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Her tales have charm, and a few zombies too

Magic for Beginners Kelly Link Small Beer Press: 282 pp., $24

October 26, 2005|Merle Rubin | Special to The Times

IN "The Faery Handbag," the opening story in Kelly Link's second collection, "Magic for Beginners," there's a town full of shaman-like folks who live under a hill. Appropriately enough, Link first gained notice as an "underground writer" in the offbeat genre of fantasy, contributing her stories to zines. Link and husband Gavin Grant have published one such zine, and her first collection, "Stranger Things Happen," like this one, was published by the small press they founded in Northampton, Mass.

For someone so literally off the publishing map, however, Link has gained a great deal of notice in mainstream outlets, including Time, Entertainment Weekly, the New York Times Book Review and Salon, thus proving how misleading it can be to rely on such labels as "underground," "mainstream" and "fantasy literature." But where would we be -- writers, readers, publishers and critics alike -- without labels and those inevitable, if often misleading, comparisons? Yes, Link's stories bring to mind the dark fairy tales of Angela Carter or Donald Barthelme, yet many in this collection also bear the imprint of Raymond Carver-like realism and have a touch of J.D. Salinger's knack for representing the mental landscape of adolescence.

Of the nine stories in "Magic for Beginners," six, including the title story, have enough in the way of charm, wry humor, invention and canny social observation to demonstrate that their author is a talented and skillful writer. Perhaps the one that best shows the range of her gifts is "The Hortlak," an engagingly weird, funny and rather poignant story about two young men working at an all-night convenience store near a gorge known as the Ausible Chasm. Batu, who comes from Turkey, is the enterprising one, full of ideas he believes will transform the face of retail in America.

His younger friend, Eric, is a go-along kind of guy, but he has his doubts about Batu's "Big Plan," which includes asking customers to pay with items of their own rather than money and tapping into the zombie market by figuring out what kinds of things dead people might want to buy. As he asks Batu at one point: "I need to understand ... whether or not the plan belongs to us, or whether the plan was planned by someone else, and we're just somebody else's big experiment in retail. Are we brand-new, or are we just the same old thing?"

Meanwhile, Eric also has a crush on Charley, a slightly older woman who lives in a permanent state of controlled anger thanks to her depressing job administering fatal injections to unwanted pets at the animal pound. In a deft background touch, we learn that Eric's mother has lost her job as a mall security guard and is off on a mission to track down Eric's father: "She said she just wanted to talk to him, but Eric knew she kept a gun in the glove compartment." Eric copies the list of names (including likely aliases) his mother compiled from her online searches and sends them all Christmas cards: "[I]t had been difficult finding the right things to say ... especially since they probably weren't his father, no matter what his mother thought. Not all of them, anyway."

Some of the same offbeat charm can be found in the other stories about young people, notably "Some Zombie Contingency Plans." (What is it with teenagers and zombies?) But that can wear a little thin, especially when she slips into coyness. "How many witches are there in the world?" asks the narrator of "Catskin," one of the sillier and more repellent stories. "Have you ever seen one?... And what would you do if you saw one? For that matter, do you know a cat when you see one? Are you sure?"

"Stone Animals," one of the collection's strongest stories, is a kind of allegory about a couple whose anxieties about their marriage and their recent move from the city to the country are manifested in their feelings that their new place is haunted.

Link is a writer with distinctive style and imagination, but the elements of the bizarre in her tales often seem forced. It is as if they are there just to grab our attention by shocking, surprising or teasing us, not because they are organic to the story.

Merle Rubin is a contributing writer to Book Review.

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