Excerpt — Magic For Beginners by Kelly Link
The Library made Jeremy and Karl and Talis and Elizabeth and Amy
friends. No one else in school is as passionately devoted. Besides, they are all the children of former hippies, and the town is small. They all live
within a few blocks of each other, in run-down Victorians with high
ceilings and ranch houses with sunken living rooms. And although they
have not always been friends, growing up, they’ve gone skinny-dipping in
lakes on summer nights, and broken bones on each others’ trampolines.
Once, during an argument about dog names, Elizabeth, who is “hot tempered”, tried to run Jeremy over with her ten-speed bicycle, and once, a year ago, Karl got drunk on green-apple schnapps at a party and tried to kiss Talis, and once, for five months in the seventh grade, Karl and Jeremy communicated only through angry e-mails written in all caps. I’m not allowed to tell you what they fought about.
Now the five are inseparable; invincible. They imagine that life will always be like this — like a television show in eternal syndication — that they will always have each other. They use the same vocabulary. They borrow each other’s books and music. They share lunches, and they never say anything when Jeremy comes over and takes a shower. They all know Jeremy’s father is eccentric. He’s supposed to be eccentric. He’s a novelist.
Two-Way Liminal Space:
On Adolescence, Fiction, and Friendship in ‘Magic For Beginners’
“If you read a terrific story with really interesting characters then I think that’s your natural inclination… To open up a conversation with the work”, says Kelly Link in an interview with Kill Your Darlings. She adds: “A lot of my ideas come from friendship… to think about how our patterns of behaviour suggest something larger. Something about our interactions” (KYD Staff). Her 2005 short story, ‘Magic For Beginners’, interacts directly with these notions; it is about the conversational relationship between text and reader told through the lens of friendship. It follows a quintet of teenagers, who’s friendship centres around a shared love for a fictional television program, The Library. As the narrative unfurls it becomes apparent that The Library informs how they interact and relate with each other. They ingest the program and metabolise it’s narrative and formal elements into the dynamics of their friendship—at first figuratively, but later (perhaps) literally. This essay will demonstrate, through a close reading of the text, how ‘Magic For Beginners’ portrays the relationship between the consumption of fiction and adolescent development as conversational by using applied narratological theories to create a literary rendering of the psychological theory of metaconsumption.
In her paper ‘No Longer, But Not Yet’, Kevina Cody defines the theory of metaconsumption as the process by which those in the liminal stage of psychological development, tweens and teens, consume media to fill in the “ambiguous, vague, or blurred” margins of their lived experiences (442). This notion is immediately addressed at the beginning of the passage: “The Library made Jeremy and Karl and Talis and Elizabeth and Amy friends” (Link 53). The Library—a television program—is described using an active voice, it “made” them friends. This inverts the assumed relationship between text and reader, illustrating the significance of The Library in the lives of ‘Magic For Beginners’’ adolescent protagonists— that it is not a piece of media being passively consumed, but rather one that is actively interplaying with the development of their understandings of self. This active relationship is reflective of a the narratological theory of structuralism. As outlined in The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, structuralism operates on the notion that the compositional elements of a text inform form and function which influences the production of meaning and the readers responses to said meaning upon consumption (Baldick), much in the same way that The Library is informing meaning for the adolescent protagonists.
The metaconsumptive relationship is immediately elaborated upon in the following sentences, with Link using adjectival and adverbial description to connect the experience of watching The Library with broader elements of Jeremy, Karl, Talis, Elizabeth, and Amy’s personas, as individuals and as perceived by the collective. For them, watching The Library is a point of social distinction from their peers. “No one else” watches The Library, says the narrator, the absolute language evoking an ‘in-or-out’ social binary, with those who are ‘in’ (the adolescent protagonists) being endowed with a feeling of exclusivity. The high modality of the adjective “passionately”—used in relation to their fervour for The Library, they are “devoted”—informs the centrality of The Library in their conception of self. This idea is then reinforced by the next sentence, which begins the adverb “Besides”, and is followed by the narrator describing more commonalities the group shares, with the conjunctive use of the adverb indicating that these traits are perceived to be both related to their shared love of The Library and subordinate to it. For Jeremy, Karl, Talis, Elizabeth, and Amy, all understanding of themselves, both as individuals and a group, circulates around their relationship to The Library.
