26 April 2006

Link, Kelly. Magic for Beginners. Northampton: Small Beer P, 2005.

I first read Kelly Link in the summer of 2003 while lying on my belly half-out of some friends’ tent in the mountains of central Pennsylvania. Say a half-hour outside Carlisle. We were on a camping trip for the Fourth, and these friends were meeting older friends, all of whom were hiking while I decided to stay and read the McSweeney’s Thrilling Tales I’d brought with me. Her story “Catsuit” was in there, at the center of which is the idea that cats are just children in suits, and that if you split them open, people will fall out, naked and confused and angry.

Anyway, I’d never read anything like her before. I got her collection, Stranger Things Happen and devoured it the way devotees do, its stories about dead people and girl detectives and snow queens and dogs that are shadows and people. Libraries, dark and scary. I didn’t know that you could put things like that into a story and still expect a reader to follow you, and to discover things, and to thank you for it. At least that’s what I did. I’ve never been able to do with my writing what Kelly Link has done with hers. It’s so hard to make up something that feels “right” or “accurate” in regard to the world we live in. I can’t imagine how tough it is to make up something accurate to a world that itself doesn’t exist.

This collection is spotty, or maybe my memory of it is. I read these stories in bed before going to sleep. Many nights I’d pick up the book and not remember a single word of what I’d read the night previous, or, often, several nights previous. It’s never a good idea to read one short story in numerous sittings. Still, Link* is playing all sorts of games with form here. Lots of times she switches tenses in a story, and it’s rare that I can figure out why. “Catsuit” seems to do it every other section, but not always. It’s not a clear pattern. “Lull” alternates, too, but then again at the center of that story is a tape “where all the lyrics were palindromes” (239):
You couldn’t get this music on CD. That was part of the conceit. It came only on cassette. You played one side, and then on the other side the songs all played backwards and the lyrics went forwards and backwards all over again in one long endless loop. La allah ha llal. Do, oh, oh, do you, oh do, oh wanna? (240)
So this idea infiltrates the writing such that you get such sentences as “The music on the tape loops and looped” (246), and about which I just don’t know.

My favorite story is the title story, which is mostly about a TV show called The Library. (Except what’s weird is that the story starts with “In one episode of The Library, a boy named Jeremy Mars, fifteen years old, sits on the roof of his house in Plantagenet, Vermont” (189), and it turns out that Jeremy is this story’s hero, and that he loves to watch a TV show called The Library, so which is the show? The story itself or the show in the story? And then if you figure that question out, whence the title, “Magic for Beginners”? It all gets a little kooky.)

Anyway, so the show kind of rules, in that it takes place inside this many-floored library that has forests and oceans inside of it, mountains and shit, and the show itself never comes on the same channel and never airs at the same time. People scour UHF stations and keep themselves close to the Internet to report findings. And the way the show deals with the magical and the way it keeps a group of teens positively rapt, I think its best real-life analogue is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which was a pretty great show. This story made me think of the one episode that ended, just before the final credits, with Buffy coming home and finding her younger sister annoyed with her, and the both of them yelling for their mom. But up to this point in the entire history of the show, Buffy didn’t have a sister, and nobody ever mentioned it. And yet, this episode, a sister just appeared, and everyone acted as if she’d been there forever.

Could you imagine writing for such a show? What fun! When I love magic, which isn’t so often, this is what I love about it, or this is what I think of when I think of magic. Link’s stories show us that magic is possibility. It’s a kind of gift for fiction writers. It’s like the best kind of gift. It’s like, when you allow magic into a story, you bring in more danger, in that readers find themselves in a world they can’t logically predict. So when your characters work through the weird, unpredictable obstacles that magic might throw their way, and when they do it in ways that are human and honest, it’s like we love them more than we would otherwise.

Am I making sense? Maybe it’s this: my immediate intuition seems to think that writing a story with magic, where anything can happen, would be totally easy. Too easy. If someone’s in a jam, I could just use magic to solve the problem. But what Link’s stories show me is that writing stories with magic is so, so hard. Fiction is fake, as one of my students liked often to say, and with magic you have to work that much harder to make the fake stuff real.

* I wonder if I can call her Kelly, having met her at the AWP Conference in Austin this year. She gave a talk on non-realist fiction, and then she signed my book, which I bought for a steal the day previous at Small Beer’s table. I’d tell you what she wrote on the title page, but then it would become less special.

19 April 2006

Hannah, Barry. The Tennis Handsome. New York: Knopf, 1983.

Pretty sure this novel came from one of Hannah's stories in Airships. Chapter One may be the story reprinted in its entirety. The gist of it all goes like this: French Edward is not only an incredibly good tennis player, but he may also be the most gorgeous man alive. Various things happen to him throughout the novel to debilitate his mind such that he's all body. He's like the body personified, which sounds off, but follow me here. Surrounding him are Dr. Word, Edward's high-school coach who may or may not be "queer," and Captain Bob Smith, a fellow townsman who saw a lot of shit in Vietnam. Also, Dr. Baby Levaster, a doctor and philanderer who ends up being the brain to Edward's body.

