Posted by: GravatarWon'tDeleteMyAccount | August 17, 2008

Kelly Link: Stranger Things Happen

As promised: no Doctorow, no Sci-Fi. This week, anyway 🙂

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Kelly Link’s collection of short stories, Stranger Things Happen is unique in my experience: traditional narrative fiction it is not. The most straightforward of the tales involves a girl who is slowly disappearing and the girl who wishes she could follow; the least, a four part symphony on the previously unimagined places where shoes and marriage meet. If I had to describe my first impression of the book, I would place it as a strange hybrid, a cross between Diane Schoemperlen for its dreams and poetry, and Clive Barker for its nightmares. I could read this collection a dozen times and learn something new each time, and still never understand it fully.

The collection has a love affair with the half-remembered fairy tales of childhood, a paranoia of the loss associated with relationships, and a terror of the dark, quiet places where anything might dwell. The stories range from the first, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, about a dead man writing letters home to his wife from an island where fluffy white blobs falls from the sky and the ocean waves are made of teeth, to The Girl Detective, where an archetypal nancy drew must travel to the fairy tale underworld of a midnight dance club to find her mother, while the narrator looks on from the treetops (or, on one occasion, from the branches of a potted ficus in a Chinese restaurant).

Some of the stories are like kaleidoscopes filled with fragments of dreams and nightmares, going from whimsical to horrific and back again with the slightest of movements. Shoes and Marriage does so in the contrast between parts two and three: in the former, two lovers on their honeymoon attend a tantalizing and bizarre beauty pageant at the end of the world, in their hotel; in the latter a woman married to a dictator collects the shoes of all the people her husband has killed. All is reconciled in the happy ending in part four.

For all the sparse and allusive prose, this book is surprisingly evocative. The narrative often comes off as distant, distracted, but one by one the stories will rope you in, pulling you into worlds worthy of the imagination of Márquez and his magical realism. It is dark, at times very much so, but even at the worst moments there is enough hope to draw ourselves out. The foreword to the book says the stories all have happy endings, and while I emphatically disagree with that assessment, I think it may simply be because the ones that aren’t explicitly happy are open-ended enough to let you hope — or, for that matter, despair.

Things you will learn from this book: that you can get to Hell via the London Underground; that you can put a ghost into a cello and then regret it later; that sometimes following a map made of shattered mirrors will get you where you want to be, even if you don’t know quite what to do when you get there; that survival and travel can be closely linked; that the girl detective has saved the world on at least three separate occasions (not that she is bragging); and that stranger things do happen, especially in this book.

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Kelly Link’s Stranger Things Happen is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 License. It is available for free download from Small Beer Press, and on dead tree for a small fee from places like Amazon.com.

Coming next week: Nick Mamatas: Move Under Ground.

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