Kelly Link stories are not particularly hard to find these days – all but two of those in her new collection Get In Trouble have already appeared in various anthologies (five of them in ‘‘year’s bests’’) – but a new Link collection is still major news, in part because you can never really read a Link story for the second time, much like you can’t step in the same river twice. It’s not just that the stories are fluid, with unexpected eddies and odd new things always floating downstream, but that part of the pleasure of reading a Link story lies in deciding how to read this particular Link story. There are, to be sure, some recurring themes – rich kids and outsiders, superheroes and ghosts – and there are occasional allusions to other writers, such as when she borrows a Shirley Jackson title in ‘‘The Summer People’’ or a character named ‘‘the demon lover’’ in ‘‘I Can See Right Through You’’, but there’s also a sense of a master chef improvising with available ingredients. ‘‘Light’’, for example, is a story already packed with pocket universes, mysterious sleeping bodies turning up at random, detachable shadows as in George MacDonald or J.M. Barrie, and a hurricane, but you get the sense that at some point Link decided the story needed more iguanas, so there are more iguanas. And it works.
Jackson’s stories sometimes took place in fairly mundane settings, with disturbing things happening just outside the frame of the narrative. A good many of Link’s stories also hang on a fairly domestic framework, but she likes to bring these ancillary disturbances fully onstage. At its simplest level, ‘‘Light’’ concerns a somewhat hard-bitten woman with an unfulfilling job in a Florida storage facility, whose dissolute brother arrives on an unwelcome visit and gets involved with one of her co-workers. That’s a pretty mainstream plot, except the storage facility houses those mysterious sleeping bodies (identified only by the towns in which they were found), people vacation or even retire in pocket universes, shadows can detach or even multiply, and there are all those iguanas.
Similarly, ‘‘Secret Identity’’ begins as a familiar, sad tale of a 14-year-old-girl who makes her way from Iowa to New York for a planned liaison with an older man she met on the Internet – but the hotel where the assignation is to take place is filled with conventions of superheroes and dentists, a kitchen worker who makes elaborate life-size replicas of superheroes out of butter, and a rich kid who lives in the hotel and thinks of himself as Eloise. Another rich kid figures in ‘‘The New Boyfriend’’, told from the point of view of her friend Immy, who’s not only jealous of her boyfriends but falls hopelessly in love with one of them. All these boyfriends are lifesize robots drawn from the fantasies of teen urban romance – a vampire, a werewolf, and now a ghost, who can appear either in physical or ‘‘spectral’’ mode – which means he can pop up unexpectedly almost anywhere within range of his base station. Of course, he’s the one who is the object of Immy’s infatuation. Privilege is also an important aspect of ‘‘Valley of the Girls’’, in which the rich kids not only have avatar ‘‘Faces’’ for their public lives, but construct for themselves elaborate Egyptian-style pyramids as burial chambers, some of which have walk-in closets. It’s a kind of literalization-of-metaphor treatment of what a lot of young people already are doing on social media sites, and it’s a good example of Link’s unique approach to the materials of science fiction.
Even though Link has sometimes self-identified, at least informally, as an SF writer, Get In Trouble gives us more actual SF than her earlier collections, not only with the robot boyfriends of ‘‘The New Boyfriend’’, the futuristic avatars of ‘‘Valley of the Girls’’, and the pocket universes of ‘‘Light’’, but in one of the strongest stories here, ‘‘Two Houses’’, originally written for a Bradbury tribute anthology, which takes place during a decades-long starship voyage but shifts focus into a series of ghost stories that the crew decides to share with each other. The main one involves a boy who’s mom has inherited a pair of houses in England, one an Arizona ranch house transported piece-by-piece as part of an art installation, the second an exact replica of the first house, on the same estate. It’s an effective blend of space voyage, club story, and postmodern puzzle (mostly in that art installation project), and it even captures some real Bradbury language along the way.
Language is, after all, what really makes Link’s stories unique. She’s especially apt at capturing the querulous, lonely sarcasm of the precocious but disaffected teen, and her stories are peppered with funny lines that work as zingers even as they mask the character’s inner desperation. My guess is that the most popular story here will be ‘‘The Summer People’’, with its relatively straightforward narrative of a girl whose father has abandoned her and whose job is to look after seasonally occupied vacation homes, except that one of those home houses a mysterious unseen family with magical abilities, which they use judiciously. Stories like ‘‘Origin Story’’ and ‘‘I Can See Right Through You’’ capture the language of older protagonists, and a sense of loss that comes from hard experience. ‘‘Origin Story’’ is so dialogue-heavy it’s practically a one-act play, as two superheroes reflect on their past in the ruins of an Oz theme park (one’s superpower is only that she can levitate a bit, but many of the superpowers in Link stories aren’t that super, and are often useless). ‘‘I Can See Right Through You’’ also depicts two friends reflecting on their shared past, which includes having become media celebrities after appearing in a vampire movie together; now she is hosting a ghost-hunting TV program at the site of a former nudist colony where all the nudists inexplicably disappeared. Stories like these reveal a complexity of character and even a sense of regret that is less evident in Link’s stories about younger people, and in general the tone of Get In Trouble is a bit darker and the characters a bit more damaged than in earlier Link collections, but the magic remains, and so do the iguanas.