Magic for Beginners

Today I took my first actual full day off sick (as opposed to leaving early) in at least six or seven years. Normally I struggle through, so I feel pretty guilty, but Janet was sternly insistent. It turns out that I slept for most of the day, and feel a great deal better this evening. I think it was a good decision and Janet was (as ever) right1.

In between my slumbers I’ve been reading Magic for Beginners, the short story collection by Kelly Link. Possibly it’s the illness but so far the stories are some of the more profoundly disorienting experiences of my life. Like waking from a vivid, surreal dream that clings to you for the rest of the day. In particular, ‘The Hortlak’ feels precisely like a transcribed dream, in that way that a dream can free-associate from one moment to the next without your brain once questioning the logic of the progression. To say that it involves an all-night convenience store with a barter ethos, near a canyon of benign suburban zombies, doesn’t really do it justice. It’s about a world just off-kilter from our own which gradually spirals into something quite desperately unnerving without the dividing line ever being noticeable. Several of the other stories use exactly this method of surreal free-association to allow the tale to slip from the mundane into the deranged, but always balanced by a conversational matter-of-fact tone that entirely belies the non-sequiturs in the tale. Often these stories don’t chronicle a series of events with a beginning, middle and end, or even a narrative with a single defining twist. They’re more about a mood, a playing with ideas, and realities, and even insanity. They stop when they stop; this may not necessarily be the most satisfying place for them to stop, but it’s often the most disturbing, the point at which the the weirdness reaches critical mass and the world of the story shifts irrevocably beneath your feet. That’s all the closure you get.

I haven’t finished the book yet. I’ve just read the much-vaunted ‘Some Zombie Contingency Plans’ which is one of the least dream-like stories so far; possibly because unlike most of the other tales it can be given an absolutely mundane interpretation. It’s a tale of fears, hopes and obsessions, and the ways in which we try to gain control over them, and the ways in which we never can. Whether or not the fears (and indeed Zombies) in the story are real or metaphorical seems to me to be beside the point, because it makes no difference: it’s the response to them that’s important.

I can’t say I’ve enjoyed every story so far but it’s not quite like anything I’ve ever read. It’s closest to some of Jonathan Carroll’s short stories, although his are often more conventional and tend to be built around a final tug-of-the-carpet twist. Kelly Link’s stories have a far more surreal sensibility.

Just what I need with a head cold. For a start, it would make it much more difficult to hold off the Zombies.

1 She told me to say this, but it’s true.

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