Some cultures believe that dreams are the subconscious’ way of exposing the stress and unpleasant moments people ignore in their waking life. These dreams bring to the surface situations that a person my actively be hiding from. Reading the short story collection Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link is like experiencing such a dream. The settings are familiar: a 24-hour convenience store, grandmother’s house, a high school house party, a suburban home; but there are also elements of the fantastic: talking animals, witches, zombies, and ghosts. Link’s narrative style is drenched in surreal description, which she uses to create an atmosphere of being in a dream. And, like many may believe to be true of dreams, metaphorical themes are alive in each story.
The way the stories are approached and structured is similar to the surrealist movement, with an almost irrational juxtaposition of images to convey the various themes through the book. Each of the nine stories in Magic for Beginners share certain dreamlike qualities. Four of these qualities stand out among the rest: 1) surreal events and the characters’ non-reaction to them 2) dream understanding or knowing 3) disrupted timeline and missing information 4) an anticlimactic end. By examining an example of four stories from the collection that highlight each of these elements, a reader/writer can pinpoint how this dreamlike style is crafted. As a bonus, deciphering the themes and metaphors for each story may also assist in identifying the dreamy experience.
“The Faery Handbag” is an example of surreal events and a character’s non-reaction to them. A young woman, Genevieve, is searching for her grandmother’s handbag—lost after her grandmother’s death—in hopes of finding her boyfriend who disappeared inside the bag. Within this handbag is another universe, other beings, and endless space. Yet, this is all old hat to Genevieve, who is used to the handbag and its powers. Instead, Genevieve is concerned with looking for her boyfriend. This type of narration helps to build a dreamlike sequence in the story. In a dream, unusual events are inclined to occur without solid logic or background—and dreamers readily accept them. Even though Genevieve grew up with a magical handbag, she has no sense of wonderment at all. She accepts the magic and bizarre occurrences as part of her reality.
Metaphorically, this piece may be responding to the pain and confusion of losing a loved one.
“Stone Animals” makes great use of dream understanding or dream knowing, which is the omniscient ability people tend to have in their dreams. This story focuses on a family moving into a new home as their personal relationships and domestic life fall apart. A strange infestation of rabbits is rampant in the yard and individual items in the house become “haunted”—the word the family uses when once-personal items can no longer be tolerated. Husband and father, Henry cannot explain how he knows these items are “haunted,” but he does know that they can no longer be used, and it is time to let them go. His unreasonable understanding of what happened to these objects is reminiscent to the bizarre omniscience people may have while dreaming.
Metaphorically, this story may be dealing with losing structure and moving on.
The story “Some Zombie Contingency Plans” showcases the use of a disrupted timeline and missing information. In this story, a young ex-con crashes a high school house party. The main character’s name constantly changes, demonstrating a loss of identify as he struggles to find the next steps in his life. He is also preoccupied with having a zombie escape plan. Although the main character is attempting to create a plan for the future, it’s difficult for him to strategize as he is having issues processing the present: where is he, who is he? Fresh out of prison, his timeline is disrupted and he’s not quite sure who he is anymore. The way the character slips in and out of his thoughts, into memories, and back into the present creates a surreal sensation while hinting to the theme lying just below the surface.
Metaphorically, this tale may be referring to the fear of an unknown future.
In the titular story, “Magic for Beginners,” teenage Jeremy deals with the collapse of his parent’s marriage. Here, the sense of being in a dream is conveyed with an anticlimactic end. Jeremy is obsessed with a strange television show entitled The Library and would rather deal with the dramas of the make-believe characters than with his real-world situation. Jeremy imagines that only he can right a wrong that transpired in the television show and acts in the real world to do so. At the end of the story, the reader never discovers if the Jeremy succeeded in saving his show or if he comes to accept the end of his parents’ marriage. Just as someone may wake from a vivid dream with a feeling of incompleteness, so does “Magic for Beginners” ends.
Metaphorically, this story may speak to the feeling of no ending to a current unhappy situation.
In Magic for Beginners, Link uses a mix of various elements to create a dreamlike experience for her readers. Surreal events, dream knowledge, a disrupted timeline and missing information, and an anticlimactic end, all lend themselves to Link’s collection.
There are no real conclusions to any of the stories. What happens to the characters or where they end up isn’t the point Link is attempting to deliver, instead she deals with the moments in time that may seem unimportant but are life alternating situations. Moments that affect people on a deeper level. Searching for the meaning in the stories in Magic for Beginners is much like searching for meanings in a dream, and Link pumps up each of these situations with her surrealist narrative style in order to express those themes.
Link, Kelly. (2005). Magic for Beginners. [Kindle Fire]. eISBN: 978-1-931520-92-8