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Monday, March 2, 2015

Kelly Link: "Get in Trouble: Stories"

Author:  Kelly Link
Series:  Get in Trouble: Stories
Plot Type:  Fantasy (short stories) 
Publisher:  Random House (2/2015)     


     If you like Shirley Jackson's short stories and Karen Russells' novels (like Swamplandia), you'll no doubt enjoy Link's anthology. I love this comment in the Publishers Weekly review of the book: "Like Kafka hosting Saturday Night Live, Link mixes humor with existential dread." Link plays with a wide range of imaginative and disparate elements: dreams and reality, truths and lies, friendship and rivalry, and escapism and capitulation. People tend to disappear and sometimes to reappear. The most interesting aspect of the book is that each story is set in a completely different world, all equally fascinating. The end of each tale leaves you wanting to stay a little longer just to see what happens next to these quirky characters. Several selections have the shivery creepiness of Rod Serling's classic Twilight Zone episodes (which are available for viewing on Amazon Prime, Hulu, and the Syfy Channel).

               THE STORIES               
1.  "The Summer People"
Quote: Here, the summer people provide a cure for Fran's feverish flu: "A lipstick-sized vial of pearly glass, an enameled green snake clasped round, its tail the stopper. Fran tugged at the tail, and the serpent uncoiled. A pole ran out the mouth of the bottle, and a silk rag unfurled. Embroidered upon it were the words DRINK ME."

     Teen-age Fran lives with her ne'er-do-well daddy in a ramshackle cottage in the mountains and hollers of the Appalachians. Daddy is a hard-drinking bootlegger of sorts who goes off in search of religion each time he surfaces from one of his destructive binges, leaving Fran behind to take care of the small cabin they rent out to tourists. Fran isn't alone, though. Daddy leaves her to be cared for—and to take care of—the summer people, who are shy and mysterious people/creatures/faeries (?) who inhabit a run-down house just down the road. Fran lives a life of duty that is enhanced only by fantastical toys and magical elixirs. This is a portrait of a vulnerable young girl born into a life she never would have chosen. Then one day she resumes a childhood friendship, and that experience provides her with the perfect opportunity to achieve her heart's desire.

2.  "I Can See Right Through You"

Quote: "It's an end-of-the-world sky, a snakes-and-ladders landscape: low emerald trees pulled lower by vines; chalk and apricot anthills (the demon lover imagines the bones of a nudist under every one); shallow water-filled declivities scummed with algae, lime and gold and black…A storm is coming."

     As you read this story, you have to trust the narrator—Will, the demon lover—as he moves backwards and forwards in time to tell us about his life and his on-and-off relationship with his only true love, Meggie. Will is an aging actor who hit the big time early in his career when he played a vampire lover who seduced Meggie, the innocent ingenue, in a hit movie. Ever since then, he has been plagued by his vampire image. Even when he and Meggie briefly lived together as lovers, women would stalk him, begging him to bite them. Now, the demon lover is nearly 50 years old, and his life is on a downhill spiral, partly because of an embarrassing sex tape that has gone viral on the Internet. Every time Will's life goes sour, he cries on Meggie's shoulder before going back to his dissolute life. Meggie is now the host of a ghost-hunter reality show, so Will stops in for a visit to her current location, hoping against hope that they can get back together. Meggie is looking for ghosts in a muddy Florida swampland that used to be a nudist colony before 22 naked people disappeared from it without a trace. An uneasy visit and a mysterious ending ensue. Oh yes, I forgot to mention that when Meggie was a young girl, a Ouija board gave her a very insistent message to which she should have paid more attention.

3.  "Secret Identity"
Quote: "Billy walks aimlessly. Gawks at the gawkworthy. Pleasurably ponders a present for her sister...Caped superheroes swoop and wheel and dip around the Empire State Building. No crime in progress. Show business."

      This is a ripped-from-headlines story in which 15-almost-16 Billy Faggart, an inveterate gamer, writes a letter to 34-year-old Paul Zellavatar/boyfriend/possible predatorin which she describes what happens to her after she arrives in Manhattan after running (actually, busing) away from her small-town Iowa home. Billy and Paul had planned to meet up at this particular hotel, which happens to be hosting two conventions, one for dentists and one for superheroesreal superheroes, not the costumed, comic-con kind. At one hilarious point, the two conventions intersect: "There are new boards up announcing that free teeth-whitening sessions are available in suite 412 for qualified superheroes." Billy has been pretending to be her much-older sister, a teacher back in Kansas, but she believes that Paul Zell will forgive her lies and maintain their romantic relationship when they actually meet in person. 

