Lit Lit is…well…I get someone lit (interpret that as you will) and we talk about lit(erature). Continuing my theme from last time, I had the pleasure of getting two people lit, Justin Martin and Robyn Robyn-Robyn to talk about two books, Magic for Beginners and Get In Trouble by Kelly Link, an author of fantasy and magical realism. They are two spooky short story collections for this spooky Halloween edition of Lit Lit. Our dialogue is written in plain old font, action in italics.
This is the first time I actually get to conduct Lit Lit from a table with chairs instead of the floor, and early on this Friday night, the cranberry-vodka mix hits us harder than we expected. We jump right in.
KELLY LINK IS A BETTER AUTHOR THAN JAMES JOYCE
JM: We’re gonna start with that. I read all of Ulysses last semester (and I’m not bragging about that) and there’s that chapter where he’s finally writing the perspective of Molly Bloom and everybody, including some female writers, are like “Oh my God look at James Joyce being able to write from the perspective of a woman who’s seen some shit. How great is he.” But. The title story of Magic for Beginners is legitimately a better look at like what it means to be an objectified woman in a work of fiction, and for some reason we’re still hung up on–James Joyce is great. But Kelly Link is never gonna be mixed into the James Joyce conversation?
RRR: “The Dead” is great. Let’s not give him too much credit.
JM: I’m gonna go as far as to suggest that Magic for Beginners is better than Dubliners.
RRR: I’m gonna agree because let me fucking tell ya something. In Dubliners no one gets eaten by a handbag. If no one gets eaten by a handbag, why should I read your fucking collection of short stories?
JM: I didn’t know we were gonna turn this into a hate piece on James Joyce, but like, in Dubliners you have people walking through a situation, and things happen to them, but they’re never held accountable for what they’re doing to the world because the stories end super quickly right? If you do bad shit in a Kelly Link story, bad shit will happen to you.
RRR: Bad shit will happen to you! In, in, what’s the name of the story with the demon lover? “I Can See Right Through You”?
JM: Do you mean–Wait there’s two stories with a demon lover. Which one do you mean?
WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH THESE STORIES?
RRR: The books we’re talking about are Get In Trouble and Magic For Beginners. Magic is her first short story collection, Trouble is her most recent. You. [Yes Reader, you.] Stop reading this article. Go read these fucking books. I don’t wanna hear your excuses. I’m talking to the six Kenyon students who are gonna read this article. Go read Kelly Link, she’s a wonderful human being.
JM: “Faery Handbag” is a story where someone’s immigrant grandmother with a purposely mysterious backstory, has a handbag. And in that handbag is a whole country.
RRR: It’s her country. It’s the country she came from, that was so constantly attacked and oppressed by other countries. They put their entire country in a fucking handbag, and they made it so that if you zip the handbag one way it’s the town but if you zip it the other way a monster will come and fucking eat you!
JM: That is the least crazy thing in these books.
RRR: The most crazy things that happen in these stories do not have to do with the setup, they have to do with the characters and the emotional decisions they make and they’re beautiful.
JM: There’s another story wherein we’re reading fanfiction about a TV show where someone’s writer dad puts them in a show and kills them off. Then they take a cross country trip to a phone booth on the way to their deceased aunt, and picking up the phone booth they hear from us, the people watching the TV show. Now let’s say that’s a creative premise that would really kill it in an MFA program. But, the ingenious conceptual stuff she does is always in the service of taking the armor these characters wear and stripping it off piece by fucking piece until you’re left with a simpering mess of a human being.
RRR: She’s very good at making you feel believed in as a human being. The humanity comes out clearer against the magic of the world. There’s one story I can’t stop thinking about where these people work in a 24-hour convenience store–
Justin starts clapping, “I am so ready for this.”
RRR: –and it’s out in the middle of nowhere. But right across the road is a trench full of the dead and they come out and try to buy things and pay with bird’s nests and stones. But it’s more about these three people who work and eventually kinda live in the gas station trying to figure out what their lives are about.
JM: They start to give away stuff for basically free, provided that people trade in something that is at least worth sentimental value. It made me think more about economic theory and transaction and shit more than any class at Kenyon has. And that’s what is ingenious about Kelly Link too. The world cannot get weird enough that you can abandon your obligation to care for other human beings.
RRR: In Get In Trouble you read these stories that are really weird or strange or far out there, with hauntings and revenants and whatever. Then you get to this story called “The Lesson.” It’s just about a gay couple and their surrogate mother is about to have their child and they’re at a destination wedding in South Carolina. It’s very realistic, and there’s some weird elements to it like these weird species of cats and weird bugs everywhere. In that story, even though the circumstances of that story are not strange, the story is memorable to me because the layers of humanity are so deep and complicated and fractal almost. At the end of the day, the stories, no matter how strange they are, are about people.
JM: That notion of deepness, usually when we call an intelligent straight white cis able-bodied male story “deep” it’s because they burrow deeper into themselves. We investigate these increasingly deep layers of withdrawing into yourself. But the end result of that is your Adam Lanzas and school shooters, people lost in recursive debates with themselves. Kelly Link’s stories do the opposite of that. They go further and further out, so you’re obligated to caring more for the people around you, and that’s what makes your life more complicated, not these layers of existential ennui. Because you care about all these new people, that institutes new rules in your life you need to follow because you don’t want to hurt people.
