As a long-time devotee of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (reading the entire catalog of awardees was the first biblio-goal I set for myself – and actually accomplished – years ago), I was hungry for a way to work the 2016 prize process into my current “Year of Reading Women” project. Since both of this year’s finalist works were authored by women, including those works in the repertoire of this project seemed an obvious step.
First up, Kelly Link’s collection of short stories, “Get in Trouble”. This collection was my first exposure to Kelly Link’s work, though she has been publishing stories for the past two decades. What I learned in my introduction is that Kelly Link is a warped, twisted, talented force whose stories are fantastical and yet eerily believable. They are the fantasy of a dream state. They are powerful. And they are brilliantly executed.
Link clearly possesses the dexterity and gift that I believe is fundamental to successful short fiction – the ability to create in just a few key strokes fully developed, complex, and compelling characters. With fantasy writing, however, this gift has a further potential barrier which Link clears with ease – rapid, seamless world-building. So many of Link’s stories take place in a time and space that is undefined and yet deliberately described. Her brand of fantasy is not sci-fi or straightforward futurism. Instead, Link dips her toes into the spectral, the super-powered, and the parallel universe.
In the story “Secret Identity”, Link switches point of view from paragraph to paragraph with no warning, no cues, and no delineation. For some readers this practice could be utterly disorienting and at the hands of most authors it would be ill-advised. In this instance, however, I found it fascinating and persuasive. The practice seemed revelatory to the characters’ struggles with identity and sense of self and with the incongruities between inner thoughts and outer appearances.
“I’m the human equivalent of one of those baby birds that falls out of a nest and then some nice person picks the baby bird up and puts it back. Except that now the baby bird smells all wrong. I think I smell wrong.”
As another example of both Link’s trope and her tone throughout this collection, I turn to the story “Valley of the Girls”, in which many of the younger characters are made invisible while hired ‘Faces’ fill their roles for several years.
“When you are as rich as the Olds are, you are your own brand. That’s what their people are always telling them. Your children are an extension of your brand. They can improve your Q rating or they can degrade it. Mostly they can degrade it. So there’s the device they implant that makes us invisible to cameras. The Entourage. And then there’s the Face. Who is a nobody, a real person, who comes and takes your place at the table. They get an education, the best health care, a salary, all the nice clothes and all the same toys that you get. They get your parents whenever the Olds’ team decides there’s a need or an opportunity. If you go online, or turn on the TV, there they are, being you. Being better than you will ever be at being you. When you look at yourself in the mirror, you have to be careful, or you’ll start to feel very strange. Is that really you?”
Kelly Link’s “Get in Trouble” was edgy and assertive. Her style of writing, her voice, and her story lines push boundaries, and they do so with confidence and conviction. This mind-bending, mystical sort of writing is both unnerving and irresistible. What’s more, I felt the strength of the feminine in Link’s writing. Even when her stories dipped into the dystopian or the misogynistic, they did so with clear intent, challenging the norms and expectations that limit her female characters. She is the feminist voice to George Saunders’ genre. It is a voice I welcome and look forward to exploring for decades to come.