Demon lovers, summer sprites, robot Boyfriends, pocket universes, superheroes in need of agents, shadows that turn into twins and iguana infestations, to name a few, populate Kelly Link’s giddying short story collection Get in Trouble.
If this collection needed ten years to write, then it was certainly time well-spent. While some stories lacked impact, as is always the case for any collection, they are more than made up for by several stunners. The first story, “The Summer People”, follows Fran, a teenager who has been abandoned by her father to care for several beautiful vacation homes. She goes to these houses, cleans, restocks and launders, and for one in particular, she must occasionally duck out of the way of flying missiles in the ominously named “war room”. Her masters, the mischievous, fairy-like creatures called the “summer people”, communicate with her telepathically, at times pinching Fran to signal dissatisfaction with her performance. Fran recruits an old friend, the unfortunate Ophelia, only to trick her into agreeing to what we can only assume is a similar caretaking contract with the spirits.
In “The New Boyfriend”, middle-class girls can purchase their dream partners, dedicated only to them. For some, the fantasy far outdoes reality. Immy manipulates and steals her friend’s Ghost Boyfriend, bizarrely named Mint, who can take on either an embodied or spectral form, depending on the adolescent desires of the day. Mint, despite his soft, phantasmagorical appearance, is capable of violence, and is terrifyingly well-practised at it.
The stories blend fantastical elements seamlessly with our visions of our own popular culture, science fiction, and dystopian futures, all with a dark but playful voice. In “Secret Identity”, superheroes are real and require sidekicks to audition, although whether or not they fight crime and save the world is never touched on. They have counterparts, villains, immortalised in butter.
Enslavement and servitude are inescapable themes, as is paranormal romance, and they are unfurled with intelligence and dexterity. Often the protagonists are young women, old enough to be aware of their incoming adulthood, but young enough to be on the brink of it, on the edge of change, making them seem innocent and vulnerable. As a reader I felt oddly protective of them, wanting to scoop them up and away from the strange and dangerous world the author has created.
Link may be one of the best short story writers out there today, who writes with considerable authority and daring. However, this book is incredibly divisive. I for one adored it. I revelled in how it forced the reader to behave as they would in a dream, going along with every mad turn of events, accepting each new reality with immediacy in order to keep up with Link’s relentless pace. Other people certainly won’t get on with it, partly because of the bizarre nature of the stories, but also because of the meandering narrative. The stories rarely start at the beginning, instead opting for somewhere in the middle. Their plots are disconcertingly ambiguous, and endings can be listless, neither open nor closed. Very often, not much happens at all.
At its heart, this is a collection of ghost stories, shadowy reflections of our world, instantly familiar yet obviously and frighteningly not. Whichever side of the fence you fall, Link’s work in unifying, in love or in hate. I was hugely impressed, captivated, and eagerly and gullably led by her, keen to keep up. In my mind, Link must have taken the advice of the summer people quite literally, having never forgotten to “BE BOLD“.
Get in Trouble by Kelly Link (Cannongate Books, 2015)
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Top image credit: Rebecca Gilroy
Nails: Soft Touch by MyGel