LET US SPEAK, first, of first sentences. The doorway into the house, or, if you prefer, the view of the door. Perhaps even the glimpse of the rooftop from the road. Here are some of Kelly Link’s first sentences over a long and fruitful career:
- “When the sex tape happened and things went south with Fawn, the demon lover did what he always did.”
- “Fran’s daddy woke her up wielding a mister.”
- “‘Dorothy Gale,’ she said.”
- “Eric was night, and Batu was day.”
- “Q: And who will be fired out of the cannon?”
- “‘When you’re Dead,’ Samantha says, ‘you don’t have to brush your teeth.’”
- “I. Going to Hell: Instructions and Advice.”
- “Fox is a television character, and she isn’t dead yet.”
- “Ainslie doesn’t rip open presents.”
- “two men, one raised by wolves”
Laid out so, they form a very odd poem, or something a sleep-talker would slur and mutter deep in the pits of REM. They discombobulate, pique, or both.
What should a first sentence do? Certainly, it must capture a reader’s attention; it must come-hither in a very particular way. At the very least, it must draw the reader to the next sentence. A short story collection has this problem a dozen times over — instead of a single beginning, it must begin over and over again.
In his book Invisible Forms, Kevin Jackson speaks to the unique challenge of the first sentence. Denied more old-fashioned starts, he says — like “Once upon a time,” “It was a dark and stormy night,” or a Beowulf-style “Lo!” — “the self-aware, self-respecting modern writer who stares down at the still unravished whiteness of a page and wonders how best to go about molesting it is obliged to steer between the rock of cuteness and the hard place of mundanity.”
This is not a minor task. Upon reading her for the first time, I worried for Link, because her opening sentences seemed to set up impossible stakes. They veered between the above eccentricities and provocative variations on classical openings: “This is a story about being lost in the woods.” “There once was a man whose wife was dead.” “Dear Mary (if that is your name).” How, I thought, could a sustainable story unfold beyond this sort of sentence? A first-time reader — someone unfamiliar with what she is capable of doing — could be forgiven for expressing skepticism. How could they possibly live up to their own expectations?
In 2010, io9 ran a piece by Link in which she detailed a part of her idea-generating process: writing a list of her literary obsessions. Here, she wrote, were things she “most liked in other people’s fiction,” whether they were “thematic, character driven, very general or very specific.” At the time, I’d never read any of her work, but the reasoning she outlined was so sensible — and the list she wrote so provocative — I couldn’t help but latch on. The list included, among other things, haunted houses, theme parks, invented narratives, twins, old mysteries, ne’er-do-well relations, imaginary friends, mocking celebrities, metafiction, and weird sexual dynamics.
I printed this essay and read it over and over. I even made my own list — the beginning of a writerly preoccupation with lists of all kinds: of obsessions, of fears, of potential disasters, of titles. While it’s true that readers can always use writers’ published works to infer their obsessions, there is a unique pleasure to a writer laying bare her obsessions in this way.
Link’s previous work, including short story collections Stranger Things Happen and Magic for Beginners, has been heavily anthologized, prestigiously prized — she’s won, been nominated, a finalist, and shortlisted for more awards than there is space in this essay to name — and adored in both the literary fiction and genre fiction communities. The stories in these books all seem to draw from her list — a feat, given that so many of the stories are wildly, incomprehensibly different from one another.
Get in Trouble, the newest collection from Link, is a natural progeny of these books, and her obsessions. It features the Link stories that have been wandering in the wild for years now — including “Light,” which appeared in Tin House and later in the anthology Fantastic Women: 18 Tales of the Surreal and the Sublime from Tin House; and “Secret Identity,” which had previously been in a limited-edition chapbook and an anthology, Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd — and brings them together in a single volume alongside new work. Despite having been published over a long range of time, the stories in Get in Trouble are both thematically and structurally in sync with each other, and the rest of Link’s oeuvre.
One of the collection’s highlights, “Secret Identity,” feels like a kissing cousin to her sprawling novella “Magic for Beginners.” Both deal with identity, adolescence, and narrative layers. “Magic for Beginners” had the reader (you) reading a story about a television show called The Library in which a teenage boy named Jeremy Mars is obsessed with a television show called The Library. “Secret Identity” tells the story of a teenage girl who travels to a hotel hosting a convention of superheroes and dentists to meet up with the object of her affection, Paul Zell — a man who believes she is her 32-year-old sister. In this story, also, we can see Link’s obsessions with metafiction, fictional media (the girl and Paul Zell met in a fictionalized MMORPG called FarAway), celebrities, superheroes, celebrity superheroes, and questionable choices. “Origin Story,” also in Get in Trouble, is set in an abandoned Oz theme park that seems fictional but is in fact quite real, and appears to be from the same universe as “Secret Identity” — one where superheroes are ordinary people until they develop X-Men-like powers of impressiveness, from flight to the ability to hang pictures straight without a level. Then again, Link’s stories are soaked in so much magic and seem to follow no traditional world-building rules, they might all be in the same universe.
