Kelly Link’s latest collection of short stories, Get in Trouble, takes the cliché “stranger than fiction” as a challenge. In so doing, it scores a triumphant victory for the weird imagination. In “Light,” people have access to “pocket universes,” surreal and dangerous escapes with fantastic inhabitants who wreak havoc on the real world when overzealous tourists bring them home. For example, the demise of swimming pools is blamed on an infestation of adorable, acrimonious mermaids.
Each of Link’s stories is its own pocket universe, causing mayhem in the lives of its otherwise mundane characters. This universe is populated with animatronic boyfriends, that one is inhabited with immortal demon lovers who moonlight as reality show hosts, still another is haunted by shadows that develop distinct personalities, crash on your couch, and raid your liquor cabinet. Yet all of Link’s characters possess familiar flaws, hopes, frustrations, and fears—especially fears. For those of us longing for an adult version of Roald Dahl’s delicious cocktail of wonder, magic, darkness, and cruelty, we can prepare to drink up.
In the collection’s opener, “The Summer People,” we are introduced to Fran, an adolescent girl living in the mountains of North Carolina. Fran is a beholden attendant to the mysterious summer people. Like her mother before her, she does their laundry and runs errands for them whenever they communicate with her telepathically. They repay her in odd, supernatural gifts, including a handkerchief that unfolds into a cozy cottage. The origin of the familiar relationship remains ambiguous, but there are forebodings that they possess a power that won’t allow Fran to leave or rebel. This relationship may seem like the premise of an alternate reality series of young adult novels, but the summer people are only one of many oppressors in Fran’s life. They join her alcoholic and sometimes evangelical father and a debilitating flu that makes her head feel “stuffed with boiled wool and snot” (5).
Even the two superhero protagonists of “Origin Story” worry more about wasting away in the small town where they grew up than they do about thwarting the evil-doings of an archnemesis. Link may have been one of those kids who read a comic book and asked herself, “What happens when Batman has to go to the bathroom?” However, she doesn’t stop with mere curiosities; through the mundane lives of Biscuit and Bunnatine, she also wonders if superheroes procrastinate, if they can prevent creepy men from making passes at waitresses in small diners, or if they are any better at communicating their feelings than the average couple. The answers are yes, no, and definitely not.
Link seems consistently uninterested in how the supernatural elements in each story came to be and certainly has no intention of exploring every implication of the existence of superheros or parallel dimensions. If anything, her stories reveal how ordinary the extraordinary might feel to the inhabitants of these strange worlds. In the story, “The Lesson,” she openly criticizes the notion of wishing for supernatural solutions to the sources of one’s anxiety. Here, she tells the story of a gay couple, Than and Harper, who have traveled hundreds of miles to a secluded private island for a friend’s wedding while their surrogate mother, Naomi, is at home, seven months pregnant with their first child. The story is told from Than’s perspective. Than constantly second-guesses things: their decision to come to the wedding, his partner’s suitability as a parent, and their surrogate’s ability to surrender the baby without forming an attachment. He is so consumed with uncertainty over his immediate future that he’s afraid to make a wish at the mythical sinkhole in the middle of the island:
Should he wish that the baby inside Naomi stays inside a little longer? What would be the cost of that wish? Should he wish that the baby will live? If he lives, let him be healthy and happy. He could wish that Naomi will not wish to keep the baby. He could wish to be a good father. That Harper would be a good father. Would that be a good wish? A safe wish? It seems dangerous to Than to make demands of God, of the universe, of a muddy hole. How can he anticipate the thing he ought to wish for? (204-205)
It is clear that Link believes there is no such thing as a safe wish, no magical solutions that don’t conceal dramatic and unexpected consequences.
Although Link writes about a broad range of character types and settings, she clearly relishes stories told from the disaffected perspective of a teenager. In “Secret Identity” and “The New Boyfriend,” she captures the unfortunate blend of self-consciousness, self-absorption, and impulsiveness of her young female protagonists. These girls are envious of their peers, encumbered by sexual curiosity, and uncertain how they fit into the rapidly approaching world of adulthood. Link’s narration carries all of these feelings as the characters plunge themselves into ill-advised pursuits. In “Secret Identity,” the teenaged Billie has hopped a bus from Iowa to New York for a romantic rendezvous with an older man she met while playing an online game and whom she has tricked into believing she is her 31-year-old sister. The story takes the form of a letter later written to this man in an attempt to explain why she would want to pretend to be someone else. Billie explains, “I’m not good at the friends thing. I’m the human equivalent of one of those baby birds that falls out of a nest and then some nice person comes along and puts it back. Except that now the baby bird smells all wrong. I think I smell wrong” (85). In “The New Boyfriend,” Immy, Ainsle, Elin, and Sky are a group of best girlfriends who know each other so well they know to dutifully ignore Ainsle’s request that they don’t bring presents to her birthday party. Link tells the story from Immy’s perspective, infusing the narration with a long, festering jealousy toward Ainsle who Immy loves best, but also “hates best” (216). All Immy wants is a “Boyfriend,” a sort of artificially intelligent, post-pubescent equivalent of an American Girl doll, programmed to walk, talk, dance, and fall in love with their owners. Immy fumes when Ainsle gets a third “Ghost Boyfriend” for her birthday, and the more privileged Ainsle dismisses her envy by telling her one can’t take these Boyfriends too seriously. Link writes, “In [Immy’s] opinion, in order to not take a Boyfriend seriously, you have to have a Boyfriend in the first place and only Ainsle has one. (Two.) (Three.)” (216). Many of Immy’s casual observations are cut with this same bitterness, so it is hardly a surprise when she takes drastic measures later in the story to claim a Boyfriend as her own.
Link’s stories are dark, magical, mystical, highly-specific, and strange. Her characters are deeply-flawed, recognizable, and haunted by ghosts both real and self-inflicted. But the reading experience is all just so much fun. Each setting is a surprise, from the abandoned Wizard of Oz theme park in the Blue Ridge mountains, to a full-fledged Egyptian pyramid that is a must-have among elite teenage girls in a futuristic Southern California, to the hotel hosting competing dentist and superhero conventions (in Link’s world dentistry and superheroism are equally humdrum professions). The readers she is most likely to frustrate are those who insist on putting labels on a story or an author. (I wrestled for twenty minutes about whether or not Link’s stories should be considered YA before abandoning the silly notion altogether). The rest of us can fix a drink and enjoy each dollop of surreal realism.
Link, Kelly. Get in Trouble. Random House, 2015.