) reading of adolescent friendship:
The Library made Jeremy and Karl and Talis and Elizabeth and Amy friends. No one else in school is as passionately devoted. [...] They all live within a few blocks of each other, in run-down Victorians with high ceilings and ranch houses with sunken living rooms. And although they have not always been friends, growing up, they've gone skinny-dipping in lakes on summer nights, and broken bones on each others' trampolines. Once, during an argument about dog names, Elizabeth, who is hot-tempered, tried to run Jeremy over with her ten-speed bicycle, and once, a year ago, Karl got drunk on green-apple schnapps at a party and tried to kiss Talis, and once, for five months in the seventh grade, Karl and Jeremy communicated only through angry emails written in all caps. I'm not allowed to tell you what they fought about.
Now the five are inseparable; invincible. They imagine life will always be like this - like a television show in eternal syndication - that they will always have each other.
We know (because we're told, and because we've probably been there) that Jeremy Mars and his friends have in common, at first, is their fandom – for a TV show that sounds like exactly the type of thing we remember inventing with our friends (and, in my case, occasionally even filmed...) - and their neighbourhood. Still, all the usual shared experiences bring them together, and all the usual teen problems threaten to drive them apart: parents' marital problems, growing up, secrets not kept, and of course hormones:
"Elizabeth likes me?" Jeremy says.
"Apparently everybody likes you," Karl says. He sounds sorry for himself. "What is it about you? It's not like you're all that special. Your nose is funny looking and you have stupid hair."
When Jeremy's mother decides to head out on an extended road trip to Las Vegas – due to a combination of an unexpected inheritance and a particularly bad row with his father – she elects to take Jeremy with her. The portrayal of Jeremy's response is pitch-perfect, embodying all the anxieties of the adolescent worldview. What if everything is different when he returns? What will he miss out on? How will his friends and their relationships shift while he's away? Again we have the double-vision, although of an emotional variety this time: as readers, we are aware that he will only be away for a matter of months, that change is necessary, and so forth... but the inner teen empathises with every agonised protest.
Alongside this, the lead character of The Library - the "funny, dangerous, bad-tempered, flirtatious, greedy, untidy, accident-prone, graceful" Fox, played each episode by a different actor but always recognisably herself (even when the actor is a man) - begins to pop up in Jeremy's life. He gets phonecalls from her, asking for his help. Fox is a mixture of hormone-awakener, imaginary friend, and fantasy symbol of those perfect childhood summers that seem like they'll never end (but do):
And she's always beautiful. Every episode you think that this Fox, surely, is the most beautiful Fox there could ever be, and yet the Fox of the next episode will be even more heartbreakingly beautiful.
In sum: a gorgeous, glorious coming-of-age story. That left me all misty-eyed (with nostalgia, and appreciation).
"Call me Mars instead."
"Mars," Fox says, and it sounds exotic and strange and brave, as if Jeremy has just become a new person, a person named after a whole planet, a person who kisses girls and talks to Foxes.
My review of the anthology Salon Fantastique is up at Strange Horizons.
This will almost certainly be my last post until 2007, so I'd like to wish everyone a Happy New Year. :-)