‘Magic For Beginners’ continues to parallel narratology theory with the process of metaconsumption, implying that the functions of the former inform the developmental frameworks created by the latter in the adolescent characters. The text portrays seminal moments of adolescence as if they were narratological functions (Baldick), specifically the second sense of function, as outlined by Vladimir Propp in Morphology of the Folktale, which he defines as fundamental character moments of a journey or tale (21-25). These moments—which include incidents like group skinny-dipping, bones getting broken on trampolines, and Karl getting drunk (Link 53)—are listed in quick succession in a low modality, denoting a sense of assuredness, that these moments are both seminal and given, like narrative beats that must be hit. This sense is reinforced with small stylistic flourishes, like the narrator detailing that Elizabeth has a “hot temper” (Link 53) in a parenthetical statement, indicating that this information is common knowledge among the group, and the narrator has only just remembered that the reader would not privy to it like they (both the group and narrator) are. By listing these images in quick succession, Link implies that this is how Jeremy, Karl, Talis, Elizabeth, and Amy think of their existence, as a series of moments strung together in a manner akin to a television montage.
In the following paragraph the narrator says that the group imagines that “life will always be like this — like a television show in eternal syndication” (Link 53). This simile not only makes the implication that the group think of their life in terms of narratological functions explicit—an idea reinforced throughout the text with frequent mirroring descriptions of their seminal adolescent experiences with descriptions of episodes of The Library (Link 66)—but also demonstrates how they do so in a metaconsumptive fashion. The group thinks of the most liminal element of the adolescent experience, the future, in the terms of the media they consume, conflating the idea that if a show continues to run, then the solidity of their dynamic will remain unimpeachable also.
The text further develops the relationship between narratology and metaconsumption by recreating the fluidity of media and lived moments as by ‘Magic For Beginners’’ adolescent characters through her establishment of, and then blurring of the lines delineating, diegetic levels within the text. As outlined in The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, a key element of narratology is the narrator (Baldick), and the structuralist codes and conventions which govern the various ways a narrator can impact and shape the text to inform meaning. The text employs an implied author as the narratorial voice in ‘Magic For Beginners’, involving the reader in the action of the text through direct address, “You’ve never seen The Library on TV, but I bet you wish you had” (Link 46). The text uses the indirect narrator to frame ‘Magic For Beginners’ as the implied authors description of an episode of The Library, but then obfuscates this by having Jeremy and his friends, who are described as being characters on The Library, also watch The Library (Link 46).
The distinction between diegetic levels are disrupted further when, after describing a string of angry e-mails exchanged between Jeremy and Karl, the narrator says, “I’m not allowed to tell you what they fought about” (Link 53). In this direct address, the narrator brings the reader into the reality of ‘Magic For Beginners’; the reader exists in the same reality as the narrator who exists in the same reality as Jeremy, Karl, Talis, Elizabeth, and Amy, who both watch and exist in The Library. By removing distinction between the diegetic levels, the text involves the reader in the process of metaconsumption, much in the same way that “The Library made Jeremy and Karl and Talis and Elizabeth and Amy friends” (Link 53). This forced involvement makes the reader engage with the text in conversation as the narrator is speaking directly to them. The directness hazes the line demarcating ‘Magic For Beginners’ from the readers reality, replicating the way that the line between the lived experiences and the structure and functions of The Library is hazed for Jeremy and his friends, therefore engaging the reader in that same metaconsumptive process.
“Story is more an exploration than a description”, says Link, in her interview with Kill Your Darlings; ‘Magic For Beginners’ pointedly so. As this essay has demonstrated, it is about the exploration of self through a framework of fiction. It portrays engagement with fiction as not a passive action, but an active one, building on the principles of metaconsumption to demonstrate how reader and text operate in conversation, informing and shaping one another in a process on inverted entropy; story giving shape and to the self, narrativizing the unknown to make it know.
Baldick, Chris, editor. “Narratology”, The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (4. Ed). Oxford University Press, 2015, Oxford Reference, DOI: 10.1093/acref/9780199208272.001.0001.
Baldick, Chris, editor. “Structuralism”, The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (4. Ed). Oxford University Press, 2015, Oxford Reference, DOI: 10.1093/acref/9780199208272.001.0001.
Cody, K et al, “‘No Longer, But Not Yet’ — Tweens and the Mediating of Liminal Selves Through Metaconsumption”, Advances in Consumer Research, Vol 38, 2011, pp. 422-430, Association for Consumer Research.
KYD Staff, “Conversation with Kelly Link”, Kill Your Darlings, 10 April, 2012, https://www.killyourdarlings.com.au/article/kill-your-darlings-in-conversation-with-kelly-link/.
Link, K, “Magic For Beginners”, Fantasy & Science Fiction, vol. 109, no. 3, 2005, pp. 46-91.
Propp, V, Morphology of the Folktale: Second Edition, University of Texas Press, 1968.