Hello. If you have read Lull by Kelly Link, you may have some questions. Don’t worry. I’m going to answer some questions about Lull. Some of them may have been your questions. Or maybe not! I’m not psychic, this isn’t a Kelly Link story or anything, it’s just an analysis of one.
Lull is my favorite story by Kelly Link. I love it because it resonates emotionally with me, on a very strong level, and it is also a story that constantly reveals little secrets the longer I look at it. I loved it when I first read it, when it moved me at my core but I couldn’t say what made it tick except that it was something. I love it even more now, after having stared at it so thoroughly and mapped out aspects of its architecture. It is not a puzzle story (in that there isn’t some magic code that resolves everything into banality), but it has many, many elements that are coded slyly and which reward a careful look.
It blooms triumphantly upon careful observation.
I think it may be one of Link’s most technically ingenious stories, but it is also one of her quietest in alerting us to its techniques.
Why is this structured like a Q&A?
Because I’ve read many, many people talking about Lull online and making all sorts of wonky half-baked statements, such as “the hermit is the Devil because there were pentagrams in his house!” and “Starlight is actually Susan!” and “this story is a disconnected jumble and has no underlying pattern or anything!” and I figured that a Q&A would be the most sensible form for taking down such shoddy observations and propping up better-supported ones.
Hey! I wrote one of those reviews/made one of those comments! Are you insulting me?
YES YES WHY NOT, LET’S GO FOR THE GOLD, INSULTS ALL THE WAY, “here’s my take on this story, ho ho ho, please value my opinion, ho ho ho” I’LL VALUE YOUR OPINION IN HELL
Meanwhile there’s the schoolteacher inside me rushing frantically to the scene, chiding “Now, now, children, it’s just a story, no need to get so worked up and take everything personally in what is surely a neutral exchange of ideas…” but I take everything personally (mainly because it makes my day-to-day existence enormously more entertaining) and also, I’m of the firm opinion that no exchange of ideas is ever neutral (see upcoming Appendix B!! EDIT: Here it is.) so now my inner schoolteacher is very distressed and calling for reinforcements in the form of a SWAT team.
So anyway, before the SWAT team arrives, here’s my insulting take on the story ho ho ho.
Why is it called “Lull”?
Mainly because the word “lull” is a palindrome.
But also because it is a palindrome without much out-of-story significance – it is a blank slate, and innocuous, and thus able to bear the weight of the masses of details and significance that accumulate as the story progresses.
As a consequence of this, the first sentence of the story gains previously unnoticed heft and meaning upon a rereading.
I think that trying to wring additional symbolism or esotericism out of the title doesn’t lead anywhere useful SO IF YOU’RE ONE OF THOSE FUCKERS WHO KEEP TRYING TO SPIN CONSPIRACY THEORIES OUT OF THE TITLE then you should have a nice glass or lemonade and maybe a cookie! We’re all friends here! Ho ho!
Is the hermit in the first section meant to be the Devil?
NO. If anything, the hermit is tangentially connected to the aliens, but honestly I think he’s just a hermit who they talk about in the first section. He is a detail – just like Susan’s paintings, just like Brenner’s passion for pepper. Amassing so many details is very important to how the story works, in a way particularly unique to this story, and I will talk about this a lot in the upcoming sections.
But first off (and I can’t quite believe I have to spell this out) the pentagrams and mandalas in the house came from the guy living in the house before Ed (who is actually titled “the Satanist” on page 294 – I’m using the paperback edition of Magic for Beginners for my page numbers, by the way), not from the hermit. Why are there people saying the hermit drew the pentagrams? Are they not bothering to check the story before running their mouths? Second off, a UFO is implied to rise from the hermit’s house back when he still lives there (page 265), so if anything, he’s tied to the aliens.
But, as I said, he is neither the Devil nor the aliens, because things in Lull (and in Kelly Link’s stories in general) don’t neatly equate into other things. They echo. They ripple. And in this case, following the patterns of ripples, the hermit is (honestly, truthfully) just the bl**ping hermit who may or may not have been involved with theoretical aliens somehow.
