Frisky Reads: Get In Trouble By Kelly Link

I was the kind of kid who eschewed children’s literature for Mary Higgins Clark and Steven King by the time I was maybe six or seven. By ten I was reading, and worshiping, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman graphic novel series and making my way through A Midsummer Night’s Dream. By high school, my favorite book was Antoine de Saint-Éxupery’s The Little Prince. I read Vonnegut and Bradbury with far greater enthusiasm than my classmates. You see where I’m going with this: I love fairy tales, mythologies, theologies, mysteries, aliens, ghosts, monsters, other worlds, other universes, and the whole range of possibilities that the fact of existence suggests.

It doesn’t take much more than “Neil Gaiman loves this writer” for me to be convinced that it’s something I should read, then, but now that I’ve read Kelly Link’s Get in Trouble I’m aware of how egregious it is that her last several story collections have somehow not made their way into my consciousness. To be fair, the most recent was released ten years ago, when I was 18 and definitely not paying the attention to books that I do now. Still.

I’ll reluctantly give a synopsis of the nine stories in the book: “The Summer People” follows an Appalachian girl whose burden it is to play caretaker for her father, for tourists’ summer homes, and for a magical family. “I Can See Right Through You” unravels the falling-apart of two actors, one-time lovers on- and off-screen, as they hunt for ghosts. “Secret Identity” is told from the point of view of a lovelorn but duplicitous teenage girl hoping to hunt down an online friend at a hotel amidst superhero and dentist conventions. “Valley of the Girls” reworks ancient Egyptian mythologies and religious practices to ornament the lives of very, very rich girls. “Origin Story” takes place amongst superheroes in an abandoned Wizard of Oz-themed amusement park. “The New Boyfriend” is about a ghost-inhabited toy. In “Two Houses,” increasingly harrowing ghost stories are told on a spaceship (it is probably the most genuinely scary story I’ve ever read). “Light” combines references to News of the World-type tabloid stories about aliens, pocket universes, and other mythical and mystical ideas with some pretty heavy references to a Walt Whitman poem during a hurricane on the Florida Keys.

But that’s really not the book, at all. The circumstances, settings, and characters in Link’s stories are vessels for much larger ideas. The narration does, in almost every story, reference “trouble,” but what kind of trouble? When I read the title of the collection, I thought of disobedient kids on Mark Twain-ish adventures, and, yes, there’s an awful lot of setting out into the unknown; an awful lot of acting on whims; an awful lot of bad behavior.

But I think the “trouble” Link is referencing is more “trouble” like “impending doom.” These characters are so often aware of mortality; their own especially, but the idea of death being a pervasive human experience, as well. All of the stories feature something that’s missing – a parent, a friend, a colleague, a secret, a lover, a family, a purpose, the truth – and those somethings-missing are, in fact, pieces of the characters’ identities. They are filled with so much desire to be whole, to know who they are by association with the thing that they want, that they are willing to take foolhardy risks, run toward danger, run away from facing their desires, and that is what creates trouble for them.

So these are stories about desire, about identity, about what it means to exist, and about the purpose of our lives, if there is such a thing. They’re stories about what it means to lose part of your identity and keep trying to live anyway. They’re stories about death, loss, and grief. Link sets them in fantastical situations, maybe because that’s just how her brain works, but maybe because it’s easier to try to answer or at least understand these very big, abstract, existential questions in big, abstract, absurd settings.

The stories are alternatively funny and horrifying; you’ll find yourself laughing and then, five pages later, thinking, “Oh no, no no, no”; you’ll marvel at the balance Link strikes between providing details that help to set scenes or demonstrate character, and the details she neglects, sometimes for the sake of expediency, and more often for the sake of building mystery. And if you’ve ever lost something, if you’ve ever had to live without something you really and truly love, Link will break your heart with her stories, and you’ll be glad.

Get in Trouble will be available from Random House on February 3, 2015.

[Image via Shutterstock]

[Cover image via Powells]

Follow me on Twitter.