Kelly Link has been on my radar for quite a few years, ever since noticing her short-story collection, ‘Pretty Monsters’ on the Canongate website. While I should have just gone with my instincts and ordered a copy, the fact that I hadn’t heard about her from anyone else kind of made me hold back (stupidly). I am sure we have all found reassurance from, and been swayed by the kind of enthusiasm espoused by a fellow book-loving compadre, that follows when they have discovered a new author and sing their praises from the rooftops- the kind that infuses you with same said enthusiasm and hurtles you out the door to the nearest bookshop to secure your own copy. Through my then clearly limited literary circles, this had not yet crept onto my bookish radar- so any inklings I had weren’t verified or acted upon. Fast forward a few years and the bookish world has become much more global and open, with bookish communities on Twitter, Instagram, WordPress and You Tube. Now here is something a literary purist, like me, never thought they would be saying- thanks to such sites and being opened up to a much broader pool of recommendations, new titles and authors are springing up and grabbing my attention all over the place.
Step forward Kelly Link. One fateful day, guided by some unseen force (Canongate Books Twitter feed) a poor, neglected author weaselled her way to the front of my readerly awareness. Call it fate. Call it luck. Call it clever marketing. Whatever it was it worked! Canongate were offering to send out promotional copies of ‘The Summer People’, so of course I intervened and saw this as the opportune time to become more intimately acquainted with her talents. Like an over enthusiastic school-girl, hand straight up, I jumped the queue and got my hands on said copy and was immediately enamoured. Couple this with reading ‘The Specialist’s Hat’ in Audrey Niffeneger’s ‘Ghostly’ and it was pretty apparent I had made a grave error in ignoring my initial instincts *note to self- be bolder in your textual selections and don’t seek reassurance in future*. Purchase of ‘Get in Trouble’ swiftly followed, to join my ridiculously large to read pile, vying for pole-position with several other urgent reads- because, well aren’t all reads urgent?
Luckily for Kelly Link, her curious cover kept winking at me ensuring she didn’t have to wait long. Good old fate also somehow entwined this process with the announcement she had been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, should such validation really be necessary. I’m sure Kelly Link, would give no never mind judging by the curious and singular approach she brings to each and every story. She gives the impression that she is all about the process and the creativity that seams through each one like a particularly zingy lemon. You get the impression that she really enjoys her writing, and just like her title, ‘Get in Trouble’ implies really isn’t all that interested in conforming. You only have to look at the surreal blends that take place in her stories. It is almost like she has a giant jar of random story ideas that she dives in to to gain inspiration and mould her ideas together in response to. In a less masterful writer, juxtaposing subterranean pyramids with some kind of weird Stepford children vibe could fail dismally. Instead, Link takes our puzzled curiosity and makes us examine the consequences of this universal drive for perfection and makes us start thinking about how this is detrimental in our own lives.
Yet this dysfunction also takes us to more unsettling places, like in ‘The Summer People’. Right off the bat we are disoriented as we try to make sense of what is happening, through the flu- addled eyes of the central character: home alone Fran. Through her delirium we try to work out who the Summer People are; this is more dark fairytale than the sanitised Disney versions we expect. You almost wonder who you should be feeling sorry for. Or take the unsettling premise of ‘Secret Identity’ where a 15 year old girl has snuck away to meet with a man in his 30s, that she has met in a chat room. With all this latent subtext, you await exploitation- yet it is the reader whom is exploited when the plot takes an entirely different direction: exploding your expectation. Both stories contain delightfully imaginative elements, whether it is the world of superhero comic cons and a greasy fight or the miniature battle reenactments with unseen enactors and dangerous weapons! Both stories transcend their hybrid structures by making you use their fantastical material to consider much deeper (albeit disturbing and unsettling) questions. Particularly, ‘Secret Identity’ made me wonder about who people really are, who they show to each other and whether any of us really know each other. Is life really just about a series of characters interacting with each other?
Throughout this collection, which is full of similarly intriguing and enchanting tales, we get glimpses beyond such clever story-moulding and character realisation as to precisely why Kelly Link garnered a much deserved Pulitzer nomination. Here is a writer so in control of what she wishes to say and with such confidence in her use of language that she can afford to be quirky. She can pepper together ideas that should not work in combination. She can play with our perceptions via her structural choices ( such as in ‘I Can See Right Through You’ where the narrative is sliced like an editors cut- like a disappointed lover seeking the perfect memories- wow this works in so many ways) to add further meaning than the main narrative drive. She can just delight us with chilling or laden images, such as ‘everyone who is alive has a ghost inside them, don’t they’ or ‘muddy violet clouds, silver veils of rain’ like an ingognito poet. What she always does is intrigue us and make us work for the meaning that we come away with:through a surreal psychedelic labrynth that can only be Kelly Link!
I for one will be revisiting these stories and devouring her back catalogue. I will be singing her praises from the rooftops. She had moved to pre-order territory! Roll on this novel she is working on.