This was what attracted me to the book, this way that Hannah separates attributes so fully into two characters. It's kind of like Twins, the movie, but not. Levaster doesn't have the best mind in the world. Plus typing it out like this makes me feel like I'm pro eugenics. I'm not. I just think the concept is romantic. Or at least it suits our romantic notions that the brilliantly gorgeous can't be gorgeously brilliant, that such a thing would be unfair, and that as a result, we love to watch and follow flawed beauty, people who are beautiful and beautifully dumb—celebrities, really.

Hannah is so good. It's a shame that he's apparently stopped writing. Look at this:
Three minutes into the brawl, the Nuclear Physics Brothers had isolated a single Twin and were blinding him with their thumbs. The other Twin, eaten up by distress, waited honorably outside the ring, untagged. The referee was rendered impotent by the deceptions of the Brother. Finally, the sighted Twin, his honor exasperated totally, leapt into the ring with a chair in his hands and broke it—this balsa prop—over both heads of the Brothers, routing all their wicked science. The referee, himself fraudulently wounded, tried to restore order but could not. This was the thing most beloved. A profound and blissful howling of the crowd. This time the blinded law allowed the rage of the good to run wild. The Brothers were dismantled and at last were pitched out of the ring altogether, retreating with a craven petulence, citing the rules, smacked by a rain of peanuts and balled cups, hurling back their own weak, faggoty imprecations (124, italics added).
So either Hannah has read his Barthes, or he's just wise enough to get at the whole suffering/defeat/justice triad of professional wrestling in ways more comic and immediate. It's not just really good wrestling writing, is what I also want to say here.

But there's that "faggotty," which kinda fits, and but lots of stuff on the part of the narrator (3rd-person, mostly) about queers and even darkies. What does a 21st-century reader do with this? Like, "Some casual darkie, alone on the levee, playing his tonette, may have seen a weird roil in the Big Muddy, a rolling of bones and cloth shreds" (133), or "Some bigger, bossier queers came in, all dressed up and sullen" (135). This book is only 20 years old. I'm not calling Hannah a bigot. I'm dumb enough to know that an author and a narrator aren't the same person. I may want to call it nihilistic, a nihilistic outlook on the world. Because using such terms shows a lack of respect, or respectability, on the part of the narrator, and its being universally applied (women, men, Yankees, southernersѿnone are safe) makes me read this book as taking place in a universe where what's valued is whatever's on. Whatever's up. Baby Levaster is the guy we spend the most time with, and he's terribly selfish and yet such a romantic. But his romantic feelings are nearly all physical, and none involve any real respect for another person.

I'm rambling. This is a book about, and propelled by, beauty. And reading it has made me even prettier.

13 April 2006

James, G. P. R. The Gentleman of the Old School. London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green & Longmans, 1839.

Three-volume recovery text read as part of a class on Romantic and Victorian Novels. In short: John is an arrogant man on his way with his uncle, Mr. Forrest, and family to see Lady Mallory, cousin of Mr. F, and he runs into Ralph, and old schoolmate, just before a hailstorm. Ralph is the long-lost lover of Edith, John's cousin, Mr. F's daughter. Mr. F wants Edith to marry John. John is in love with Lucy, a woman in town, whose father was the schoolmaster when Ralph and John were boys. Lady Mallory is in love with Ralph. Edith still loves Ralph, until he kills John in self-defense. But John's not the cousin of Edith, he's Edith's brother. !!! But Edith isn't the daughter of Mr. F, she's the daughter of Sir Andrew Stalbrooke, the Gentleman of the Old School, who is the uncle of Ralph. So: Edith and Ralph are cousins, and thus, according to rules of the 18th-century, are primed for marriage.

Say what you will about the contemporary equivalents of all this (D. Steele? V.C. Andrews?) these books are fun. Which isn't to say the writing's so great. Viz. the following:
"...And then, when love has touched my heart with its magic fire, and I have hid, with stony firmness, the light that scorched me, am I to find, at the very time—when the ties which bound me are broken and I am free to love and to be happy—am I to find that here too the blight and mildew of my fate withers the flower in the blossom, that he is cold and chilly towards her whose heart is all fire and emotion, giving his heart's bright treasure to an idle girl that cannot, cannot love as I can love?"
is the metaphor grossly mixed or just complex and extended?

My vote? Mixed.

07 April 2006

Cather, Willa. Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940). New York: Vintage, 1975.

Cather's last novel is set in antebellum Virginia. She was born there, as I was, and then moved to Nebraska, as I did. Then she moved to Pittsburgh, but I had the good sense to hit it on the way out West.

Here's a quote:
Anatomically, she was remarkable, for an African negress: tall, straight, muscular, long in the legs. The skipper had a kind of respect for a well-shaped creature; horse, cow, or woman. And he respected anyone who could take a flogging like that without buckling (93-4).
And another:
She served each man a strong toddy in one of the big glass tumblers that had been her father's. When Tap, the mill boy, smacked his lips and said: "Miss Sapphy, if my mammy's titty had a-tasted like that, I never would a-got weaned," she laughed as if she had never heard the old joke before (220).
These quotes don't do a good job of showing you how well she captures the Virginia summer, but man does she capture it well. I think it's the paragraph about locusts?