And anyway the Devil comes from a different place entirely.
So where does the Devil come from then?
Asides from the men directly asking for a story about the Devil, it is true that hints of devils crop up in little details from the first section (such as the bit about the mirror from Pottery Barn, on page 262, or the references to the pentagrams in Ed’s house). But the actual Devil, with a capital D, really comes from the following little bit, from page 261:
It’s catchy stuff. We could listen to it all night.
“Now we chant along and summon the Devil,” Bones says. “Always wanted to do that.”
What you have to remember is that the music they’re listening to is all palindromes. It’s going forwards and backwards at the same time. What Bones might as well have said is: Now we chant backwards and summon the Devil. (Which, I assume most people know, is part of the folklore of how you’re supposed to summon the Devil – either by chanting the Lord’s Prayer backwards, or pronouncing certain words backwards, or listening to Awful Evil Rock Music, which, when played backwards, has some sort of nasty Satanic message subliminally encoded or whatever. That old trope. You know.)
And so naturally, after being mentioned in this way, the Devil appears in the second part of the story, which is the part of the story that is emphatically going backwards.
Why does Ed call Starlight “Susan”? Is she meant to be Susan?!?! IS SHE ACTUALLY SUSAN?!?!?!?!
I… cannot quite believe that I have to ask (and answer) this question, except that I’ve actually seen it pop up as if legitimate so I feel like I need to shoot this one down. For posterity. Or something.
You know that trope of calling sex-lines? Where the “john”, so to speak, is living out a fantasy with the sexy lady on the other side of the phone line, so he might say “can I call you Mommy” or “can I call you Denise, which is the name of the secretary” or “can I call you Lotta Titza, the name of my favorite porn star” or “can I call you Susan, the name of my ex-wife whom I miss terribly” or whatever the mental justification might be. The point is, it’s a pretty common trope (in both fiction and in reality) for the “john” in sex-lines to apply his own name to the worker on the other end of the line.
So Ed saying “Can I call you Susan?” is a tongue-in-cheek play on this trope, by having Ed act out the role of a typical “john” in a very atypical situation… and this is a trope that Kelly Link follows up with at the end, when Starlight is getting ready to hang up. Ed asks when he can call her again. (Page 296.)
Have you never encountered this trope? It goes something like “oh, Baby-Doll, when can I see you again, give me some of that lovin’, are you free next Tuesday, mmm I love your sweet lips, et cetera et cetera.”
You know. You know the trope. That’s what this is. It’s a sly reference to that trope. Starlight isn’t Susan. Why would you think Starlight is Susan? There is literally not a single other thing in the story that supports that Starlight is Susan – Starlight is just as likely to be the cheerleader as she is likely to be Susan.
Starlight is Starlight. Just like the hermit is the hermit. Just like the Devil is the Devil, and Alibi is Alibi, and the cheerleader is the cheerleader, and Stan is Stan.
(By the way, if you are asking “then where does the cheerleader come from” I can firmly assert that answer is “Kelly Link’s sense of whimsy” because honestly just look at any of the stories from her first collection and yeah. That’s where she comes from.)
I don’t really buy the second/fourth section. They’re going backwards – but living forwards? This doesn’t make sense, and I’m angry about this! Rargh! I take things very literally!
Page 272: “Then all of a sudden an egg timer was going off. Everyone was giggling and they were standing up to go over by the closet, like they were all going to try to squeeze inside. But the Devil stood up and took the cheerleader’s hand and pulled her backwards-forwards.
So she knew what exactly had happened, and was going to happen, and some other things besides.”
And the Devil is mentioned, on page 276, as always fooling around with time.