     The story has a layer of pathos that underscores Billy's naiveté and amplifies our fear for her safety, but it also has some wry humor involving the superheroes, who are auditioning for sidekicks and keep making the mistake of believing that Billy is there on a job search. The story twists and turns, introducing quirky characters, but always keeping the Paul Zell story line simmering in the background. This one is my favorite in the book.

4.  "Valley of the Girls"
 Quote: We get a plot clue when the narrator gives us this insight: "I never got into the Egyptian thing the way the girls did. I always liked the Norse gods better. You know. Loki. The slaying of Baldur. Ragnarok."

     Link gives us a twist on the Hero-Leander myth as she mixes modern pop-star celebrity culture with ancient Egyptian mythology, setting her story in a weirdly futuristic America that features shallow young members of Hollywood royalty (think teen-age Kardashians) who have three different identitiestwo living and one after death:

     > their body doubles (ba), called Faces: A Face is a person who assumes a young celebrity's identity, providing him or her with a scandal-free public presence even while under the constant scrutiny of the paparazzi. A Face is "a nobody, a real person, who comes and takes your place at the table…Being better than you will ever be at being you."

     > their real-life personas (ka): This is the behind-the-scenes real person who does the stupid things that shallow, rich young people have done throughout the ages. Their real-life personas are invisible to cameras so their future reputations are protected from their often-disastrous mistakes. No embarrassing photos on Facebook or Instagram. 

     > after-death personalities (Akh): They represent a reuniting of the ba and ka that results in the creation of an immortal entity. 

     The story emphasizes the disconnect between the public face and the private face. Here, the narrator tries to catch the attention of his sister's Face: "I tried to catch her eye, clowning in my latex leggings, but I was invisible. Every gesture, every word was for them, for him. The cameras. My Face. And me? A speck of nothing. Not even a blot. Negative space." Each one has a fancy pyramid, a secret burial chamber filled with expensive personal possessions for their afterlives. This story is difficult to summarize without spoilers because so many of the world-building details and essential plot elements are not revealed until late in the story. The lead character is a drug-using, hard-partying profligate whose sister despairs over his dissolute life. When he goes too far, she takes matters into her own hands. Note: The characters' names are written as cartouches, each one in a horizontal frame. This story requires some background info (click on the pink links), but it pays off in the end as a modern allegory about fame and fate.

5.  "Origin Story"
Quote: "The parlor floor now slanted and when you went out through the (back) front door, there was a pair of stockinged plaster legs sticking out from under the house. A pair of ruby slippers. A yellow brick road. You weren't in North Carolina anymore"

     Bunnatine Powderfinger, a waitress in her later 20s, spends a summer evening in the ruins of a Land of Oz theme park with her lover, Biscuit, a superhero who comes back to his hometown only occasionally when he takes a break between his saving-the-world adventures. As Bunnatine drifts (both physically and emotionally) between dreams and reality, she leaves it to the reader to figure out the truth of her life. This is a heartbreaking story of a girl left behind to deal alone with the consequences of the errors and misjudgments of her youth. 

6.  "The Lesson" 
Quote: "'How did we end up with a surrogate with an incompetent cervix?' says Harper. 'She's only twenty-seven!'"

     This story is a mash-up of events surrounding a high-risk pregnancy and a bizarre destination wedding. The expectant parents are Harper and Thanh, a happily married gay couple, and Naomi, their surrogate. The bride and groom are Fleur (Harper and Thanh's free-spirited long-time friend) and David (her mysterious, slightly sinister groom). Harper and Thanh live in Boston; Fleur's wedding takes place on a private island off the southeast coast (…"of South Carolina. Or Alabama."). Early on, we learn that Naomi's pregnancy has been problematic, and that Harper and Thanh disagree as to whether they should fly off to the wedding at such a critical time24 weeks into the pregnancy. When they do, we can only stand by helplessly and watch them learn some heartrending life lessons. 

7.  "The New Boyfriend"
Quote: "Ainslie scores under the tape with a fingernail, then carefully teases the pink wrapping paper out from the coffin-shaped box. Ainslie's new Boyfriend is in there."

