Saturday, May 02, 2009

Wait, you mean I actually like something? Shocking!

I know I haven't been around for awhile, what with finals coming up and trying to find a place to live and trying to get a teaching position, but I want to assure you, dear readers, that I have not abandoned you in the midst of my crazy eyed flail.
And by crazy eyes I mean I look like this:

Only with about a thousand times more flail and fail.

Anyway, it's come to my attention that my last four posts have been of the bitter, spiteful, strangly hands variety, and seems to give the impression that I find no joy in the world. Now to be fair, I do have a bitter, spiteful happy place (but the pizza there is delicious), but occasionally I do find something that makes my little geek girl heart swell in joy and happiness and love that has only slightly been be-bittered. Today I shall discuss one of those things. And since Alan My Bead Knows Every Secret You've Never Acknowledged Yes Even That One Moore hasn't done another bitter and crazy interview, I shall fall to my standby of books.

I love books. Genre, literary, good, bad, books are awesome. With any luck (and by "luck" I mean "Oh god I'm going to eat ramen noodles for the next three months") I'll be unemployed and bored this summer and start recapping some of the more awful books I come across (and by awful, I mean one is written by Ed Wood Jr. and another is this blindingly stupid romance. In space), but that is not this post. This post is about happy making things, and so I won't be talking about Ed Wood Jr. and his transvestite killer for hire (no, seriously).

Instead, this is about Kelly Link and two of her short story collections: Stranger Things Happen and Magic for Beginners.

Kelly Link isn't well known, not yet anyway, but she is strange and wonderful. Every story of hers has a strange fantasy twist in it. Most of them have an undertone of creepy. Some will make you shiver. All of them will make you want more.

Stranger Things Happen was published in 2001, so let's start with that one. Unlike Magic for Beginners, STH plays very heavily with fairytale themes and tropes. I don't mean that as a bad thing at all. I love fairy tales, especially the old, dark versions, and Link's twist on these old tales are fantastic.

The stories themselves aren't explicitly linked together, featuring different locations and different characters, but you can see that they all take place within the same world.

I'm not going to go through the collection story by story, not because Link's work doesn't merit because it does, but because there are eleven stories and I would enthusiastically babble about all of them on about the same theme and that's not entertaining for anyone and would also be approximately elevenity hundred pages long. So I'm going to comment on a couple of my favorites.

Link has a deceptively stark and simple style. I say "deceptively" because I have tried to write in this style and struggled with it. This allows Link to make ample use of all the spaces her words leave, and also means that the style is light on description but really rich in provocative phrases that make you shiver.

One of my favorite stories is "Survivor's Ball, or the Donner Party" because it is downright creepy and dripping with tension. Throughout the entire story you keep expecting awful to happen and yet nothing really does, and the entire affect is unsettling and frightening.

It follows Serena and Jasper as they drive through New Zealand and accidentally but not really get invited to the Survivor's Ball. Jasper has a cracked tooth, and this story features my favorite line that makes me seethe with jealousy because I didn't think of it first: "His tooth whined like a dog." This is the perfect Link sentence: short, simple, but goddamn if you don't get what she's talking about.

Like all of her stories, "Survivor's Ball, or the Donner Party" ends in a way that has you going, "Huh. I really want more," but in a good way.

"Flying Lessons" is about young love and tragic death and Greek gods and an Orpheus like journey, only with a twist. The story is broken up into small segments, and dispersed throughout are instructions for going to hell. These instructions open and close the story and add a strong framework for a story that might otherwise have been too formless. And like all things Link writes, there are lots of tiny, weird details, like death by peacock, and odd moments of humor that makes sense within the frame of the story.

"Shoe and Marriage" is perhaps the most experimental story of the entire collection. It is composed of four vignettes, and each of them is only connected by, you guessed it, shoes and marriage. The first is concerned with the prince charming from Cinderella, but not in the way you think and, oh, how I love it even though I'm not entirely sure what's going on in the story.

The next one, "Miss Kansas on Judgement Day" is even more surreal and bewildered, but again, oh god I love it. The third is "The Dictator's Wife," and it's heartbreaking and bleak and sad and so engaging. The last vignette is "Happy ending," and I can't tell you if it actually is a happy ending because my copy of the book, instead of the last page of "Shoe and Marriage," has a reprinting of a page from an earlier story. Thanks, Small Beer Press. Now I will never know if it is a happy ending. I shake my fist at thee!

