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White Cat, Black Dog review: MacArthur genius Kelly Link returns

A characteristic of the fairy tale is that it refuses to explain itself. Not for folklore is our modern fretting over magical systems that behave, science-like, in clear and predictable ways, with rules an audience can fathom. Cinderella’s slipper is glass because that’s what it’s made out of. There are giants at the end of Jack’s beanstalk because that’s where they are. Rapunzel’s hair grows long enough to be used as a ladder because that’s what it does.

Kelly Link’s short stories are fairy tales in part because she does not force them to explain themselves. In Link’s funny, eerie tales, you talk to a magical grub by putting it into your own mouth because that’s how it works. Death requires a house sitter because he does. “The mechanics of how I can speak are really of no great interest,” says a cannabis-farming white cat, “and I’m afraid I don’t really understand it myself, in any case.”

The pot-growing cat is one of the title characters of White Cat, Black Dog, Link’s latest collection of short stories. It’s the fifth anthology Link has published since she put out her debut, Stranger Things Happen, at her own Small Beer Press in 2001, and the first since she became a Pulitzer finalist for 2016 and won a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2018. White Cat, Black Dog is also the first Link anthology in which each story is explicitly a fairy tale, although the straight-faced incomprehensibility of the magic in her previous stories makes them a good match for the genre, too.

The white cat in question comes from “The White Cat’s Divorce,” Link’s take on Madame d’Aulnoy’s “The White Cat.” A king — or, in Link’s case, a tech billionaire — sends his three sons off in search of the smallest and most beautiful dog they can find, assuring them he’ll name the winner his heir. The youngest son meets a white cat, who sends him home with a nutshell which, on being cracked open, reveals a miniscule dog of supreme beauty. “Certainly, that is a very small dog,” allows Link’s tech billionaire.

Link’s retelling, though, is not a copy-and-paste of the original with updated job titles. She knows that fairy tales were never really just for children, and she uses their deceptively simple structures to explore decidedly adult concerns. Her billionaire, Peter Thiel-like, longs to become immortal, and to that end marries a succession of increasingly younger wives, swims two miles a day, receives blood transfusions from the young, and dines upon “fish and berries and walnuts as if he were a bear and not a rich man at all.” He sends his sons off on increasingly baroque quests because he finds that their presence is one of the great obstacles to his dream of conquering death: “It is very difficult to remain young when one’s children selfishly insist upon growing older,” observes Link.

Again and again, Link applies her fairy tales like a nutcracker to our contemporary archetypes, breaking them open and making us shiver with mingled horror and delight at the tiny and unsettling wonders she finds within. The newlywed quest narrative “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” applied to a couple of middle-aged Upper West Side gay men in “Prince Hat Underground,” becomes a study of the problem of a perennially unfaithful beloved. “The Lady and the Fox” sets the Scottish tale of a fairy knight “Tam Lin” within a wealthy family that delights in adopting strays, and in so doing casts a vexed eye over the part-grateful, part-resentful power dynamics that ensue.

Within these half-familiar story forms, Link’s magic continually disrupts the ideas we think we have a solid grasp on. The worlds she builds are recognizable but fundamentally strange, other, not quite like anything you’ve ever seen before. When you emerge out of White Cat, Black Dog, the world you left behind doesn’t look quite like anything you’ve seen before either.

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