Link’s range, compassion, and ability to unsettle — whether writing about the South, deep space, or anywhere in between — are on full display in her other stories as well. In “The Lesson” — one of the collection’s heartbreaking standouts — a gay couple awaiting the birth of their child via a surrogate attends a friend’s wedding on a strange, beautiful island off the Southern coast, and experiences a haunting of sorts as they work through their fears about the pending birth. In “Two Houses” — the story that made me suddenly realize the sun had dropped out of the sky, and encouraged me to turn on the lights — ghost stories with doppelgängers collide with English manor mystery collide with Event Horizon–style space horror, as six astronauts and an AI system named Maureen wind their way through the universe. In “Light,” a woman named Lindsey, tasked with overlooking a Florida warehouse full of people who have spontaneously and permanently fallen asleep, navigates her life and her troublesome twin brother (shaped from half of her double shadow) in a world full of pocket universes — parallel worlds that can be visited from our own — that she encountered through her ex-husband, Elliot:
Elliot wasn’t the first thing Lindsey had brought back from a pocket universe. She’d gone on vacation once and brought back the pit of a green fruit that fizzed like sherbet when you bit into it, and gave you dreams about staircases, ladders, rockets, things that went up and up, although nothing had come up when she planted it, although almost everything grew in Florida.
Within these plots, the stories are all studded with images as beautiful and surreal as David Lynch dioramas: a man in a wedding dress riding over shallow water in a glass-bottomed boat; a now-extinct cat-like taxidermied nightmare; eerily intricate little toys and houses filled with moss and molting monsters; RealDoll–style werewolf boyfriends living in storage units; hovering bubbles of blood; butter statues shaped like supervillains; possible nudist ghosts; and too many other oddities to catalog. As in her other collections, Link’s stories — regardless of their actual word count — sprawl and deepen like novellas, or novels tucked into short-story-sized boxes, or a TARDIS, or the unsettling interior of the Navidson/Green house in House of Leaves. The inside and outside are not proportionate to one another. Her world-building is ecstatic; one gets the sense that no amount of new information about her stories’ universes would make them predictable to anyone except her.
And so we return to the first sentences, and by extension, the stories themselves.
By virtue of these sentences, by virtue of her premises, her plots, her ecstatically built universes, nothing of Kelly Link’s should, rightly, work. It’s akin to walking into the laboratory of a mad scientist and observing a sprawling, unrecognizable Rube Goldberg–style machine wreathed in tunnels of naked mole rats, giving off blue and gold sparks, sweating tea, smelling like sulfur and hydrangeas, and belching the second movement of Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs; and then watching the whole thing precisely and perfectly crack an egg in a bowl. What Link evokes at the end of her stories — in the case of stories like the “The Lesson,” exactly at the end — is the sort of magic every reader hungers for. It’s the desire to come away from a text feeling slightly altered — whether there are tears snow-globing on the lenses of your glasses or you have to put the book down and bite your thumb or there’s a weird feeling of pressure behind your nose or you utter an involuntary “Oh.” It’s what every good story should do in some way or another, and it’s the sort of thing that seems simple, but isn’t.
Or, to put it another way: Most of her stories are unfilmable. They contain so much nuance and so many sleights of hand and so much contortion of form, it would take a filmmaker who does not yet exist to adapt them to the screen. This is not a marker of quality in and of itself — there are plenty of brilliant, beautiful, filmable novels and stories. But it puts her into an elusive category of writers — alongside Nicholson Baker and Italo Calvino — who are so specialized that they have broken fiction down to its most essential elements, then reassembled them into something unrecognizable. This is why Link should be required reading for every writer, even writers whose styles deviate completely from hers: it is necessary to understand the sheer possibilities of form, of genre. To understand how rules can be twisted, snapped, shattered.
In an interview with Gigantic Magazine last year, Link talked extensively about her admiration of television shows:
The other aspect of a television show like The Vampire Diaries is the narrative speed. It’s breakneck, not something you can pull off, in the same way, in a short story. It’s one of the reasons why I loved American Horror Story, too, that sense of how much narrative had been crammed, in such interesting ways, into such a small space. Okay, so maybe that is something you can do (that I try to do) in a short story.