So, personally, I’m not actually bothered by the “going backwards but living forwards” aspects. As a writer, Kelly Link works primarily with the toolboxes of surrealism and un-horror and if your mind boggles at something as surrealistically ordinary as people enacting their live backwards instead of forwards, then you may need to rethink your approach to reading this author. And maybe you should also try watching some Luis Bunuel films? I dunno, I guess he’s a good introduction to the language and weight of surrealism.
But I just wanted to point out that, even if this bothers you – well, Kelly Link has seeded things into the story that indicate that the presence of the Devil has something to do with how these particular sections of the story are folding out (both backwards and forwards at once).
So there, that’s your easy explanation, now stop complaining and move on.
What is the structure of the story? Is it a palindrome?!
Ah, now we can get down to the real interesting things!
Much has been made of the story-within-a-story-within-a-story structure, and I think Farah Mendlesohn was the one who particularly pointed out how a striking effect of the story is achieved by having characters moving fluidly across what are supposedly nested (and thus impermeable) narratives. This is definitely one of the lovely parts of the story. But I am especially interested in another aspect of its structure.
See, there is no development in a palindrome. There is no crystallization, nor purification. If a palindromic text (meaning: a story, a play, a piece of music, a dance, et cetera) begins texturally muddy, then it ends texturally muddy – it may get clearer in the middle but its content must end as it begins, and begin as it ends, looping to infinity.
The palindromic state is implied to be the emotional trap that some of the characters have fallen into. This is important, yes.
But while the nesting of stories has a palindromic aspect, the story is obviously itself not a palindrome. If anything, the real structure of the story is visible as a sort of cone – a gradual clarification, down to a single point. Backwardness is also very important, both thematically and structurally, and that is where palindromes come in more meaningfully.
It’s not that palindromes are an organizing principle of the story, but that backwardness is a major organizing principle — and palindromes are one manifestation of it.
The structure is a cone?! The f—?!
If you just watch what happens as you read, you will notice an ongoing organization of meaning, an increasing justification of the use of detail. On one end of the scale, you have the mess of a primordial soup, a poker game evening where no one is playing poker, where anecdotes and traits are presented in a context-free jumble: a rambling huge mass of disconnected details. Meaningless and meaningful are in the same jumble, and this is deeply deliberate (further evidence further), and the deliberate result is that it is all utterly flat. As part of this result (and this is important), characters are presented practically as cardboard cut-outs, as an undistinguished mass who equally narrate the story through the washed-out tone of the “we” voice.
Look, most of the poker players have limited and topical assigned traits, gifted to them mostly through a single anecdote (in a way that gave me really strong flashbacks of reading bad attempts at characterization in beginning writing classes, which – by the way – was the moment when I began to suspect what Kelly Link was up to). The most obvious example is Alibi, whose identity is so one-note that his trait, his anecdote becomes his name; but Brenner = goatee-and-pepper, Pete = sexy-houses, Jeff = general-asshole-host, Bones = boring-stupid-drunk-but-with-cool-kids, Ed = video-game-maker-with-weird-house-and-weirder-ex-wife, and onwards and onwards. And yes, Ed is only technically given one anecdote by the narrative we voice of the massed men (it’s an anecdote about him making video games). He is tangentially associated with a number of the other stories told; but then again so is Jeff. Ed, at this point, does not stand out any more than Jeff does, or heck, even Brenner, who is the most visually memorable.
It’s not that the men in the first section don’t have separate personalities, but that they are so muffled, and so thinly presented, that you practically have to press your nose to the page to divine them.
In the first pages of the story, any action or dialog could come from any of their mouths, and it would not feel out of place. (Why do any of them, for example, ask for what they ask from Starlight? Why does Bones-the-boring-stupid-one, and not Pete-the-sexy-house-hound, want to know what Starlight is wearing? And why is it that Brenner-with-the-dangerous-goatee-and-pepper-fetish, and not Bones-the-boring-stupid-one, who requests the rambly bit about good and evil and true love and a happy ending?)
If I were to put their dialog on one side of a sheet of paper, and their names on the other, would you be able to match them up and tell me which person said what, without having to check the story?
