Saturday, December 28, 2013

Review of Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link

(Please note this review is for the novella Magic for Beginners, not the short story collection.)

Whatever hints the title gives as to the contents of the story, there is nothing the reader can predict about Kelly Link’s 2005 novella Magic for Beginners before turning the first page.  Not an instruction manual from the vaults of Harry Potter, the story is instead a window into the life of  a teenage boy, his family and friends, and their love of the tv show The Library.  Both fun and sad, conclusive it is not.  Beginning and ending on open notes, the reader needs to throw aside their standard story expectations for full appreciation.

Jeremy is your average high school teenager.  He has friends who share weird interests.  He wonders about love and kissing girls.  His parents are eccentric and have their own troubles.  And he has his hobbies, the biggest of which is watching the tv show The Library. Appearing at random on any station, the format continually fluctuating, and the characters both mythic and tragic, he and everyone close to him excitedly call oen another when a new episode randomly appears, and get together and watch and rewatch.  Things take a turn in Jeremy’s life, however, when a relative dies and leaves their Vegas marriage parlor to his mother.  Leaving his east coast home to visit the bizarre city and parlor may just change his life forever.

Magic for Beginners possesses two unique points.  The first is style.  Link writing in a clipped form emphasizing the subject, the following paragraph is par for the course:

"Karl's always pissed off about something," Jeremy says. Jeremy is resolutely resisting a notion about Elizabeth. Why are they sitting up here? Was it his idea or was it hers? Are they friends, are they just two friends sitting on the roof and talking? Or is Jeremy supposed to try to kiss her? He thinks maybe he's supposed to kiss her. If he kisses her, will they still be friends? He can't ask Karl about this. Karl doesn't believe in being helpful. Karl believes in mocking.
    Jeremy doesn't even know if he wants to kiss Elizabeth. He's never thought about it until right now.
    "I should go home," Elizabeth says. "There could be a new episode on right now, and we wouldn't even know."
    "Someone would call and tell us," Jeremy says. "My mom would come up and yell for us." His mother is something else Jeremy doesn't want to worry about, but he does, he does.
It is a particular style that takes some getting used to.  That Link employs it intentionally, i.e. is aware of what she is doing and plays with it, makes the narrative easier for the reader to settle into—unlike other authors who write as such for less than stylistic reasons.  (Contrast Magic for Beginners with Robert J. Sawyer’s Hominids and the difference becomes obvious.)

The second point is the lack of a typical intro/build up/climax/denouement story structure.  Link preferring to leave matters open, the end does not provide any resolution to the concerns raised at the outset and throughout the middle.  Like real life, things happen, and time keeps moving steadily forward.  Beyond the boundaries of the story, it seems Link would have the reader ponder the character’s lives after the last page has been turned.  An unconventional approach, yes, but one not lacking in style. 
The drawback to Magic for Beginners is in fact the fantasy elements.  It is important to note that when viewed in isolation they are interesting in their own right; the convergence of fantasy and the real world is a topic often touched upon in contemporary literature.  But it’s when placed in the story that its value comes into question.  Primarily, is there substance beneath the ambiguity?  Given the supernatural is integral to a central motif (The Library), it’s impossible to remove the fantasy elements without removing a vital—perhaps the most vital—character motivator.   That being said, its evolution adds nothing upon the conclusion.  Beyond window dressing, it’s a mood enhancer which makes it genre but has no effect on the human elements of troubled families and teenage years.

In the end, Magic for Beginners is more than the title would indicate.  The worries, concerns, and problems of quotidian life for the average American teenager, Jeremy is representative, interesting, and poignant in his growing up.  Link captures well the quirky awkwardness of early high school.  Fantasy converging with reality at the end of the story, its elements seem almost negligible given the other touch points the story analyzes.

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