RRR: And that is why I would like to take this moment to say, that Thomas Pynchon can suck my tranny dick. Despite all of his desires to be inaccessible and strange–
JM: I’m not a big fan of inaccessibility.
The table broke out into laughter, and I must say that perhaps caught up in the heat of the moment, I dabbed. This is not the first time I’ve done this during this segment, but hey, we lose ourselves sometimes. That being said Robyn Robyn-Robyn wants me to be shamed, and I believe she is right in wanting so.
RRR: I would like to say for all the folks at home Raffa just dabbed. You need to shame him when you see him. He made a whoosh noise too.
I did. I am weak.
RRR: On a craft level she’s amazing. She’s good at teaching you how to read the story, and the emotions of the story. There’s a story in Trouble called “Secret Identity” about this girl from the Midwest who’s arrived in New York City or something, and she’s going to meet up with a man from an online video game. The man is a superhero, and is at a convention of superheroes. And it’s the most beautiful story I’ve read about being a young woman. That’s right up there with To Kill a Mockingbird and Swamplandia for me.
There’s a brief interlude here that I remember, but don’t have words for. The audio recording is a bit unclear, but it appears that at some point Robyn had knocked over a deer skull and we had all “deposed God.” This came shortly after Robyn shouting I AM GOD NOW.
RRR: We love Kelly Link so much it’s difficult to talk about her in a coherent way.
JM: There’s a premium in fiction right now placing emphasis on universality. An African-American writer, or a disabled writer, or a trans writer, succeeds as a writer, if they can convince a straight white male audience of their experiences. So there is no room for eccentricities or for doing something left-of-field–of course when a straight white male does it they’re seen as brilliant, but–. A good story is a pitch lobbed right of center so a straight white able-bodied male, probably concerned about his erectile dysfunction, can hit it right? That’s an MFA story. I read so many things for the Kenyon Review like that. If Kelly Link submitted to the KR I think she would be rejected. Her stories refuse to be universal. They say to people “This is the reality now. See the humanity, and if you can’t, go read another book.”
There are so many stories that play around with gender, with heritage, with whether it’s okay to lust after people and in what ways, that I feel like the point ends up being, that they will not be universal, but there’s more value in getting something out of that.
This discourages me because my life is not universal, my life is more like a science fiction story. I wake up and I’m taken out of bed by a giant robot thing and negotiate with another person to wipe my ass and get me dressed etc. etc. so like I’m never gonna be able to give you the universal experience. I never had the high school prom experience, the first kiss with the blonde girl under the bleachers, the MFA stuff. And I can ape those voices well because you learn to ape those voices when it gets you something, which it does in this culture, but there’s something of real no-bullshit value of someone saying “I’m not weird and broken in the cool and trendy way you’re gonna see a movie about in five years. I’m legitimately weird and legitimately broken. And here’s the stuff I’m gonna give you about that.” You can like that stuff or it can be too much for you but it’s not gonna change the character of the stuff.
JM: Every story she looks at has that Kelly Link eye to it. There’s a connection I think to this reading a lot of fanfiction, like Harry Potter type of slash fiction we look away from. Like when we see a story wherein someone is ass-fucking a Dobby, our first instinct is to close the browser tab. Kelly Link argues however, persuasively and beautifully, ass-fucking a Dobby is beautiful and when someone is doing that from a position of vulnerability and showing that to others, we should pay attention to that because that’s an aspect of humanity. That’s a sentence I never thought I would say.
RRR: For me, Kelly Link doesn’t aestheticize. She doesn’t make beauty where there isn’t any. If something is horrible and painful and sad, she doesn’t aestheticize it. She doesn’t make it beautiful. The beauty of the stories is natural, it’s emergent. The stories have a remarkable moral compass without being moralizing. What’s so comfortable about reading her pieces as a trans woman a queer woman the worlds are so strange, um, that they almost feel like home. That’s what I love about the fantastical and strange, to me they feel more at home than this world. Even if they’re people who have done bad things and hurt people, she doesn’t go out of her way to redeem them but she shows the complexity of them.
JM: I think there is a notion of minorities writing stories, the assumption is that white people don’t love black people, or able-bodied people don’t love disabled people, or cis people don’t love trans people, because they don’t understand them. If they are smart enough and articulate enough to be made understood, only then are they deserving of love. But, no one person is ever going to begin to understand another person. Kelly Link encourages you to flex a muscle that a lot of fiction doesn’t, in that, can you love something without the obligation to understand it?
RRR: The strangeness of her stories, and the world of her stories encourages is, Kelly Link is telling you to listen, her stories prioritize listening. And to stop waiting for the takeaway. It’s not like a “Let’s all have a dialogue and we’ll understand each other and solve our problems!” It’s that, come at everything with patience and reverence and attentiveness, and you will find the complexity that is there. They remind you about why the people who care about you are so beautiful.