(In fact – there is even a blatant typo in the story where one man’s name is accidentally substituted for another’s, and nobody has caught it – none of the editors caught it, and most of the readers seem not to have caught it too – for multiple printings, and counting.)
But the point isn’t that the men are only given one anecdote that is entirely theirs – the point is that they are then promptly drowned out because there are many, many anecdotes. The entire first section is nothing but anecdotes – and the deeply important ones are given the same space as seemingly inconsequential asides about the feng shui placement of mirrors, or the drunk peacocks, or Susan’s art teacher. (In fact, Susan’s art teacher gets more story-time than some of the men sitting around the poker table.)
And you need to do this, to go after the effect that Kelly Link is after, and it is kind of brilliant.
You see, several deeply important moments happen in these beginning pages, but since everything is so deliberately emotionally flattened, they just don’t ping — unless you’re rereading and know the full context of what is being said. These moments zip by without sticking in your head.
Would you remember this section, for example, upon a first reading? Emphasis mine:
Stan was so very cool that he hadn’t even minded taking care of some of us, the parents of his friends (the friends of his parents), although sometimes we just went through our kids’ drawers, looked under the mattresses. It wasn’t that different from taking Halloween candy out of their Halloween bags, which was something we had also done, when they were younger and went to bed before we did.
Stan wasn’t into that stuff now, though. None of the kids were. They were into music.
You couldn’t get this music on a CD… [etc.]
Of course he isn’t into drugs anymore, of course none of the kids are anymore, because them being into “that stuff” is what (at least partially) led to the death of Andrew, for which Stan continues to feel incredibly extraordinarily responsible, I mean, he’s the one who fucking found Andrew’s dead body, and no one is willing to talk it out with him, everyone is useless, “we just don’t talk about it”, there are no shoulders to lean on for Stan.
This is a pair of sentences that, upon a rereading, ought to leap out of the text like two monster hands and grab you by the eyeballs. They have that effect mostly, I think, because we don’t remember those sentences being there – at least, not by that context. On a first reading, the paragraphs’ construction places the emphasis on the palindromic music… so it’s only after we have foreknowledge that we really see those two sentences as the central ones that they are.
This technique of placing deeply important information in the part of the paragraph where you’re not looking for it is certainly not unique to Kelly Link (Farah Mendlesohn does a pretty brilliant analysis of how it is used in Mirrlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist, for one) but it is worth pointing out, for this story.
The important things are drowned in a mass of detail that flatten their significance, drowned out with static, but we can fish them out using the lens of learned context.
This is a technique that crops up constantly throughout, and it is metaphoric for the desires of the characters – of disassociation as a form of escape, which is refused by the story itself as it methodically creates association where there was previously none.
But you still haven’t described the structure of the story! A cone, right? Pine cone, maybe? Christmas cone?!
Creating association out of disassociation is the cone, really.
Mass of disconnected and directionless details on one end, traveling down to a tight conclusion at the other end. Cone.
And – one must ask – if the structure is a visible crystallization/structuring of disassociated detail into coherent narrative, then: narrative should logically be a significant theme of Lull, yes?
Which, of course, it is.
Stories are talked about, and stories are told (very many stories), and stories are demanded and asked for, and attitudes towards stories are even discussed and parodied (see especially: Brenner’s request from Starlight, page 271, which is essentially Kelly Link having a good belly-laugh and thumbing her nose at all the people who bounce off Link’s stories like pigeons flopping off mall windows). The Devil and the cheerleader, of course, spend a couple of pages chattily taking apart horror tropes, supposedly in preparation for the cheerleader’s attempt to wow the Devil with a story of her own, though there is an echo of Kelly Link’s belly laugh in that section too (less a laugh, by then, and more like a thoughtful hum).
Identity is largely flattened in the beginning, remember, but then it is accumulated gradually through a crystallization of detail – through active organized narrative.
