A novel-in-stories is an experimental hybrid of forms. What makes it different from the usual novel with chapters is that the stories, unlike chapters, must necessarily stand on their own as …
A novel-in-stories is an experimental hybrid of forms. What makes it different from the usual novel with chapters is that the stories, unlike chapters, must necessarily stand on their own as completed works, while also fitting into the overall narrative of the larger book. The stories are interconnected, often by setting, characters, themes or all of the above.
Brian Allan Skinner’s newest collection of interlinked stories, “The Magic of Kindness,” replicates his last novel (2018), “Shoot Me Jesus,” in many ways. Magical realism reigns again. Settings reoccur in New Mexico and New York City. Characters make repeat appearances in similar skins.
Skinner writes in his “Author’s Notes,” “I draw once again upon my stable of six trustworthy players. Though some of them have changed their names and others wear disguises, no doubt they will still be familiar to you. The personalities of the characters remain somewhat malleable, yet their identities are consistent. They develop by a process of accretion, gradually accumulating traits.”
Heart of the novel
Nicolas and Anna the magical trickster couple, sorcerer and sorceress, are back and may appear as eccentric fortune-teller, helpful innkeepers or meddlesome grandparents. Four more characters are at the heart of this novel – Fitz, Antonio, Max and Phaedre. No matter the circumstances, Fitz and Antonio always find each other, as do Max and Phaedre. Essentially these are tales of love and the grand efforts we need to make to find it and keep it. Not just romantic love, but familial love as well.
The Andreyevich family migrates to the United States from Russia and live crammed together in a New York City apartment. Ana is the matriarch and mother of Moosha, who has two kids, Nina and Max. Max is trained as a classical pianist and sleeps under his Steinway A. When Max meets Phaedre McGuirk, his life is altered unexpectedly. For one, he is introduced to her cousin, Fitz, who recently migrated to the States from Ireland. They become best friends. Fitz, a percussionist, inspires Max to develop as a jazz musician and they start a band called Just Friends.
Just Friends goes on tour together booked by their manager, Phaedre. When they land in enchanted New Mexico, Phaedre joins them and Max proposes marriage. Also, there’s Antonio. Antonio lives in The Bronx, but he’s from New Mexico. He and Fitz swiftly fall in love, as if destined.
“As my mentor raises his glass, there is another loud clap of thunder. The front door bursts open and a blast of cool air rushes in. A young man, soaked to the skin, walks in, squelching up to the bar. He is the brown-skinned man I first beheld in my dream years ago. Everything about him glistens: his dark skin, his black hair and T-shirt, and his wet Levi’s,” Fitz recalls in the story “The Wild One.”
Both relationships—that of Fitz and Antonio, Max and Phaedre—feel mystically fated. Ana and Nicolas, in all their shifting roles, always have their cards at play in the young people’s relationships, making sure they end up where they need to be and who they need to be with.
Magic plays an important part in the stories. Often magical circumstances are received by characters as a normal though wonderful part of their world.
In “Just Friends,” when Max and Fitz oversleep, they apologize to Ana, now playing the role of an innkeeper. Ana tells them not to worry, “She nods at the clock radio on the night table and then down at Max’s and Fitz’s wristwatches. It is now 8:15. The friends smile at Ana. Though they are not sure how she performed that trick, they are grateful for the extra half-hour.”
We later learn that their acceptance of magic stems from their ancestral roots in magic. Magical recipes from grandmothers in Russia, Ireland and New Mexico have been passed down to them as one inherits a recipe for borscht, potato bread or green chile salsa.
In the title story “The Magic of Kindness,” Ana is a child in Russia during the time of the Imperial Russian Guard. They send her parents to a Siberian gulag and Ana begins to learn the recipes for magic from her grandmother. Motivated to rescue her parents, she practices in secret, growing her powers beyond her maturity.
Recipes as metaphors
“At first I took all my grandma’s recipes quite literally,” Ana narrates her tale, word for word. “It was many years before I learned her recipes were metaphors. They were how she turned one thing into another so effortlessly. One thing was not like another, requiring many words and wordy qualifications. Rather one thing simply became another thing. All the magic I learned from her was that kind of metaphorical, phantasmagorical magic.”
Magic is the thread that ties these short stories together into a novel. Magic can transport people in space and time, see into the future, read minds and change appearances. This literary mechanism releases the narrative from the need to be linear and allows the characters—Ana, Nicolas, Max, Phaedre, Fitz and Antonio—always to be in the right place at the right time.
As Fitz says in the story “The Wild One,” “In my world, everything is simply alive—and everything is magical.”
Given the circumstance of self-contained stories in one book, the interlinked tales at times repeat material and feel redundant, bogging the reader down in information dumps. However, the shifts in point of view are refreshing and add layers of dimension to the characters and their relationships with each other.
According to his bio, Skinner has written and published more than 120 short stories, which have appeared in small press and literary magazines and anthologies, in the United States, Canada and Ireland. He is a former poetry and nonfiction reviewer for Kirkus Reviews and a production artist for Scientific American newsletters in New York. He moved to Taos in 2015.
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