The comparison to American Horror Story is an interesting one: whereas AHS’s dizzying array of baddies and side plots often manage to undercut any real-life horror they’d evoked, Link’s wild setups always launch her emotional questions — How do people, women in particular, survive trauma? What does it feel like to grow up? How does it feel to slide slow-motion toward your own mistakes? Why are stories important? How do you know you’re in love? — into the stratosphere. But true to her vision, almost every story in Get in Trouble has other narratives tucked inside them — or “crammed,” to use her word — whether it’s parallel worlds or storytelling or reality shows or MMORPGs or sudden tears into the future. This deepening appears quite literally in “Light” as well, in which the pocket universes serve as metaphors for the way all of her stories are structured:
Very few of the pocket universes were larger than, say, Maryland. Some had been abandoned a long time ago. Some were inhabited. Some weren’t friendly. Some pocket universes contained their own pocket universes. You could go a long ways in and never come out again. You could start your own country out there and do whatever you liked, and yet most of the people Lindsey knew, herself included, had never done anything more adventuresome than go for a week to some place where the food and the air and the landscape seemed like something out of a book you’d read as a child; a brochure; a dream.
There were sex-themed pocket universes, of course. Tax shelters and places to dispose of all kinds of things: trash, junked cars, bodies. […] You must be this tall to enter. This rich. Just this foolish. Because who knew what might happen? Pocket universes might wink out again, suddenly, all at once.
It becomes clear, after a while, that to read Kelly Link is to give yourself over to her completely. It is an exercise in trust. She gives you that first sentence. She tells you her obsessions, and then heaves them together as if to do so is a challenge she has set out for herself — an Oulipian-style conceit. Here, she combines twins, old mysteries, ghost stories. Here, Cat in the Hat–type characters/antagonists/allies, imaginary friends, haunted houses. Here, theme parks, celebrities, weird sexual dynamics. What comes out is difficult to quantify — almost 3,000 words and I still don’t think I’ve nailed it, exactly — and impossible to imitate. Will the egg crack? Will you come away altered? Yes, yes.
Infinite amounts of ink are spilled about the words “genre” and “literature”; so much so, I’m almost reluctant to invoke them here. These labels are problematic, and complicated, but for the purposes of this review, I refer to a Bennett Sims interview in The American Reader where he talks about how “‘genre’ and ‘literary’ have also come to designate structurally distinct culture industries, with parallel publishing institutions and networks of prestige.” Here, these words refer to these specific communities.
One of the pleasures of the genre world is the reverence with which it treats short stories. In this community, the short story is not considered a stepping-stone to a novel, or a thing to be published as publicity for a novel, or something to be “linked” with other stories into a novel-shaped object after the fact, but as a discrete, important creation all its own. There is an entire network of readers and critics who review short stories by themselves, as they are published in the litany of professionally paid magazines. Short stories are eligible for the industry’s top literary merits like the Hugo, Nebula, Shirley Jackson, and World Fantasy Awards. By contrast, any writer who works in the “literary” community knows that short stories are treated very differently there. The mainstream literary world struggles with writers who only write short stories, and not novels. Short story writers can recite the following sentences from memory: Collections usually don’t make money. Collections are hard to sell. Is there any way this collection could be linked? Is it a novel-in-stories? Are these really chapters? These stories are great, but do you have a novel? With apologies to Muriel Rukeyser, sometimes it feels as if the literary universe is made up of novels, not (short) stories or atoms.
When Link attempted to publish her first collections with mainstream publishers, she was rebuffed. (She explained to an interviewer in 2005: “I had enough stories to make up a collection that no editor wanted to buy, because short story collections don’t sell very well.”) This partially led to the creation of Small Beer Press, which she runs with her husband Gavin Grant. One of the best small presses currently publishing, Small Beer gives homes to incredible books: Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters. Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria. Kij Johnson’s At the Mouth of the River of Bees. Karen Joy Fowler’s What I Didn’t See.
The literary world — again, I refer to the community — has now fully embraced Link. They have nothing but rapturous praise for her work. But I wonder if their enthusiasm for her style, as well as her love of the short story, will spill over to other writers with a similar focus? A few years ago, when I reviewed Karen Russell’s new collection Vampires in the Lemon Grove, I lamented the fact that critics kept citing authors like Russell and George Saunders as examples of a kind of revolution for the short story collection, despite the fact that they are documented anomalies. Hopefully, Get in Trouble can give a needed shot of adrenaline to the genre: not as stepping-stones, publicity tools, or practice, but a form worth championing on its own.
Carmen Maria Machado is a fiction writer, critic, and essayist whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, AGNI, Granta, NPR, The American Reader, VICE, Women’s Review of Books, and elsewhere.