It is the hierarchy of detail that creates a coherent and memorable narrative – “this detail is significant, that one is not” – “that character is significant, that character is minor” – and the result, done well, can make any story stick firmly in our mind. As the Devil tells the cheerleader in response to her fears that no one will remember her, “’Then tell me a story… Tell me a story so that I’ll remember you.’”
Organized narrative, as the cheerleader points out, is a way to commemorate someone, and also a way to live on in memory.
We remember the end of Lull. We remember the mass of details boiling down into a concentrated broth, we remember the death of Andrew and we remember Ed, and Susan, and Stan. We remember a story about grief and loss and the dissolution of a marriage (and there are so many other details mixed into that boiling down, and somehow we remember many of them too as part of the overall effect, and that way Kelly Link has her cake and eats it too).
But: this concentration is not really what the story was about when we first began reading it, right? When we first began reading it, it was kind of a mess… about who knows what… some uninteresting dudes gathered around a poker table and not even playing poker, just swapping an endless array of meaningless anecdotes, endlessly…
Cone shape. Begins as a wide-ranging undistinguished mass; by the end, clarified into a sharp resonant point.
That’s all good and well, but I think the poker-player section is just the prologue to the actual story – it’s just a frame story, geez! – so I don’t buy your weird nonsense!
This story was totally about Ed all along, Mr. Know-It-All! What are you fussing about?
At the beginning of the story, sure, Ed is present at the card table, but the narrative voice is “we” and Ed is subject to its gaze in the same fashion as everyone else. No one is primary in the beginning. Regardless of what comes later, in the beginning none of them are main characters.
Also, to say that the phone call to Starlight starts the action moving is to treat everything that came before as a brief prologue, and… Look. That section is twelve pages. That’s twelve pages into a story that is only thirty-eight pages.
This really ought to be the first thing to tip anyone off, by the way, that there’s something important about the first part of Lull. If it takes nearly one-third of a story to get to the “plot hook” then either the story is a colossal failure by standard units of measurement – or it is doing something completely divorced from standard units of measurement, and it demands (and infinitely rewards) a different reading strategy, and closer speculation — if only to answer the question of what is going on with that first chunk.
Because: you really, really need that heavy chunk of disassociation and narrative static – you need that in order for the story to do what it does, which is to submerge you so completely in the numbing mish-mash that, by page eleven, you are as stuck in it as the men – and then sharply reorganize and repurpose and redistribute its contents and create a sudden, painful context out of what was there all along.
Something Emotionally Powerful.
There is not another story on the planet (as far as I am aware) that does quite what Lull does – and succeeds.
Lull is a fairly unique approach to a story about very deep loss.
If the structure of “Lull” really is in the organization of detail, then shouldn’t that be indicated somewhere in the story? You can’t just make shit up, okay!
Page 260, in the first few pages of the story: “’Let’s try something new. I’m going to deal out everything, the whole deck, and then we’ll have to put it all back. We’ll see each other’s hands as we put them down. We’re going for low. And we’ll swap. Yeah, that might work. Something else, like a wild card, but we won’t know what the wild card was, until the very end. We’ll need to play fast—not stopping to think about it—just do what I tell you to do.”
That’s Ed, just two pages into the story, describing a game he spontaneously makes up on the spot, and which is never mentioned again by name (note that Kelly Link never says the men are playing poker – if they are playing any game at all, it’s this one). And also this is Ed describing what is about to happen, and is happening – he’s describing the structure of Lull.
And on page 296, as the story is whirling frantically to its conclusion, right before we enter back into the original frame story, we have mention of putting the “cards back on top of the deck, one by one…”
Oh, and what’s the name of this card game that Ed just made up? It’s DNA Hand.
Which is a palindrome.
Like the title of the story.
Oh, come on! That card game was just a throwaway gag!
I don’t think so. Link is too careful an author, and her methods of using detail too deliberate. It matches up too closely with everything else the story is doing, and this is not the first story where she seeds the key to reading it in a subtle and almost-hidden place.
