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Get in Trouble: Stories, by Kelly Link, Random House, 2015, $25.
Hidden Folk: Icelandic Fantasies, by Eleanor Arnason, Many Worlds Press, 2014, $24.
The Wolf in Winter, by John Connolly, Atria/Emily Bestler Books, 2014, $26.
Get in Trouble, Link's fourth collection of short fiction, continues her end run against market-driven contemporary literature. It's a brilliant collection, and if it doesn't leave a reader quite as stunned as her first, Stranger Things Happen , that's only because our brains have had fourteen years to rewire themselves after first contact with her work. The nine stories in Get in Trouble were originally published in literary magazines like McSweeney's and Tin House, as well as genre venues like Geektastic: Stories of the Nerd Herd, and Shadow Show: All-New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury. "The Summer People," first published in Tin House, shares a title with a classic Shirley Jackson story, and went on to win both the Shirley Jackson and O. Henry Awards.
Jackson's fiction is part of Link's literary DNA, along with that of Angela Carter and Donald Barthelme. But while I can, when required, usually sum up a story by Jackson or Carter or Barthelme, I find describing Kelly Link's fiction a challenge on par with describing a mindblowing acid trip: mostly I'm reduced to "Oh, wow." Still, I'll do my best.
The word ipseity means selfhood or individual identity, in particular as it relates to one's immortal soul. If we can expunge the theological underpinnings of the word, I would suggest that each of Link's characters is grappling with her own ipseity. Gender, sexual orientation, career, supernatural powers, romantic love, desire, fear—all are somehow related to a deeply embedded sense of a self that is preternaturally present.
The protagonists in Get in Trouble are nearly all young women: liminal creatures, moving through adolescence, relationships, pregnancy, careers, with the hypnotic, sometimes disturbing, grace of jellyfish. Link's best stories subvert or eschew both traditional tragic or happy endings, and seldom resolve in any conventional sense. As the novelist John Fowles wrote, "If the writer's secret and deepest joy is to search for an irrecoverable experience, the [unresolved] ending that announces the attempt has once again failed may well seem the more satisfying."
In "The Summer People," fourteen-year-old Fran is a moonshiner's daughter, and caretaker of a house occupied by the Robertses, the house's eponymous owners. Shirley Jackson's influence shimmers around the edges of the story; so does John Crowley's, in particular his Little, Big. Link is a mistress of creating literary discomposure, and here the balance of unease with a pending sense of sublime revelation is exquisitely calibrated. "Things tip out of balance," Franny's father tells her. "You need to remember that, Franny. Sometimes you're on one side of that equation, and sometimes you're on the other. You need to know where you are…."
And while the reader may be pleasantly uncertain as to where she is within any given story, she never doubts that Link knows this strange terrain by heart.
"I Can See Right Through You" plays fast and loose with that postmodern horror, celebrity. Its central character, a young actor referred to as the demon lover, is cast as the male romantic lead in a movie that sounds a lot like Twilight. Even after decades, he never escapes from the role.
Everyone watches you. Even when they're pretending not to. Even when they aren't watching you, you think they are. And you know what? You're right. Eyes will find you. Becoming famous, this kind of fame: it's luck indistinguishable from catastrophe.
In "Secret Identity," a fifteen-year-old girl named Billie pretends to be a thirty-two-year-old woman in an MMORPG, and travels to meet the thirty-four-year-old man she's courted online. Their rendezvous is at a luxury hotel hosting two conventions: one for superheroes, the other for dentists. The resulting narrative at first resembles a hallucinatory mashup of Eloise and Connie Willis's "At the Rialto," with a dash of J.D. Salinger, but it deepens into a poignant account of missed connections and adolescent yearning. "Valley of the Girls" demonstrates the possibilities of combining computer/online avatars, a bunch of teenagers, and ancient Egypt's Eighteenth Dynasty. Note to self: Teenagers should never be given private access to the Valley of the Kings.
A danger of this sort of literary fireworks is that a story can dazzle like a sparkler and burn out just as quickly, leaving a sad residue of whimsy. But Link is a master pyrotechnician, juggling plots, characters, tropes and ideas with deceptive ease and genuine delight in her own imagination. Her storytelling roots are equally in Tolkien's Cauldron of Story and the flashlight circles of slumber parties. She's the girl who gleefully makes up all the best ghost stories, drawing on every monster movie, computer game, classic novel, comic book, art installation, and urban legend she's ever loved, to create something unique and wondrous strange.
"Two Houses," the best and most audacious story in this collection, riffs on this narrative mode. Its protagonists, six astronauts aboard a generation starship whose sister ship suddenly and inexplicably disappeared years earlier, pass the centuries by telling ghost stories in their holodeck Great Room. This of course brings up the inevitable questions:
"Did [ghosts] come along…with us? Are they here now? If we tell Maureen to build a haunted house around us right now, does she have to make the ghosts? Or do they just show up?"
Maureen said, "It would be an interesting experiment."
