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Magic for Beginners

Kelly Link

"She looked like someone who had just set her favourite city on fire."

Reviewed by Michael Keefe

With her second collection of short stories, Magic for Beginners, Kelly Link has stretched her acts of portrayal ever further, traveling deeper into fantastical realms while strengthening her ties to reality. For most writers, these aims would be opposing. For the dexterous Link, however, they prove complementary.

In the opening story, The Faery Handbag, she establishes both worlds and reveals the portal between the two: Genevieve's grandmother's big hairy purse. Yes, an entire parallel universe exists with the titular bag. Time there is distorted, though, so that a person who enters for a day may come out years later. Ultimately, the men in Genevieve's life always seem to disappear, despite her proclamation that she hates it when "some guy gets to go off and have adventures and meanwhile the girl has to stay home and wait. I'm a feminist. I subscribe to Bust magazine and watch Buffy reruns. I don't believe in that kind of shit."

Link's hip blending of the modern world and skewed mythology permeates the title story, which is an episode of a fictional television show called The Library in which a clutch of high school friends are addicted to a television show called The Library. Um, it's probably best just to go with the flow and not try to figure out Link's machinations. In one sense, the story is simply about the trials of teenagers: who has a crush on whom, the ramifications of a potential parental divorce, shared hobbies. But it's also about being willed a phone booth in the desert outside Las Vegas and making mysterious late night calls to a supposedly deceased TV character.

The best stories in Magic for Beginners, though, have zombies in them. I've read The Hortlak four times and won't stop there. In it, two live-in convenience store clerks are out to change the way retail works, despite their clientele consisting mostly of the zombies who crawl up from the chasm arcoss the road. A girl named Charley also visits regularly, stopping for Mountain Dew breaks during her final drives with dogs slated to be put to sleep at the local animal shelter. Batu teaches Charley Turkish in the parking lot, while Eric's unspoken love keeps him at a distance. Meanwhile, the zombies shuffle by. These monsters are benign in The Hortlak, but not so in Some Zombie Contingency Plans, in which an ex-con crashes a party and reveals his schemes for escaping various situations wherein zombies are attacking. One such plan involves the use of scented soaps.

As is the case with most short story collections, not every entry in Magic for Beginners is a winner. Catskin left me cold, and The Cannon is a real head-scratcher — more of a peculiar allegory, really. Stone Animals has a strong premise and great writing, but runs a bit too long. On the balance, though, Kelly Link's work is an amazing hybrid of character-driven fiction and surreal fantasy, told with a darkly comic edge. Magic for Beginners will win you over.

Michael Keefe is the Publicist for Annie Bloom's Books, Associate Music Editor at PopMatters, and a freelance journalist. He also sings and plays guitar in Portland, Oregon pop/rock band Budget Airlines. Michael spends his free time hitting tennis balls and pondering obscure albums. He lives with his author wife, Liz.









PublisherSmall Beer Press

Publication Date: Sept 2006

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?No

Author bio:  Kelly Link lives in Northampton, MA. She received her MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Link is the author of two short story collections, Stranger Things Happen (2001) and Magic for Beginners (2005, hardcover). She also runs Small Beer Press with her husband, Gavin J. Grant.

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Kelly Link "Stranger Things Happen"

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