Kelly Link might be described as a fantasist or a magical realist of a particularly homegrown sort. Her stories take place within recognizable landscapes — suburban bedrooms, reality TV locations, a wedding weekend — that open into something else. It’s genre work that blurs the lines of genre, merging elements of science fiction, realism, fantasy. Yet all that seems too restrictive, too didactic, for what Link appears to have in mind.
“How does a woman with a raven’s beak kiss a bubble of blood?” she asks in her unsettling and vivid new collection Get in Trouble, and if you think such a question is rhetorical, you better think again. The setting is a Manhattan hotel that is hosting, among other events, a gathering of superheroes who move through the bar and lobby like a pack of conventioneers.
Superheroes, deep space travelers, a character known only as the Demon Lover: These are some of the figures in the nine stories in Get in Trouble, which traces an existence as developed as the one outside our walls. That’s a big part of the book’s delicious sense of the unexpected, its integration of the ordinary and bizarre.
In Origin Story, two old friends get drunk on beer at the abandoned “Land of Oz theme park” — a nod, perhaps, to George Saunders’ fiction that Link makes entirely her own. “I always think it looks a lot more real now,” one says to the other. “The way it’s falling all to pieces. The way the Yellow Brick Road is disappearing. It makes it feel like Oz was a real place. Being abandoned makes you more real, you know?”
In Light, a woman named Lindsay, who manages a warehouse full of people stricken with a sleeping sickness, reflects on her marriage to a 7-foot-tall alien named Elliot, although in every way that matters, her world is a lot like ours. “The vice president was under investigation,” Link explains; “evidence suggested a series of secret dealings with malign spirits. A woman had given birth to half a dozen rabbits. A local gas station had been robbed by invisible men. Some cult had thrown all the infidels out of a popular pocket universe. Nothing new in other words.”
Link has long written in this middle ground between the mundane and the unusual; her debut book of short fiction, Stranger Things Happen, came out in 2001. With her husband, Gavin Grant, she runs Small Beer Press, an independent publisher in Massachusetts, and from 2004 to 2008 co-edited the anthology series Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. That’s a lot to manage, which may be why Get in Trouble is her first book for adult readers in 10 years. The payoff, however, is that it resonates with depth and maturity, the sense of a writer using genre for her purposes rather than the other way around.
Not all the stories here traffic in the fantastic — or they do in subtle ways. The Lesson centers on a gay couple waiting on a surrogate to give birth to their child; when the baby comes, it is many weeks premature.
“It seems dangerous to Thanh to make demands of God, of the universe, of a muddy hole. How can he anticipate the thing that he ought to wish for?” Link writes, describing the paradox of any parent with a child at risk. And yet, in another way, Thanh stands in for all of us, submerged in a life that goes its own way, in which to ask for anything is a presumption it may be safer not to exert.
Link is at her best writing about young women: parent traumas, friendship dramas, the treachery of finding a place for themselves. Secret Identity — the story of that superhero convention — is narrated by a 15-year-old who has run away from Keokuk, Iowa, to a hotel in Manhattan, where she plans to hook up with a man she met online. She is smart and also tragic, by turns lost and self-aware. “Anyway. Part Two,” she announces in the middle of the story. “In which I go on writing about myself in the third person. In which I continue to act stupidly. Stop reading if you want.”
The trick, of course, is that we can’t stop reading, that we — like she, like so many of the characters in this collection — are hopelessly engaged.
Something similar occurs in The New Boyfriend, where Link explicates, with ruthless exactitude, the familiar mix of love and hate between a teenager named Immy and her best friend, Ainslie, who gets everything she wants. That this includes three Boyfriends, life-size animatronic companions, is incidental and entirely to the point. “Let’s all get fake drunk and have fake fun with Ainslie and her fake Boyfriends,” Immy thinks. “Because she’s fairly sure that all of this is fake, this whole night, the way she finds herself acting around Ainslie and Elin and Sky tonight, maybe this whole year. And if it’s not fake, if it’s all real, this fun, these friends, this life, then that’s even worse, isn’t it?”
This is the central tension of Get in Trouble, between the artificial and the actual, between what we think we want and who we really are. The stories here are effective because we believe them, not just their situations but also their hearts.
“You could go a long ways in and never come out again,” Link observes in Light, describing a phenomenon known as the pocket universe, a small and self-contained parallel reality. “You could start your own country out there and do whatever you liked, and yet most of the people Lindsey knew, herself included, had never done anything more adventurous than go for a week to some place where the food and the air and the landscape seemed like something out of a book you’d read as a child; a brochure; a dream.”
What Link is describing is the difficulty of world building, which is, to be certain, a challenge these stories confront. With Get in Trouble, she has created a series of fully articulated pocket universes, animated by a three-dimensional sense of character, of life.
David L. Ulin reviewed this book for the Los Angeles Times.