I've heard Kelly Link's name mentioned countless times over the years. Considering all the rave reviews, it appeared that this woman was a brilliant writer whose imagination knew no bounds. More than a little intrigued, I had been meaning to try something from this author for quite some time. So when a review copy of Get in Trouble showed up in my mailbox, this one immediately ended up on my pile of books to read! And when it was announced that it was a 2016 Pulitzer Prize Nominee for Fiction, I moved it up ahead in the rotation and brought it with me on my hiking trip in the Canadian Rockies.
Given the amount of people raving about Link and the Pulitzer Prize nomination, understandably my expectations were through the roof. But could this collection of short stories live up to such lofty expectations? My main concern was that Link's works have enjoyed incredible critical success (critics, it seems, simply adore her). And yet, when I asked around, very few people I know had ever given her books a shot. Not surprisingly, of course, given that novel-length works are way more popular among speculative fiction readers than short fiction collections or anthologies. But I'm always a bit wary of things that strike a chord with critics, yet remain pretty much ignored by the genre's readership.
With Get in Trouble, Kelly Link quickly set my mind at ease. Indeed, she is a gifted author who writes smart, haunting, entertaining, and imaginative stories. I went through this collection in just a few sittings, which shows how good and enjoyable my reading experience turned out to be. Problem is, this feeling was ephemeral in nature. What I mean is that, no matter how much I enjoyed this book when I was reading it, two weeks later when the time came to write this review I could remember none of them other than "The Summer People." Surely if this was such brilliant and compulsively readable material, these stories would remain with you long after you've reached the end of the book, right? Hence my disappointment that these stories, though inspired and intelligent, should in the end be so forgettable. And my wondering how this one could have garnered a Pulitzer Prize nomination.
Here's the blurb:
She has been hailed by Michael Chabon as “the most darkly playful voice in American fiction” and by Neil Gaiman as “a national treasure.” Now Kelly Link’s eagerly awaited new collection--her first for adult readers in a decade--proves indelibly that this bewitchingly original writer is among the finest we have. Link has won an ardent following for her ability to take readers deep into an unforgettable, brilliantly constructed fictional universe with each new story. In “The Summer People,” a young girl in rural North Carolina serves as uneasy caretaker to the mysterious, never-quite-glimpsed visitors who inhabit the cottage behind her house. In “I Can See Right Through You,” a middle-aged movie star makes a disturbing trip to the Florida swamp where his former on- and off-screen love interest is shooting a ghost-hunting reality show. In “The New Boyfriend,” a suburban slumber party takes an unusual turn, and a teenage friendship is tested, when the spoiled birthday girl opens her big present: a life-size animated doll. Hurricanes, astronauts, evil twins, bootleggers, Ouija boards, iguanas, The Wizard of Oz, superheroes, the Pyramids...These are just some of the talismans of an imagination as capacious and as full of wonder as that of any writer today. But as fantastical as these stories can be, they are always grounded in sly humor and an innate generosity of feeling for the frailty--and the hidden strengths--of human beings. In Get in Trouble, this one-of-a-kind talent expands the boundaries of what short fiction can do.
"The Summer People" is the perfect introduction for those who have never read anything by Kelly Link. It eases the reader into this strange and evocative universe and features two teenage girls and a summer house with unusual residents. This one contains classical elements from popular fairytales and the ambiguous ending sets the tone for the sort of finales one can expect throughout the book.
"I Can See Right Through You" is probably one of the weirdest stories in this collection. A complex relationship between two celebrities taking place in a nudist colony, this one was interesting but oh-so strange.
The very essence of the notion of identity is explored in "Secret Identity." It features a teenage girl who lied about her identity and who travels to NYC to meet a much older man for the first time. The hotel where they're supposed to meet is hosting two conventions, one for dentists and another one for superheroes. This one moves rather slowly and can be boring at times, yet I feel that Link perfectly captured the essence of what it means to be a confused adolescent girl.
"Valley of the Girls" is another decidedly strange tale of celebrities and it also explores the notion of identity. It was the weakest of the lot and doesn't really fit with the rest of the short stories. "Origin Story" is another tale of superheroes, which makes me wonder if it occurs in the same universe as "Secret Identity." It is essentially a conversation between Bunnatine and her friend Biscuit, shooting the breeze about both mundane and supernatural things. Revelations throughout the story show that there is more to these two than meets the eye, but this remains one of the weakest pieces found in Get in Trouble.
"The New Boyfriend" is an eerie tale featuring a number of teenage girls. One of them, who already owns two of the popular realistic robot boyfriends (vampire and werewolf), receives a new one for her birthday. This one is the most difficult to find model, Ghost. Immy, one of her friends, is filled with jealousy and wants a fake boyfriend of her own. But her attempt to subvert the ghost model and make him her boyfriend will have unexpected repercussions.
The very best piece of this collection is "Two Houses." A ghost story featuring a group of astronauts, it is absolutely brilliant. Odd that I could forget about it in a few short weeks. . .
"Light" closes the show and takes place in a futuristic state of Florida where a panoply of pocket universes can be explored and whose contents now bleed into our own universe. It features a lonely woman who has to deal with her gay twin and whose world is turned upside down. This one is otherworldly but can be quite random at times, as if the author didn't really know where she was going and made everything up as she went along.
In the end, although these stories don't stay with you afterwards, there is no denying that Get in Trouble is nevertheless a compelling and engaging read. Weird and surreal and eccentric, to be sure, but simultaneously hauntingly familiar for the most part. Some stories are also suprisingly touching and this collection is definitely worth a read. Especially if, like me, you have never read anything by Kelly Link.