Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Past We Haven't Met Yet Is Coming - #1

STORY: "Lull" by Kelly Link

FROM: MAGIC FOR BEGINNERS (Harcourt, 2005) - But you are very, very lucky that you can go download this whole book for free at Small Beer Press, founded in 2000 by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant, who I assume must be blisteringly cool people.

BASICALLY: A matryoshka of a tale that's partly about a dissolving marriage, partly about a cheerleader who plays spin the bottle with the Devil, and partly about the erratic passage of time.

I can't think of a better author than Kelly Link to start off a weird and wonderful new year. She really fiddles with your brain. But it's a nearly impossible task I've set myself, trying to pin down a bizarre story that includes a poker game, teenage drug dealers, music that plays both forwards and backwards, screaming peacocks, a masterful storyteller who happens to be a phone sex operator, and a liberal manipulation of the continuity of time, yet (in spite of what I've said above) isn't really about any of those things. With Link, I think you just have to kind of hold your breath and keep reading and allow it to be nonsensical. In the end, it will make a kind of sense that you will not be able to explain, like an amazing dream that sounds flat and vaguely suggestive of Freudian themes when you recount it to the barista at Starbucks.

But I do want to look, at least, at what Link does with the passage of time in this story within a story within a story, because it is a super-cool trick. Not really a trick, even, because she tells you exactly what's up. This part of the story is told by the phone sex operator about a cheerleader:
This is the thing she likes about backwards. You start out with all the answers, and after a while, someone comes along and gives you the questions, but you don't have to answer them. You're already past that part. That was what was so nice about being married. Things got better and better until you hardly even knew each other anymore. And then you said good night and went out on a date, and after that you were just friends. It was easier that way--that's the dear, sweet, backwards way of the world.
So Link tells us outright that time is moving backwards, but that's not enough to really establish it in her story. How does someone portray the reverse passage of time in the forward movement of a story?
  • By reminding us over and over again. "They're using one of the beer bottles, that's what they're spinning. Later on it will be full and they won't have to play this stupid game."
  • And there's a part when the cheerleader is remembering back to when she was at an end-of-the-world party, and everyone was sexing it up and sobbing. "There would be a bottle of extra-virgin olive oil and sooner or later someone was going to have to refill it and go put it back on the pantry shelf. You'd have had these slippery naked middle-aged people sliding around on the trampoline and the oily grass, and then in the end all you'd have would be a bottle of olive oil, some olives on a tree, a tree, an orchard, an empty field."
  • Description of the physical action, like we are watching the movie. The cheerleader "moved the unfamiliar, worn-down furniture around so that it matched up old grooves in the floor. Here was the shape of someone's buttocks, printed onto a seat cushion. Maybe it would be her father's favorite chair."
  • And finally, everything comes to rest on an alluring bit of metaphysical implication--"The recently dead are always exhausted. There's so much to absorb, so many things that need to be undone. They have their whole lives ahead of them."
Once this backwards-time has been set up, has wrapped itself around us, has come to seem like a logical inversion, we get to see the cheerleader and the Devil in the closet together. It's not romantic, except that that's what everyone expects it to be. Because their conversation flows normally, it's like we too are in the still hushed darkness among the coats and dust, ourselves awkward teenagers in one of those strange formative moments. Set apart. Out there, everything flows backwards; we have seen it all and wait for it not to have happened yet. In here, something different is happening. It's magic that we already know the ending of, because we were there at the beginning.

And seriously, people, this is just one teensy weensy little part of the story, but it ties into the whole thing. The forwards and the backwards. The inside out, and loss, and sadness, and hopeful endings. Bottom line, go read you some Kelly Link and be prepared for a little bit of your brain to fall out.


Mike Smith said...

This review makes me want to A) dance a little jig, B) read this short story, and C) finally write up my first review for this blog. Excellent stuff, Lisa! This story sounds amazing, and your review of it was made of win.

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