New Wave Fabulism, New Weird, Magical Realism… Kelly Link’s fiction has been described under a number of labels, and they all inevitably feel insufficient. Her new collection, Get in Trouble, brings with it characteristics that undoubtedly belong to the above categories. Nonetheless, to describe these stories as strictly belonging to any particular genre, regardless of how broad or specific, feels insufficient to account for the meticulous care invested in her prose and the manner in which style is used to bolster plot and character. This new collection contains speculative ingredients that will be familiar to any fan of her previous work — animate objects that should be inanimate, strange simulacra that might have traveled from the pages of a Philip K. Dick novel, unconventional superheroes and ghosts, and mysterious disappearances. But these ingredients are often the gateways to the human issues underlying each story’s trajectory that are manifest in any work of top quality fiction, such as experiences of longing, uncertain identity, and the resolution of past traumas. There is a sense of playfulness with the strange elements of the stories that is delicately juxtaposed with the most serious of life’s anxieties, which is a rare feat for any author to be able to achieve, much less to accomplish it as successfully as these works manage.
Much of Link’s fiction operates in an allusive manner, carefully paying homage to predecessors while de- and reconstructing some of their stories and characters into things that become entirely new entities. The collection opens with “The Summer People,” a likely nod to the Shirley Jackson classic. While the Jackson story derives its sense of disquiet from the seemingly mundane, Link’s story is rich with the bizarre and demonstrates that what might be strange to one person could be perfectly normal to another. Context determines the bizarre, and what is strange to one person might bring to another the same trappings of day-to-day drudgery and longing to escape as we all experience in the “normal” world. Other stories interact in unique ways with Ray Bradbury, Frank Baum, and Egyptian mythology, but are never fully dependent on the reader recognizing the allusions for the story to have a powerful impact. “Light”, another of the strongest in the collection, takes a trope explored by Weird luminaries Alfred Kubin, Eric Basso, and others — a mysterious epidemic of persons afflicted with inescapable sleep — and forms it into something entirely different, but no less unsettling.
One of the strongest pieces, “I Can See Right Through You,” works as a kind of disjointed character study of an aging film star and his lengthy (and possibly not entirely natural) relationship with a costar. Disappearance and loss form the lens through which we see the protagonist, forming a sort of overture for a theme that is explored extensively in this collection: what are ghosts, in a modern sense of the word? This question comes back in several stories, such as “Two Houses” and “The New Boyfriend.” Whether explained as a disappearance or a missed connection, most of the characters in these stories are searching for someone who is never fully there or can never be fully understood. “Secret Identity”, in its turn, takes the form of a lengthy e-mail sent to a person who is never present in any definite sense. In this story, Link focuses heavily on a girl’s coming of age and first experiences with romantic love in what seems to be the 21st century. “The New Boyfriend” explores similar territory, and they each succeed at creating rich characters with whom the reader can empathize in a short space. In both cases, the objects of their affections are defined by the ways in which they are absent. Whether these are realistic absences or something more bizarre is beside the point.
Another of the collection’s highlights is “Two Houses”, which is one of the most interesting takes on the ghost tale I’ve ever read and may be my favorite Kelly Link story. Using a perfectly constructed Russian doll structure, much like her earlier work, “Lull”, it indicates that the author is able and willing to continue to push the boundaries of how we perceive certain genres. “Two Houses” first appeared in a collection of works inspired by Ray Bradbury, and Bradbury fans will certainly catch the allusions, but the story stands perfectly well on its own merits. The interactions between frame and nested stories are perfectly constructed in a manner that is perhaps more refined and restrained than “Lull”, and the effect this has on the reader is indicative of Link at her best. When a group of future astronauts awakens from a deep sleep, they ponder the “mystery” of what happened to their sister ship, which disappeared some time into the voyage. Sprinkled throughout, the group entertains itself with ghost tales that intersect in bizarre, unsettling ways with the present. Like “The New Boyfriend”, this story again forces the reader to ask, “what is a ‘ghost’ and what does it mean to us in our present, specific context?” To parody the shifting significance of ghost tales in human history, the ship’s A.I. changes the setting to accompany the tale being told, and at times performs the function of a ghost in its own way. “Two Houses” works perfectly as an intriguing deconstruction of the tropes that make up the story’s costume, and the result has lingered with me for quite a long time after initially reading it over a year ago.
“The Lesson”, though not one of the strongest pieces in Get in Trouble, had some truly touching (and terrifying) moments while tracing a couple’s anxieties over the birth of a daughter via a surrogate mother. Although it might have benefited from a less explicitly pointed ambiguity at its conclusion, it contains one of the strongest images in the entire collection — a juxtaposition of birth with the eruption of black beetles from a work of taxidermy — a perfect summation of the combination of joy, fear, life, and death that the characters are attempting to navigate. “Valley of the Girls” mashes together Egyptian mythology and the misadventures of the wealthy in a world that is a slight sidestep from our own. While also not one of the collection’s standout pieces, it contains perhaps the most interesting way of looking at issues of class which, though present in other stories, remain closer to the surface in this one.
If there is a single unifying theme that runs through the works in Get in Trouble, it is that identity is uncertain, even while we are compelled by external events to find certainty. These uncertainties may sometimes manifest in the guise of speculative story elements, but they are instantly recognizable and resonant: nurses refusing to use names for babies (“The Lesson”), customizable video game characters that can be sold, scrapped, or recreated differently (“Secret Identity”), allusions to heroes who don’t know they’re heroes (“Origin Story”), a character stating that she doesn’t know what she is and must one day find out (“The Summer People”), and a woman with an extra shadow that has gradually become a real, distinct person (“Light”). Link often connects questions of identity to her thoughtful allusions, suggesting that we are, at least in part, defined by the stories we tell ourselves, whose meaning is fluid and changes with context. The prose in most of these stories is a kind of minimalism that itself works in service of these questions of identity. Often, dialogue markers are left out, attributions are sparse and deliberately basic, and characters at times become subordinated to a group personality. This tendency creates much of the subtle sense of disquiet that makes Link’s fiction a pleasure to read, reread, and dissect.
Make no mistake, these are sophisticated stories that almost always withhold an easy “solution”, exhibiting China Miéville’s “unsatisfy me, frustrate me” sentiment perfectly. The works in Get in Trouble are in part about humans trying to connect with one another, but they’re just as much about figuring out if they’re actually human or something else entirely. These explorations of identity show a constant tension between a character’s choice and external determining factors, which is an old discussion, but placed it within new, bold, and exciting contexts. At the core of these stories are issues that form the foundation of any strong work of fiction — longing, uncertainty, fear, a desire to escape an inescapable past — Link has simply added other questions, like “What if the person I long for isn’t a real person?” and “What do we even mean by placing a partition between ‘real’ and ‘unreal’?”