So while DNA Hand is, within the narrative context, Ed fooling around with the music-inspired concept of palindromes… the game is also a direct analog to the structure of the story.
Unlike the songs, DNA Hand is a palindrome not in content but in structure. Disperse all the details… then gather them up again into a patterned order.
The analogy gets increasingly blatant the more you look at it.
I think this is one of those things, like the two sentences about Stan, which are meant to ring a bell when we see them with the context of a second read.
Who or what is the wild card, then?
Stan. The wild card is definitely, definitely Stan.
(Okay, I’m not so sure that detail, by the way, was meant to be taken and answered so literally! I can easily see it as Kelly Link having some fun with Ed describing this game he’s creating – but nonetheless… If you think about it for even a moment… If you just look at it while reading, at Stan’s subtle but extraordinarily careful and symmetrical placement throughout the story… It is Stan, and I often see Lull as being Stan’s story far more, and far more quietly, than anyone else’s.)
Okay, fine, so if you’re going to be a jackass about this, then explain the significance of the color green.
Above all, I see green as the gong note leitmotif in the orchestration of Lull – deep-throated and many-toned and sounding at significant times. I see it, in a way, as a leitmotif for Lull.
But also, in a more practical sense:
Green is, most vaguely, the color of time standing still, sometimes literally and sometimes more metaphorically (thinking of the Susans here).
Green can, as a subcategory, be the color of palindromic stasis.
Green can, as a tool, be the color of flattening, of numbing, as an effect and as a coping mechanism.
Green is always twinned with the desire to halt or undo time in some way, in some shape or form, in order to attempt to undo grief – either the events that cause grief, or just the emotion itself, or sometimes both at once.
Any effort at compartmentalizing the color into an easy one-for-one metaphor is to miss the point of pretty much everything Kelly Link has ever written, and it is also a terrible way to approach a story that is working so particularly hard to explode that sort of compartmentalization. But that does not mean green is not clearly meaningful in a consistent, echoing pattern.
Lull intends to communicate its effects to the reader through a contagious grief, through an empathized sort of tragic yearning – as I mentioned at the beginning of this letter, when I first read it I loved it immediately, emotionally, without quite knowing what was going on, and you really don’t really have to understand most of what’s happening in Lull in order to be moved by it – I can’t repeat that enough – so green is the gong note of that aspect of Lull as well.
What is green in Lull? The table that they play cards on is green – and this is very significant, and mentioned right at the start (in the second sentence of the story, to be exact). In other words, the entire time that they are in the basement, they are in Green Territory, so to speak.
When Kelly Link describes the phone, right before they call Starlight, she writes “[The phone] sits there, in the middle of all that green, like an island or something. Marooned.” (I do not see the telephone as being part of that Green, by the way – rather, it is the way out of the flattened timeless palindromic waste that they are currently inhabiting. It is pretty much Alice’s rabbit hole.)
The unmoving hands of the clock, at the end of the story, are green.
And the Susans are green, in the third section, where Ed’s desire to undo grief and return his life with Susan back to “normal” is realized but in a peculiar, green way. In part (and only in part), the Susans are green due to this time-stopping falseness. (They are green for other, overlapping reasons as well — things have begun to overlap quite heavily by this part of the story.) And Susan beer is green, of course. “The beer doesn’t make [Ed] drunk… but when he’s drinking it, he isn’t sad.” (289)
And on page 292, one of the green Susans tells Ed: “Or we’ll fix [Andrew] the way we’ve fixed me. He won’t be so sad. Have you noticed how I’m not sad anymore? Don’t you want that, not to be sad?”
When you’re flat, you may not be moving forward, you may not be really even living, but at least you can’t feel sad.
Green is also the beginning of the world, from the part where the time machine is whizzing everything back. Page 295: “…she wants to get right back to the very beginning where everything is still and flat and green and sleepy…”
Flat and green. In the story itself, right there.
