Thursday, June 01, 2006

Do You Know What To Do If Zombies Show Up?

I have been not a fan of the short story but in the last few months, beginning with my class about Margaret Atwood's Wilderness Tips, I am gaining an appreciation of the form. Part of the reason why I didn't like short stories is because so many of the ones that get published these days seem to sound the same. There is a sort of post-structuralist style and tone that has spread out its fingers nearly everywhere. I want a short story that tells a story and so many seem to be about style with very little plot and a lot of vague thematic abstractions. Since I admit I have not read an abundance of short stories, those of you who have are welcome to correct my overall impression of the state of the genre. Given my impression of contemporary short stories, how can I say I am gaining an appreciation for them? Am I "getting it," finally? No, I am still feel the same way. But with Margaret Atwood's stories I learned they don't have to be stylistic gas clouds nebulas. Atwood's stories have such a solid feeling to them. I like that. And now I have found Kelly Link. Magic for Beginners won a Nebula Award recently (no connection to the stylistic nebulas referenced earlier, this Nebula is a Bid Deal science fiction writing award). Link's stories are solid which is a strange thing to say since there is nothing within the stories that is solid. Most of the stories go along in a real-world way, nothing unrealistic, until the zombie shows up. Or someone comes out of the magic handbag. Or the rabbits. What could be threatening about rabbits? Don't trust the rabbits. If anything, when I finished the book, I came away with the thought that reality is not what it seems. It is only a veneer. Look closely if you dare. Some stories are fanciful. Some are realistic except for the zombie or the rabbits. Some begin in reality but then somewhere along the way leave the reader--left me--wondering what was real and what wasn't. One of my favorite stories, "Some Zombie Contingency Plans," is full of great humor and interesting observations like this:

There was something about clowns that was worse than zombies. (Or maybe something that was the same. When you see a zombie, you want to laugh at first. When you see a clown, most people get a little nervous. There's the pallor and the cakey mortician-style makeup, the shuffling and the untidy hair. But clowns were probably malicious, and they moved fast on those little bicycles and in those little, crammed cars. Zombies weren't much of anything. They didn't carry musical instruments and they didn't care whether or not you laughed at them. You always knew what zombies wanted.) Given a choice, Soap would take zombies over clowns any day.
My favorite story out of the book is the titular story, "Magic for Beginners." It is about a television show called The Library and is one of the stories I mentioned that start off in reality but end up, not sure where. This story has the best, truest description of Las Vegas in it I have ever read:
Las Vegas is in front of them and then all around them and everything is lit up like they're inside a pinball game. All of the trees look fake. Like someone read too much Dr. Seuss and got ideas. People are walking up and down the sidewalks. Some of the look normal. Others look like they just escaped from a fancy-dress ball at a lunatic asylum. Jeremy hopes they've just won lots of money and that's why they look so startled, so strange. Or maybe they're all vampires.
I've seen those people. I've been to Vegas. My in-laws live in Vegas. It's possible my in-laws are vampires, though I've seen them out in the sunlight so maybe not. If you like stylistic nebula, you'll be disappointed. If you want short stories that are a little--off--Magic for Beginners is the book for you.