Haunted toasters, zombie contingency plans: The dream logic of Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link

Q: What noise will the canon make? Why can’t you love me, just for a little while? Why must the cannon be fired? How long will your brother be gone? Why won’t your brother come back? What are you pitting in your ears? Is it time for the cannon to be fired? May I ask the canon these questions? What will she say?

A: A noise as loud as God, but only my brother and his wives will hear it. Everyone else is putting beeswax in their ears. I don’t know. I don’t know. A long time. He won’t come backa gain. No. Beeswax and cotton. Soon. I don’t know. No. Not now. Be patient. Listen. Listen.

[from “The Cannon“]

The short story “The Cannon” is responsible for an image in my head that I thought was mine all along, or a remnant from some primordial dream: A large blanket made of hair, spanning acres and acres, with legs sticking out from under it. It was only when I revisited the story that I realize I could not claim it. Some crazy mind had thought that up and planted it in my head. Rereading that story was like stumbling into a secret I didn’t realize I was suppose to keep. Or some drivel like that. It was just so unsettling. Either the non-possession of that image, or the story itself.

And the story itself, it was wonderful: Written like an interview transcript, an interview with a woman preparing a cannon. The cannon, it is strange. The places the cannon shoots you to, stranger. I don’t know what is happening in “The Cannon,” but I like all of it. It’s not baffling, not really. There’s no room for bafflement. To steal a line from a favorite poem: You proceed to dazzlement. Demmet.

The dream logic — to borrow the phrasing from Alice Sebold’s blurb praise — of Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link is fascinating, disarming. Limitless. Can logic be limitless? Or maybe only when it applies to dreams, to fantasy. What am I talking about? I am talking about how Link makes her worlds so matter-of-fact, so effortlessly so, [“part magic, part Muggle” so says another blurb] — the fantasy never calls attention to itself. Toasters are haunted. People marry ghosts. There are convenience stores for zombies. A hillside of people takes up residence in a handbag. That’s just the way it is. Link says so. Suspension of disbelief, unnecessary. She doesn’t give you time or cause that there’s even a need for disbelief.

I’m a cautious non-realism reader. When I do gravitate to the, erm, preternatural [points to anyone who got that Anne Rice winky-wink], I still rather safely stay in the realm of the mundane. That is: I like me some Alice Hoffman, who I’ll always love for being the first author to show me magic and witchery can happen in suburbia. And I had an Isabel Allende – Gabriel Garcia Marquez phase.

I like my magic seamless. I like it the way Link wrote “Stone Animals,” no doubt the real gem of the collection — confidently written, haunting. A seamless melding of the mundane and the otherwordly. Your usual domestic realism issues and the, well, the creepy. A family moves into their dream home. They’ve got their issues. And that’s before all their things start to become haunted. At first it was the toothbrush, then the dishwasher. Then the diamond earrings, then a favorite bra. It’s inevitable. And Link writes so freaking well.

But as much as I think “Stone Animals” and “The Cannon” can happily make this all worth it, that’s not very nice. I also know this is largely because of personal taste. I don’t like the other stories as much as I do these two because although most of them are amusing, some are rather juvenile. Matter-of-fact dream logic or not, Link has a tendency to write cutesy fantasy. I blame the adolescents. I’m sure it’s me too. I like my magic seamless, but I like my magic haunting. Unless you’re J.K. Rowling, you can get away with anything in my book.

I guess that’s why I set this collection aside two-three years ago: I wanted more from Link, who, curiously enough, gets labelled as a YA novelist in some circles. Some stories don’t blur the lines — it’s just that Link has a tendency to be awkward with her treatment of adolescent lives. Something too, I don’t know, cutesy. Patronizing without her being aware of it. That’s why I love the stories with the adult characters best: Link just shines. Shine some more, demmet.

But yeah. “Stone Animals,” “The Cannon” — that’s how I like my [confoundedly titled] speculative fiction.

6 thoughts on “Haunted toasters, zombie contingency plans: The dream logic of Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link

  1. I read Link’s collection Stranger Things Happen last year and was largely baffled by it by and large. I did enjoy a few of the stories that seemed a bit more coherent, but some of them felt a lot like she had a cool idea but didn’t quite know how to flesh it out into a full story.

    Her books are open in the public domain, so should you be yearning for more link in your life, you can always download her other collection for free (I had a link to the download on my review).

    1. I wonder why the public domain? That feels rather… generous. And a bad marketing strategy. But what do I know? Anyhoo, I’m glad I was choosy with this collection. Quite content to come away with two good stories. I know what you mean about an aborted cool idea: the whole unable-to-flesh-it-out, in my experience, was that problem I had with the occasionally cutesy tone. I mean, she could pull off the dignified fantasy. I wish she did it more often.

  2. I’ve heard good things about this one, but your review helped me decide that I’d like it!

    (Also, I’ve sent you a couple of emails in the last couple of weeks and haven’t heard back from you. Maybe I got sent to spam??)

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