Haha buuuut I think it’s a lucky coincidence, actually, that the story seems to be supporting even my idiosyncratic usage of the term “flat”. It is tempting to make much of it, but that wouldn’t be playing fair, and I really don’t think Kelly Link was thinking of that when she chose the word “flat”. I do think she is just describing a clean primordial beginning, a blank and timeless page… a green page…
*cue the gong*
You mentioned, way back when, that backwardness is an organizing principle? Care to explain?
There are multiple strategies suggested by the story as way of coping with or undoing the effects of grief and the events that are the cause of that grief. There is disassociation, as practiced by the poker-player section, and that strategy is brutally undone by the actual structure of Lull itself, which emphatically rejects disassociation as a valid option.
There is the whimsical strategy presented by the world of the Devil and the cheerleader. But just reversing the order of events doesn’t undo grief – the cheerleader mourns her children constantly in her sections of the story, rubs her belly, is haunted by their loss, “are you in there?” It is actually a little tragic because it is a variety of grief that never existed until the world began to go backwards – some griefs were erased, but new ones were created. Much of her section is permeated with the sense of hauntings and longing and loss.
There is also reference, in that section, to some terrible apocalyptic event that ended the world, which they must never talk about – but they remember it, because, in that part of the story, the future is in their past. Events go backwards, life is more secure through foreknowledge; but grief and loss and terrible memory have certainly not been done away with. So that strategy does not actually solve the problem. It just shakes it into a new shape.
The Susans present a strategy of multiplying themselves to evenly share the grief, so that it is much easier to endure – and to have themselves modified peculiarly so that they don’t feel grief anymore – but this strategy is presented as increasingly unnerving and dehumanizing, almost vegetable at times. And there is a mention of having to reset the whole human race, to make everyone like the Susans, in order to actually undo grief on a meaningful level.
Another strategy in this same section is to just undo the event – Andrew is also supposed to be brought back, as part of the Susans’ process, but we become more and more sure it will never happen, it’s always just about to happen – it’s like that joke “I’ll start my diet tomorrow, except tomorrow never comes because it’s always today!” This strategy, too, is rendered with an increasing feeling of uneasiness and irreality.
The final strategy presented is in the story-within-a-story-within-a-story-within-a-story, told by Ed to the last of the Susans, about the time machine taking her back to the perfect time, the time when everything is finally great and perfect “and then the party can start” but the time machine just keeps searching, keeps whizzing back to the beginning, to the beginning of everything, to nothingness, because no such time exists, nor has ever existed.
In fact, this particular nested story isn’t interrupted. She does reach the beginning of time – the point where there is no time anymore, when the metaphorical projector tape has collected to the beginning and hasn’t begun to roll. It goes “backwards and backwards and backwards and backwards and backwards and backwards and backwards— …The cheerleader says to the Devil, ‘We’re out of time.’”
The story went all the way back to the conception of things – in other words, back to the cheerleader telling the story to the Devil.
Let’s talk about the ending.
Wait, no. Not yet. Almost there. I just wanted to point out that there are a couple of moments when what is said and what is done happens in reverse order. This is important to talk about here, I promise.
Most of these type of things occur during the sections with the Devil and the cheerleader. Which makes sense. It’s obvious in small things like the Devil having a flashlight with two dead batteries, which gradually morphs to a flashlight with batteries that are fully charged. But it also happens less noticeably and more peculiarly with the Devil’s tail and the cheerleader’s pom-poms. Actions, and requests/permissions for those actions, occur in reverse order. She discusses touching the Devil’s tail with her pom-poms, as if for the first time, several paragraphs after that action has already happened – and so on. That whole particular section has the conversation moving forward but the actions chronologically in reverse order.
This reverse chronology is echoed subtly throughout Lull, yes, in how important details are seeded not at the conclusions of paragraphs, where important details usually reside structurally, but often in their beginnings instead. I did mention that earlier.
