Kelly Link throws a mean sucker punch. Her latest short story collection, Get in Trouble, is calculated to get you — to draw you in under one premise, and then take you somewhere else entirely. It explores modern America through her special blend of genre-busting surrealism. Exploring various landscapes such as rural North Carolina, Florida swamps, and Southern California, Link exposes the inherent weirdness of our everyday lives. She spins out alternate realities based on the already-established facts of our existence, like online dating, personal digital gadgets, and fading television stars.
If there’s a thread connecting these stories, it’s that all of the characters are already in trouble. Whether experiencing the toxic peer-pressure of teenage years, or alcoholism and ennui of early adulthood, or the tension and boredom that builds in a long-term relationship, every character has already found themself in a bind, whether emotional or practical. What is fascinating to watch — other than Link’s inventive magical intrusions — is the way these all-too-human, all-too-familiar characters deal with their problems.
Get in Trouble may be Link’s strongest collection to date. In the past, I relished the more fantastic elements of her writing. But in reading this collection, I was blown away by the bizarreness of normal human interactions. Link is able to twist the lens enough, turn it 33 degrees left, so that we suddenly see how strange — and by strange I mean both fantastic and horrifying — our real lives already are.
In “I Can See Right Through You,” the protagonist, an aging actor in the middle of a sex scandal, is called “the demon lover.” This nod to vampire lore was distracting enough that I didn’t notice until the second read what Link was really showing me. The demon lover is just a guy heading straight into middle-age. Fame is the real weirdness in the story, the thing that makes his life surreal. Like in the following section:
Your fans will: Offer their necks at premieres. . . . Ask if you will bite their wives. Their daughters. They will cut themselves with a razor in front of you.
The appropriate reaction is —
There is no appropriate reaction.
Another story, “Secret Identity,” takes place at a hotel hosting two conventions: one for dentists, and one for superheroes. The presence of superheroes is another of Link’s red herrings, masking the chewy chocolate center of creepiness: the fact that a 15-year-old girl has come to New York to meet a 34-year-old man she met online.
The stories in Get in Trouble sometimes seem meandering. There’s not a lot of identifiable three-act-structure action in these stories; they just seem to float along. At least one of them, “Origin Story,” is just a conversation between two old friends, with some flashbacks. But the submerged lines of plot reveal themselves through the voices of the characters. Link is incredible at nailing different voices, like that of teen girls in “The New Boyfriend.” Immy, the protagonist, thinks about her relationship to her best friend, Ainslie: “Immy’s heart isn’t as big as Ainslie’s heart. Immy loves Ainslie best. She also hates her best. She’s had a lot of practice at both.” Through lines like this, Link exposes tensions that drive the characters to (and sometimes through) self-destructive actions.
At the same time, there’s a lot of humor here. This is another way Link consistently surprises me. She sucks me into a story where the emotional stakes are high, with tension, angst, and untold secrets, and then unleashes zingers like: “Everybody naked, nobody happy,” and Bunnatine’s diatribe about Angel’s “evil pants” in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But then, in the midst of weirdness, angst, and sardonic humor, she’ll hit you with profundity to take your breath away, like she does at the end of “The Lesson:” “All loved ones suffer. Love is not enough to prevent this. Love is not enough. Love is enough. The thing that you wished for. Was this it?”
My favorite stories in this collection were “The Summer People,” “Valley of the Girls,” and “Two Houses.” The first, “The Summer People,” was the most straightforward of the stories, and also the most magical. In it, a teenage girl named Fran takes care of a house of fairies in Appalachia, with the help of her friend Ophelia.
“Valley of the Girls” was a challenging read that paid off major dividends once I understood what was happening. It is a doomed love story based in a modern-day Southern California where rich people live a lifestyle similar to that of Egyptian pharaohs, building big pyramids, practicing Egyptian death rites, and even using cartouches around their own proper names.
And the premise of “Two Houses” was thrilling: a mind-bendy ghost story told in space, on a haunted spaceship. It reminded me a little bit of Solaris, if Solaris happened to a group of young women celebrating a birthday party, and made me mad that I didn’t think of it first.
Link is already an icon for people who like weird fiction, which is no small potatoes, but I have a feeling that Get in Trouble is going to be her breakthrough collection onto the mainstream literary scene; the book has blurbs from Alice Sebold, Karen Russell, and Michael Chabon. She deserves it.
I read this as an ARC first, and then listened to it on audiobook (Random House Audio). Whoever casts the voice actors for Kelly Link books does a great job. Just as with Magic for Beginners, this audio recording used a different voice actor for each story, to great effect. The actors made the wry, understated, but distinctive voices of the characters come alive. It was a thoroughly enjoyable listen.