Kelly Link's stories form a very interesting literary experiment indeed, as chilling as they are beautifully written, yet never disengaged from the heartbreaking work of being human. As the narrator of "The Lesson" puts it, "The loved one suffers. All loved ones suffer. Love is not enough to prevent this. Love is not enough. Love is enough. The thing that you wished for. Was it this?"
Strange and Secret Peoples
Eleanor Arnason captures the austere, eerie, often sinister beauty of Iceland in her marvelous new story collection, Hidden Folk. The title is an English translation of the Icelandic word huldufolk—secret people, hidden folk—and refers to the elves believed to populate the country's beautiful and desolate interior (as well as some of the more unusual rock formations in and around Reykjavík). Much has been made of contemporary Icelanders' belief in elves—a much quoted poll states that fifty-four percent of the population believe in elves, with another thirty-three percent on the fence.
The huldufolk are not the fairies at the bottom of your garden: They're at once far more strange and oddly pragmatic, protectors of the natural world and lovers of beautiful things. Arnason's stories expand the definition of the word huldufolk to include various supernatural entities, drawn from Icelandic folklore and sagas.
Like Kelly Link, Arnason twists traditional narratives into striking new forms. The protagonists in several of these tales are bit players in the original works: Like Nordic versions of Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, here they're given center stage. "Glam's Story" presents a sideways look at the events recounted in the thirteenth-century "Grettir's Saga," one of the most famous and influential of the sagas, whose titular anti-hero is outlawed for an act of arson that leaves many people dead. "Kormak the Lucky" draws on both "Egil's Saga" and the Prose Eddas. It includes a memorable scene found in neither, where two runaway human slaves escape their elvish oppressors via a steampunkish steam train. These elves can be as cold-hearted and cruel as they are beautiful. They take humans as lovers (then discard them) and as slaves, and often hunt them like animals. Still, the grim narrative that unfolds here and in other stories is shot through with the sort of deadpan, matter-of-fact humor found in the Icelandic source material.
"The people at Borg are all afraid of [Egil], and so are the neighbors, including me."
"Why?" asked Kormak a second time.
"Egil is bad-tempered, avaricious, self-willed, and knows at least some magic, though he has used brute force to get his way. He's also the finest poet in Iceland."
This didn't sound good to Kormak.
Arnason also has fun with contemporary belief in the huldufolk, as in "The Puffin Hunter," where a modern folklorist is called on to assist the hidden people.
Finally, in order to have something to say, Harald asked Gudrun how the elves reached her at the university.
"They can't be seen unless they want to be. They come into Reykjavík regularly, hitching a ride on a truck or even a car. They have visited me before. This time they asked me to come and offer my opinion, since I was a folklorist and had studied the old stories about elves. I had no idea what to do."
Arnason is well known as an award-winning American writer of science fiction and fantasy, often with a feminist slant. Hidden Folk is a tribute to her own Icelandic heritage, a terrific collection that will appeal to readers of contemporary Nordic fiction as well as to Arnason's many longtime fans. It's also an unusually striking book, beautifully produced by Many Worlds Press and with jacket design by the legendary John Berry. The huldufolk would approve.
The Wolf in Winter is the thirteenth novel to feature the Irish novelist John Connolly's eponymous anti-hero, a policeman-turned-detective-turned occasional vigilante after his wife and daughter are brutally murdered by a serial killer. Most of the Charlie Parker books are inflected with the supernatural—ghosts, angels, shadowy things glimpsed from the corner of the eye. Most are set in Maine, where the author used to live, and make excellent use of the state's dark corners and eccentric residents.
The Wolf in Winter finds Parker investigating the murder of a homeless man in Portland, an inquiry that then leads him into a search for the dead man's missing daughter, Annie. Annie is rumored to have headed north to the small (fictional) village of Prosperous, whose inhabitants are as affluent and complacent as the town's name suggests. Many of them are also descendants of the village's original settlers, members of an obscure sixteenth-century English sect known as the Family of Love. The Family of Love actually did exist, though Connolly has taken an author's license with their spiritual practices in Prosperous, where the religious rituals owe more to The Wicker Man, and perhaps Stephen King, than to the sect's original doctrine.
Connolly does a masterful job of depicting the often harsh reality behind Vacationland's lighthouse-and-L.L. Bean boots public image. He writes of Portland's homeless community with an empathy that seems to be borne of familiarity with both the city's street people, and the beleaguered service agencies that try to minister to them in the face of disastrous funding cuts. The scenes set in Prosperous are especially chilling: You might want to stick to the interstate next time you venture past the Kittery bridge. Less successful for this reader was the framing story arc that involves the various entities who appear in other Parker novels—Angel and Louis, who bring to mind the angels in Wim Wender's Wings of Desire after an aeons-long bender, and the ambiguous figure known as the Collector. Still, by the novel's cliffhanger finale, Connolly has pulled all the narrative strings taut as a garrote, leaving us in doubt as to whether Charlie Parker's fate is in the hands of the angels, or something much, much darker.
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