You Should Read: Kelly Link’s STRANGER THINGS HAPPEN (2001)

If you’ve all read and loved Kelly Link for the last decade it might surprise you to know that until about 6 months ago, I’d never heard of her. Thanks to some writers I admire pointing her out to me, I bought the .epub of her first short story collection, Stranger Things Happen, and read it all over a couple of days. (I’ve been bringing my nook to work with me, and this makes catching up on my To Read pile much easier, in little bits at a time).

“Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” – A dead man isn’t sure where he is, what his name is, or how he died, but is quite certain that dead people shouldn’t masturbate as often as he does. The story is told in a series of letters the dead mad writes to his nearly-forgotten wife, hoping for her forgiveness, with little footnotes about his emotional state and other activities. The story makes perfect sense if you can imagine yourself in a place built from old memory and surrounded by waiting. My first impression of Link is that she writes longing very well.

“Water Off a Black Dog’s Back” – “Carnation, Lily” lacked description in a way that fits a story about a man who exists nowhere and remembers very little. “Waters” mirrors that tale, in the way that a mirror reflects the same image back to you, but backwards. Link’s voice is clear but at the same time, “Water” is full of details and adjectives. There is sound and there are smells and the taste of strawberry wine and the prickle of a black dog’s discarded fur. Mostly, the story is about a boy who has never lost anything, falling in love with a girl who expects loss to find her.

“The Specialist’s Hat” – Sometimes ghost stories are stories told by ghosts, about people who might be alive or might be Dead or might just be plain old regular dead. Also, don’t ignore your children, because while you’re keeping them out of your hair they’ll find their own way into trouble without you there to save them.

“Flying Lessons” – A much better take on the “updating a Greek myth” trope than I usually read.

“Travels With The Snow Queen” – Oh, second-person present-tense POV, how I hate you. But it’s fairy tales we’re after in this story, and tales are told, unfolding conversationally as if you are the subject and the listener all at once. I can forgive the perspective on this because I get the importance Link feels this story has.

“The Vanishing Act” – Another story about what happens when parents forget their children are still there. Where “The Specialist’s Hat” ends on a dour note, “Vanishing” at least has hope, and green water, and photographs of far off lands. It might not be a happy story, but it has the potential to be one after the words have trailed off the page, and I like having the option.

“Survivor’s Ball, or, The Donner Party” – I’m wondering if Link imagines that no one has heard of the Donner party, and therefore her introduction of them has a novel quality? Aside from that, this story might be about survival, or it might be about the kind of men who follow a woman to the end of the world, too empty of life to find their own path … and moth-like, follow the first bright flame of a girl into darkness.

“Shoes and Marriage” – this is four flash pieces strung together, pretending to be a short story, and I’d have preferred she left them as flash pieces. Of them, my favourite was the one about the pageant girls. I, too, would sit with my love under the blankets and fall head over heels for Miss Kansas. I appreciated the nod to Lovecraft too.

“Most of My Friends Are Two-Thirds Water” – One of the most traditionally-formatted stories in the collection, Link allows a presumably-female narrator tell the story of how her friend Jak went mad, or, possibly, the story of how an invasion of blond alien women has really messed up his chances to get a date to have sex with him. Either one.

“Louise’s Ghost” – I’m not sure how necessary it was to make both of the women in this story carry the same name. I get that it’s a comment on the inter-changeability of women and all of that, and in the context of the story it’s possible to follow which is who, but only with some effort. It’s not that I prefer my stories to be simplistic, and I am willing to work at a good piece of insight, but it didn’t pay off for me. I didn’t learn anything about the human condition or being a woman or loss or … anything to make me feel that the purposefully convoluted characters were worth the effort. Perhaps if it had come earlier in the book I would have felt differently, but by this point we’ve already had ghosts (“Carnation, Lily” and “Hat”), unpleasant children (“Vanishing”), vague men (“Water” and “Donner Party”), strong women making all the decisions (“Flying Lessons” and “Travels”) and death (“Flying Lessons”, and again, “Carnation” and “Hat”). It seems the only new thing was the trick with the names.

“The Girl Detective” – When I started reading it, I didn’t realise that it was the last story of the book. Another rebooted myth, mixed with a little Nancy Drew, strongly in Link’s style.

One thing that stood out at me was the lack of a strong male character. Each man that appears is a wraith, a shadow of his potential, wrapped up in or around the women in his life. The women are the movers and doers and decision makers. Even when the main character is male, the women compel an action from them as if the men have no choice but the react. The closest one comes to a male-driven story is “Water”, where he does choose to chase after Rachel, but only to be able to settle into the comfortable stillness of letting her make the choices. He will subsume himself in her family and become part of the things which happen around her.

I don’t like Link’s men very much. I prefer strength and clarity of self. But, as characters, they do highlight their female counterparts in interesting ways.

Overall, I loved this collection. Link’s stories aren’t purposefully linear, as is she is remembering important bits while telling a different part of the story. She pauses delicately to tell you the piece she’d forgotten and then goes on with the piece she’d started with. Link is clearly a storyteller, letting you imagine the words falling from her lips instead of imagining yourself as a character in the tale. The whole thing has a rambling smoothness to it that turns even a chronologically fragmented piece of writing into one solid story. There were a few that I didn’t love as much as the others but I think that was more a case of too much of the same thing all in one place. Perhaps if I’d read them all, individually, with some months of space in between, I would feel differently. Perhaps not, but there are enough great stories in Stranger Things Happen that it doesn’t matter.

Kelly Link, Stranger Things Happen, Small Beer Press, 2001.

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