Posted on | December 30, 2015 | No Comments
Kelly Link can write the shit out of words. That is why, having read her first short story collection, I kept the next two squirreled away for those interminable nights when nothing in my to-read list looks just right. Well, as I was writing this package of reviews for last year, I hit just such a moment, and so: Magic for Beginners. I was afraid that the novelty factor would wear off. That I might find the magic gone, the stories just a postmodern mishmash of poor imitations of magical realism. That I might grow bored with the lack of standard story structure, with the dreamlike procession of imagery. For some, this happens. Not for me, though. Once again, each of the stories grabbed me by the brainstem and pulled me forward through the pages, leaving behind images and themes I would reflect on for days to come. The gang of kids following the psychedelic TV show with magical librarians; the witch’s boy who seeks revenge covered in catskin; the lost handbag that contains another world.
Four months later, and once again I couldn’t hold back. I dug into her YA collection Pretty Monsters and found that she didn’t ease off the pedal just because the book is aimed at a younger audience. Some of the stories were reprints – a few from Magic for Beginners – but overall, a gorgeous collection of weirdness packed into beautiful sequences of words that uniquely work despite breaking all the rules. Well, work for some people, others find it unreadable, and you may fall into that category, but if you haven’t yet read any Link, do try, there are plenty of free samples online. Once you get hooked, though, it’s hard to give up.
Ms Link is not the only delightful author dabbling in weirdness that I’ve ran across (relatively) recently. Timothy Jarvis was a most pleasant discovery with his “antic fiction”. The Wanderer is a whimsical, yet eerie set of intertwined stories that run back and forth through time and matryoshka narratives, telling the tale of how one man, hunted through millennia, has become immortal and why his is a terrible fate. Jarvis weaves his stories successfully pastiching a number of styles, depending on the time, place and point of view, producing a package at once aesthetically beautiful, haunting, and never boring.
Jesse Bullington, on the other hand, has produced a uniquely ugly work of art in The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart. Oh, his prose is lovely, he has a way with words, but the titular brothers are like some kind of vile, ugly, bearded, self-centred, mirror-universe grave-robbing medieval version of the Winchester brothers, cutting a horrible supernatural groove through Europe as they venture from northern Germany (or thereabouts) to rob the fabled tombs of “Gyptland”. Unlike, for example, Heroes, where all the main characters are clearly assholes, but by the end you start rooting for some of them, no such thing happens here – the characters remain firmly rooted in their assholity, you keep hoping that something terrible will happen to them, and the fact that they just keep going despite all odds is equal amounts frustrating and fascinating.
Rounding off this list of runners-up is a novel I should have hated. Point one: it is a superhero story. Point two: narrative present tense. Point three: short, choppy sentences. Point four: short, choppy chapters. Point five: weird, no-quotation-marks descriptive dialogue. Yet somehow, Lavie Tidhar’s The Violent Century just took all those elements and produced an intricate, fascinating and atmospheric comic-booky tale of an alternate universe World War II (and its aftermath), filled with ubermenschen on all sides of the conflict, both in open combat as well as in behind-the-scenes intelligence work. But these are not your standard flashy spandex-wearing US superheroes (though those also do, in fact, feature at one point), this is much more of a Watchmen-style story of normal, flawed people trying to do the best they can with the special powers, and thus, special responsibility they are suddenly given. Quite the opposite of Kelly Link, here the story is structured very much like a proper story, but to know whether you will like it, you have to try and see if the style doesn’t get in your way.