Kelly Link has been in the business of tearing down genre boundaries long before her first short story collection, Stranger Things Happen, debuted in 2001. When I first encountered this book — its pages filled with fairytale characters, haunted cellos, and blonde aliens — I remember thinking, She isn't allowed to do this, even as I swooned over her daring style and talent for creating relatable characters in the oddest, most unfamiliar worlds.
With her latest collection, Get in Trouble (Random House), Kelly Link has finally finished what she started more than a decade ago — she has obliterated genre. These stories take a wrecking ball to labels like “literary realism,” “science fiction,” “fairytales,” and “magical realism,” and then build something beautiful, complex, and intricately imaginative from the rubble. Get in Trouble shows us the breadth of artistic expression — and underscores Link’s incredible ability to defamiliarize the familiar.
Get in Trouble is, in many ways, a book about escape. The opening short story, “The Summer People,” begins straightforward enough with a young girl living on a farm under the care of her neglectful alcoholic father. But the story’s world turns upside down when we discover that the baubles Fran owns — an egg that hatches into a chattering monkey, a silver minnow that grants small wishes — belonged to the summer people who live nearby and send Fran messages and errand requests via telepathy. In one passage, Fran directly addresses her desire for escape: “‘My daddy thinks everyone is going to hell,’ Fran said from under the counterpane. I don’t care where I go, as long as it ain’t here and he’s not there.’”
In "Secret Identity," a 15-year-old girl writes a letter to her former online lover after he stands her up at their prearranged rendezvous site — a hotel hosting, simultaneously, a superhero and a dentist convention. The heroine of another story, “The New Boyfriend,” steals her friend’s Ghost Boyfriend — a life-sized robot with “spectral” and “embodied” settings, programmed to spew a litany of trite love euphemisms — and hides him in a storage locker.
Kelly Link has finally finished what she started more than a decade ago — she has obliterated genre.
Although much of Link’s collection tramps through bildungsroman territory, the characters are not all young girls. Link also explores coming-of-age impulses in her male protagonists and in her adult female heroines, though nearly all of these characters share a trait common among adolescents: They harbor a deep and destructive uncertainty about their identities, and they’re terrified of the people they will or have become. Not only do they want out of their particular messes, they want out desperately, and they and will do whatever it takes to realize their escape. What these characters can’t know, but what Kelly Link teaches us in reading their stories, is that life never unfolds as they assume it will, and no matter where they go, they’ll always be there to create new messes for themselves.
The collection’s title — Get in Trouble — demonstrates beautifully this thematic cohesiveness. As a reader, you can rely on these characters to take risks, to get in trouble, often in tragicomic ways. In “I Can See Right Through You,” a protagonist called “the demon lover” makes a sex tape with someone other than his wife, gets nude on camera for a second time, and goes to see his ex-lover in the midst of a marital crisis. Like the demon lover, when given the option to do the rational (stay home) and the irrational (usually involving alcohol), each of Link’s characters chooses to leap wildly into the abyss.
In Get in Trouble, Link's signature maximalism leads readers into highly detailed worlds in which frozen iguanas, brass monkeys, pocket universes, nude ghost-hunters, and other oddities not only feel real, but strangely familiar. Link has also nailed down the architectures of her stories — the subheadings, the white-space-as-transitions, the manipulations of time — and gained efficiency and control. And despite the stories’ heft (the shortest story is 22 pages), her highly stylized techniques never bemire the narrative; in fact, they’re precisely the shape the heartbreaking truths of these characters needed to come alive.
Get in Trouble has earned a permanent residence on my bookshelf. It’s a book I’ll carry with me and return to again and again, at every stage of life, to rediscover its wisdom and its realistic yet idiosyncratic views of the universe. I’m tempted to sum up its lessons here, in this last paragraph, because they’re so vital, but I’m sure everyone will find something different to cling to in these pages. My advice: Go read this book. Do it now.
Images: Sharona Jacobs Photography/Kellylink.net (2)