     In this story, a teenager deals with her need for love and her feelings of envy for her pampered best friend. In this world, Boyfriends (with a capital "B" as opposed to boyfriend with a small "b") are life-sized dolls that can be programmed to appear either in Embodied (solid and lifelike) or Spectral (ghostly and invisible) form. They focus on their owners with laser-like intensity, vowing to love them always and to never leave them. Immy has always yearned for a Boyfriend, but her parents aren't rich like Ainslie's family, so she has to settle for an ordinary boyfrienda real-life teen-age boy who talks too much about himself, doesn't listen to her, has no sense of humor, and "kisses like it's arm wrestling, except with lips." Ainslie already has two Boyfriends (Vampire Boyfriend Oliver and Werewolf Boyfriend Alan), so when she gets Handsome Boyfriend Mint for her birthday, Immy already has come up with a plan to strike out at Ainslie and to get access to a Boyfriend of her very own. This story will put you in mind of every doll-centered horror movie you've ever seen, although the ending involves emotional trauma rather than the usual bloody physical kind.

     The story has a very funny section about the fake Vampire and Werewolf Boyfriends that riffs on the downside of their attentions: Vampire Boyfriends' endless brooding and over-zealous cuddling ("being squeezed like a juice box") and "the way Werewolf Boyfriends go on and on about the environment and also are always trying to get you to go running with them."

8.  "Two Houses" 
Quote: "Sisi had a pair of old cowboy boots, and Aune an ivory cross on a chain. Sullivan had a copy of Moby-Dick; Portia had a four-carat diamond in a platinum setting. Mei had her knitting needles. Gwenda had her tattoos. Astronauts on the Long Trip travel light."

     Six astronauts travel through space on the spaceship House of Secrets. Along with House of Mystery (its sister ship), House of Secrets left Earth in the summer of 2059. Thirty years ago, House of Mystery disappeared "in a wink, a blink. First there, then nowhere…Space was full of mysteries Space was full of secrets." The astronauts spend their time taking years-long naps and then awakening. Sometimes they are together; sometimes they are alone—but never completely alone because they are always accompanied by Maureen, an endless source of information, invisible but always presentkind of like Siri, but with the added ability of being able to create odors, sounds, and realistic life-size images.

     One night when all six astronauts are awake, they tell each other ghost stories, ending with one that involves twin houses that are part of a performance art installation. Within one house, a mass murder took place, but no one is sure which house is the real one and which is the imitation. So…twin spaceships and twin houses. In the end, what is the difference between the real and the imagined? This one definitely shares roots with some of Twilight Zone's outer space episodes.

9.  "Light" 
Quote: "Everyone was in agreement that it was almost impossible to distinguish a homemade or store-bought shadow from a real one...Children with two shadows did not grow up happy. They didn't get on well with other children. You could cut a pair of shadows apart with a pair of crooked scissors, but it wasn't a permanent solution…If you didn't bother to cut back the second shadow, then eventually you had twins, one of whom was only slightly realer than the other."

     This is a surreal world in which pocket universes wink in and out of existence, offering exotic vacation pleasures and perfect retirement communities. Other elements add to the weirdness: South Florida's most invasive species is mermaids (sold at Disney pocket universes as pets). Women give birth to rabbits. Witches forecast the weather. Invisible men rob gas stations. Politicians make deals with malign spirits. (Well...that last one sounds sort of normal.)

     Lindsey Driver is one of the double-shadowed people mentioned in the opening quotation. She is the originalthe realer of the two—while her profligate brother Alan is the copy, the imitation. "People with two shadows were supposed to get in trouble. Supposed to be trouble. They were supposed to lead friends and lovers astray, bring confusion to their enemies, bring down disaster wherever they went." 

     Several years ago, sleepers began to turn uppeople who appear to be in permanent comas. Lindsey works as an assistant manager of a warehouse in the Florida Keys where some of these sleepers are stored. Lindsey was onceactually still ismarried to a yellow-haired, green-skinned giant of a man from a pocket universe, but he is long gone, so she spends her nights at the local dive bar, drinking heavily and picking up men to bring home for the night. The conflict begins when Alan shows up begging for a place to stay. He has lost yet another job, and his arrival promises (and delivers) nothing but trouble for Lindsey. The story ends with an attempted suicide, a ghoulish prank, and a Level 2 hurricane. 

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