Get in Trouble: Stories by Kelly Link

Get In TroubleKelly Link found a new way to trek across the globe, all expenses paid. After graduating from Columbia University and before heading to graduate school, she won a sweepstakes by correctly answering a few trivia questions. The tiebreaker involved explaining why she wanted to travel around the world. Link’s response? “Because you can’t go through it.” The judges thought that was brilliant and awarded her the prize.

This kind of quirky thinking scratches at the heart of why Get in Trouble, the Nebula Award-winning author’s first collection of stories for adults in ten years (since “Magic for Beginners” in 2005), is so unique. With a delicately balanced mix of the utterly mundane and the bewitchingly fantastical, each of the nine stories offers something at once relatable and slightly off-kilter to chew on.

Some traffic heavily in the bizarre. Take the collection’s first offering, “The Summer People” (an homage to Shirley Jackson’s creepy play of the same name, perhaps?). Set in backwoods Appalachia, the story shadows teenage Fran as she struggles to get over the flu while maintaining her responsibilities as the sole caretaker of the summer people who live in a cottage down the lane. When Fran’s friend Ophelia offers to take over, what awaits her resembles a hallucinatory mash-up of a hoarder’s paradise and an Alice in Wonderland-like alternate reality that both hypnotizes and terrifies — a war room stuffed with battle-making toys that come to life, another that promises its guests their heart’s desire, hallways overloaded with “fusty stacks of magazines and catalogs and newspapers … doll’s legs and silverware sets … cut silhouettes and Polaroids and tintypes and magazine pictures on the wall alongside the stairs, layers upon layers upon layers; hundreds and hundreds of eyes watching.”

Others lean toward science fiction. In “Light,” a 38-year-old ex-librarian with two shadows manages a warehouse of perpetually sleeping people and laments her broken marriage to a tall, pale, and handsome alien from a parallel reality called a “pocket universe.” In “Two Houses,” a group of astronauts in 2059 sit around telling ghost stories while the scenes play themselves out on the wall like clips from an old movie reel. One particularly unsettling mindbender involves an art installation the teller’s ex-boyfriend inhabited as a child: two haunted houses next-door to each other, one a murder house and the other, an exact replica.

“Can the real live people who go and walk around in one house or the other, or even better, the ones who live in a house without knowing which house is which, would they know which one was real and which one was ersatz?” she asks. “Would they see real ghosts in the real house? Imagine they saw ghosts in the fake one?”

Clearly Link’s goal isn’t just to see how far out she can get, though “I Can See Right Through You” (featuring a nudist colony, a jilted demon, and a much sought-after sex tape) and “Valley of the Girls” (whose liberal sprinkling of distracting stylistic quirks might cause less patient readers to flip to the next story) veer into more weird-for-weird’s-sake territory than the other accessible seven in the bunch. Instead, the combination of tight writing and an immaculately timed flair for the unexpected speaks to the integrity of the collection.

In a nod to Pretty Monsters, her 2008 collection for young adults, Link’s strongest and most convincing stories unfold inside the earnest, murky realm of adolescence, where teenagers flirt, dream, and stretch the boundaries of their limitations (often unsuccessfully). In “Secret Identity,” 15-year-old Iowan Billie Faggart masquerades as her sexier, divorced, more mature older sister and attempts to rendezvous at a hotel in Manhattan with an unsuspecting 34-year-old man she met online. That the hotel is overrun by dentists and superheroes from two separate but simultaneous conventions isn’t crucial to the crux of the story, but it sure adds humor to the cacophony of disasters that soon transpire (hint: a freezer full of superheroes constructed out of butter).

“The New Boyfriend” takes place during a birthday party where a gaggle of pre-teens gulps down absinthe while trading gossip and presents. When Immy, the most soft-spoken and jealousy-prone of the group, secretly acts on her desire to possess everything of Ainslie’s — including Ainslie’s new life-sized animatronic boyfriend doll, Ghost Boyfriend — what happens next is both comically absurd and strangely realistic. “What if the Immy they see is the real Immy, and the one on the inside is just hormones and chemicals and too many little secrets and weird jumbled thoughts that don’t mean anything, after all?” she thinks.

What’s real? What’s imaginary? Eh, these questions aren’t so much the point; it’s the interplay of the two that matters. While it is true that fans of more straightforward fiction like Alice Munro’s might find Link’s writing to be a smidge too clever, too intentionally peculiar at times, if traveling through worlds instead of around them seems like an interesting notion, Get in Trouble won’t disappoint.

 

Originally ran in The Oregonian (February 11, 2015)

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