Finally, "The Girl Detective" is the closing story, and Link weaves together another fairy tale, the twelve dancing princesses, and the idea of Nancy Drew and the girl detective motif, all told from a strange, outsider narrative. Like the stories in this collection, what's really going on beneath the surface isn't entirely clear, but it's such a delightful journey that I'm not sure if it really matters if Link is trying to do anything other than tell a good story. And it is an excellent story.

Magic for Beginners was published in 2005, and unlike STH, the stories in this don't appear to take place in the same universe. While STH drew strongly on fairy tales and myths, MfB, with the exception of one story, seems to have shed that fairy tale feel and is grounded in the real world. Or the real world seen through Link's eyes.

Like I did with STH, I'm picking out a couple of stories to talk about here, but all of them are worth a read. And by "worth," I mean "go pick up her books right now, seriously."

I'm going to start with the exception to my above statement. "Catskin" is very much a fairy tale in its characters and themes and narrative. I don't mean a fairy tale like the white washed Disney versions now, but the old ones that are about blood and gore and scaring you shitless.

Goddamn this story is creepy. Brilliant, but so, so creepy. It follows the story of Small, a witch's son who goes to avenge the witch's death with the witch's cat, who makes him a suit of cat skin from murdered cats. It's hard to describe this story without me just typing the entire thing into the post. Look, if you like the old versions of fairy tales and sitting in an empty room feeling like someone is watching you then you will love this story. This creepy, creepy story.

"The Hortlak" involves zombies, but not the traditional, brain eating zombies. These zombies come into a 24 hour convenience store, but not for brains. This story follows girl Charley, Batu, and Eric. It's a story about young love and loss trying to figure out what the hell you want. It also has another amazing line: "Eric worked in retail since he was sixteen. He knew how hateful people could be." Word, Kelly Link, WORD.

"The Cannon," is my least favorite story. It's told as an question and answer session, and it's not clear who is speaking. There's a lot of really great details and interesting world building going on in such a short piece, but it never quite gels for me.

"Stone Animals" is a haunted house story, only REALLY FUCKING CREEPY BY A LOT. It appeared in Best American Short Stories of, um, 2006, I think. A family moves into a house with stone rabbits out front, and things in the house become haunted, including one of the children. Nothing happens in the traditional haunted house sense, but it's more subtly creepier than The Grudge could ever hope to be.

Quickly, in passing, "The Great Divorce," features one of my favorite narrative structure kinks: stories within stories. In this story a character tells another story, and in that story another character tells a story which features characters from the first story. Follow? It's okay if you don't. The fun lies in unpacking it all.

"Magic for Beginners," the titular story, is by far the longest. It follows Jeremy and his friends and family and a show called "The Library," which may or may not be the adventures of real people. What Link does really well in this is that confusing tangle of emotions when you're fifteen and hopped up on so many hormones you can barely think and you like two different girls at once and trying to navigate your way through it all while your parents are going through a rough patch and you have to move to another town. Wow, that last sentence is a mess, but you get my point.

What I don't like about this story is that everyone in it, the teenagers, the parents, Jeremy himself, are presented as these quirky people who you know would never exist in real life yet pop up all the time in books and movies. To be honest, I think why it bothers me is because I find myself doing the same thing in my own stories, making my characters all quirky and precious. In clumsy hands that can be irriating, and Link is treading a very fine line.

In all, Kelly Link creates stories in a world that is far more mysterious and magical and downright creepy than our own. She has a new collection out that I haven't been able to pick up yet, but I deeply want it.

If you're still unconvinced to give Kelly Link a try, Neil Gaiman has this to say: Kelly Link is probably the best short story writer currently out there, in any genre or none. She puts one word after another and makes real magic with them--funny, moving, tender, brave and dangerous. She is unique, and should be declared a national treasure, and possibly surrounded at all times by a cordon of armed marines.

And we all know you don't argue with Neil Gaiman, so go pick up her books right now.

And don't worry, soon I shall be back to my bitter, spiteful self.

1 comment:

Darcy said...

The Stone Rabbits gave my nightmares nightmares!

If Neil Gaiman says jump I ask if he would perhaps like a refreshing beverage to ease and relax him whilst he commands me, *then* I ask how high. So yeah. I'll be reading her stuff.