So, Get in Trouble is Link’s fourth collection, though it’s likely enough you’ve only seen one of the others (Pretty Monsters) in the shops; her first two books (Stranger Things Happen and Magic for Beginners, both originally published by Small Beer Press, the indie company Link runs with her husband) can be downloaded from her website for a grand total of ZERO dollars because she’s slapped Creative Commons licenses on them. Nice, huh? If you have read Pretty Monsters, you’ll find that it reprints some of the stories from the earlier collections – but, and this isn’t something I’m saying lightly – who gives a f*ck? Those stories are excellent. If they were reprinted in all the books – not just Link’s books, but all the books – I’d still be happy. She’s mostly known as a fantasy writer, but if you’re not all about the elves, don’t let that scare you: it’s more a steam-punk fairy tale vibe – creepy faeries and disappearances and zombie and hauntings, but set in convenience stores and on film sets and in contemporary teenagers’ bedrooms. Link is to fairy tales what Lev Grossman’s The Magicians is to Harry Potter – all the mystery, but with actual life injected: swearing and sex and terrible behavior. The stories are fun, and her prose is as good as anything that might grace a literary anthology, and her endings are as open and ambiguous as any New Yorker reader could wish for. As she told the LA Times when Pretty Monsters came out, ‘I’m assuming I’m not the only writer out there who loves both Lovecraft and Lorrie Moore.’ On that note, imagine a (disturbing) casserole of Suzanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Chris Adrian’s The Great Night, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son and a whole bunch of George Saunders’ stories; add a pinch of Freaks & Geeks and stir. That’s something approximating Kelly Link.
All right: I’m a fan. You should all be fans. But the new book: how does it compare? So, first up, it’s something of a departure in that not all the stories have a supernatural framework. Now, when Link writes the supernatural, it’s pretty much entirely in the service of some other exploration: it facilitates an exploration of death or loss or love or ambition or whatnot. With Get In Trouble, in ‘The Lesson’, she’s forsworn fantasy altogether (two gay men are having a surrogate bear their child, and the stress of this is gnawing away at their relationship). The remaining eight stories are more conventional (though that’s not the right word for Link under any circumstance): ghosts, ‘pocket universes’, real-life superheroes, a weird techy future, and, of course, faeries. The straight-down-the-line realism of ‘The Lesson’ is anomalous though: it’s a decent story, with strong characters, quirky details and a compelling theme, but it stands out, generically speaking. Is that good? It’s hard to contextualize. It felt (to me) to sit oddly with the other pieces, but it’s internally a good read. If Link’s stretching herself, that’s good (more books!), but whether there’ll be an irate reaction from her more hard-core fantasy fans (even as the ‘literary’ folk get ever so excited) remains to be seen.
As for the rest: ‘Two Houses’ is speculative SF with ghosts stories tossed in the mix, à la Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris; ‘The New Boyfriend’ is an excellent study of jealousy, nicely facilitated by a haunted robot; ‘Light’ is about a woman’s struggle to move on after her alien husband abandons her – her job overseeing a warehouse full of mysterious ‘sleepers’ is a tidy metaphor for her own willful lack of insight, and the Florida setting is suitably sweaty and tawdry. ‘The Summer People’ opens the collection, and harks back to vintage Link: a teenage girl is the caretaker-slash-slave of a house full of capricious faeries – that is, until she finds a classmate who’s interested in the little folk. It’s not ‘The Faery Handbag’, but it’s creepy and angry all the same. ‘Origin Story’ tries to pull off a Nicholson Baker style trick – a story (a sort of love story) told entirely through dialogue, and though it’s ambitious, it lacked the organic nature of the others: Link’s real skill is making the insane seem utterly normal, while here, the form overrode the content a little too much. Its semi-companion piece, however, ‘Secret Identity’ (a young girl who’s posed as her older sister in an online game comes to the city to meet her virtual boyfriend and ends up staying in a hotel full of superheroes; both stories feature the superheroes) is touching and clever and is a great example of the way Link marries the peculiar with the ‘real’ (narrowly defined) to elucidate a deeper psychological truth: here, loneliness, fear, masks, deception, and the whole tangled notion of ‘identity’ and whether it can be understood or known or kept secret at all. Lastly, the second story, ‘I Can See Through You’ is a one of the creepier numbers: one actor visits another on set and grapples with decades’ worth of uncertain sexual/emotional need and then, bam! No spoilers, but it’s a good old proper chiller.
Any Cop?: All in? I’d rate Pretty Monsters just a tad higher, but this is still a fine and odd (in the best way) collection – one that all short fiction and fantasy/slipstream/SF fans ought to read. It’s more generically and formally diverse than its predecessors, and, in that sense, it’s a more ambitious book, which means, in turn, that I’m already intrigued to see where she’ll take us next.