But direct reverse chronology, in the Devil/cheerleader style (answer first, question second), rears it head on the second-to-last page, once we’ve exited the frame stories and are back at the poker table, when such tricks should not be applicable – the different levels of narrative have all bled into each other by now:
Starlight says, “Sorry about that. My voice is getting scratchy. It’s late. You should call back tomorrow night.”
Ed says, “When can I call you?”
This – is worth pointing out. This tiny bit, isolated by Kelly Link into its own section, always feels odd to me whenever I read it; something has happened out of order in a way that is so small and yet so huge. The reverse-chronology of the Devil/cheerleader section infects the original frame story – and this is significant. Because practically every other sentence after this one is echoing, contextualizing, referencing, and repurposing big significant gestures from all that has come before.
Susan is speaking: “I was asleep, Ed, I was having the best dream. You’re always waking me up in the middle of things.” (The middle section of the story, she means, which is what she was dreaming about.)
“Something bad happened…. we can’t even talk about it.” (Which is a direct echo of the Devil/cheerleader, on page 272, “Something happened. Something has happened. But nobody ever talked about it… Not anymore…” referring, of course, to the end-of-the-world event that triggered the move towards backwardness…which itself is an echo of the death of Andrew, the thing they can’t talk about, the metaphorical world-shattering event that also triggered these moves towards backwardness for the characters…)
“I love you, but it’s not about love, Ed, it’s about timing.”
“It’s too late, and it’s always going to be too late.”
“All those stupid games, Ed! What can’t you build a time machine instead?” (Well, he did; not that it helped. …And also, if you’re thinking of one of his “stupid games” when reading this – meaning, DNA Hand – this bit takes on an additional peculiar meaning.)
The point is, the ending of Lull is that great gong note sounding into infinity, echoing and connecting and dissipating all the details and moments and gestures of the story, resolving into irresolvability – the characters remain endlessly stuck in a palindromic state of mind, the story ends in a fragment of apple-scented timelessness, but Lull itself has done exactly the things its characters cannot – it has taken disassociation and knit meaning back into the sense of things.
I love Lull very much. And I will – no doubt – still manage to change my mind about what goes where, or the particular context for this or that, or whether certain things are more fish or fowl. I love its hard-to-pin-down quality, I love the way it spirals away from you when you try to organize it too much, and I love the clear amount of elegant, dense, impossible work that has gone into creating such a strangely coherent yet smoke-like story.
I said something along the following lines to you in conversation (much less precisely of course), when telling you about my reasons for writing about Lull:
“It’s not that it’s the best story she’s ever written. I don’t know if it’s fair to say that it’s the best, because she has written a number of masterful stories, and they tend to be masterful in different and incomparable ways. But Lull fits the shape of my head and resonates with me in a particular way that is unique. So my love for it, first off, is instinctive and emotional, and has as much to do with me and who I am as it has to do with the story. I loved it, too, for the challenge and depth it provided when I undertook this attempt at meaningful analysis. But even if and when I change my mind about the validity of certain details of my reading, I think I will still love Lull and reread it every now and then for the quiet, sad pleasure of it – it is hard to say precisely why we love the things we do, but a story so structurally unique; and one that uses all aspects of its form (character, structure, narrative, detail, digression, et cetera) as equal tools towards carrying its full impact; and one that approaches the business of serious, raw grief by accordioning it wide into endless narrative invention and then squeezing it shut into irresolvability: well, I am okay with admitting love for that sort of story, I think.”
And that, ONION, is my take on Lull.
Madam I’m Adam,
 I remember reading somewhere that Kelly Link wrote Lull partially in response to the death of a good friend, but I have been finding it difficult to source this, and I’m wondering if I didn’t mis-read this, or just make it up… If anyone reading this has any information on this, please let me know… Because, if it is so, it makes this particular section somewhat more raw, given that out-of-story context… EDIT: In a surprise twist, Kelly Link herself has read this post and confirmed this detail for me.