Get in Trouble. Kelly Link.

Link, Kelly. Get in Trouble. Random House, New York, 2015. Kindle electronic version. F; 5/16.

Lots of times in the past I’ve started a work of fiction and decided I didn’t like it, but then changed my mind. But I don’t remember ever having disliked something as much as I did this collection of short stories at the beginning, only to end up thinking they weren’t quite so bad. As with other fiction, I downloaded these stories because the collection was the runner-up for the 2016 Pulitzer fiction prize. Having read the winner and the other runner-up as well as this one I have to wonder if somebody put something in the judges’ drinks when they got together to make up their minds.

The Summer People was beyond whimsical but strangely haunting. It ended its fantasy in a flat statement about the protagonist living in the normal world, which impressed me as a smooth realistic landing. The next two stories were interesting but for me didn’t carry the kind of credibility that I experience when I feel an author is doing something fundamentally graceful. The tone here is something I tried to describe reviewing We are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Fowler.

I’m not sure how to capture my perception of this. I can only hope this tone may be dated a bit and will eventually disappear. I think it’s a form of nerd’s revenge (the motivation for which I happen to have a lot of respect). But it’s embarrasingly arch. And the smart, talented, ambitious, fundamentally wonderful people who go through this phase need to get beyond it. Here’s what I said about something like it in my review of Completely Beside Ourselves:

It’s a double-irony vernacular, I think sarcastically aping people who find it attractive to act like they’re talking to a child. I’m ambivalent about this tone, part of me finding it clever and sometimes funny, another part reacting to it with the tired annoyance I feel with that awful dated rubbish referred to as uptalk.

Many of Kelly Link’s stories are looking to dis shallow people who lack a self-critical inner life, but it can carry an aspirational viciousness that gives away its envying something else about those people. I’m not sure I can do any better at characterizing what that is and why I don’t like it.

But then comes the fourth story, Valley of the Girls, and we leap with if anything more of this arch dishonest-with-itself style into idiosyncratic incoherence. It’s hard to know whether we are simultaneously in and ironically trashing fantasy video games, rich stoned idiots’ imaginary narcissistic relationships, or what. But the readers’ reward doesn’t come anywhere near justifying their misery wading through all that tedious incoherence. At this point I thought the Pulitzer judges might not only have downed the wrong drinks, but have stopped their antipsychotics.

But I read on. The next two stories returned to the coherence and for me potential interest of the second and third one, and then in The New Boyfriend and Two Houses something happened and I got on this author’s wavelength. She is capable of fabulous irony that suggests unreality but at the same time questions and makes a fool of the trivially imaginary. What’s real? I like the agnostic balance in Immy’s adolescent ontologic speculation, playing with her real/unreal boyfriend:

Everyone thinks this is the real Immy. And what if the Immy they see is the real Immy, and the one on the inside is just hormones and chemicals and too many little secrets and weird jumbled thoughts that don’t mean anything after all?

Okay. If it were so, and there were a reality it would rest not in ourselves but outside, with others. People like me put a lot of eggs in the basket called the one on the inside. Should we worry about the answer when intelligent kids like this author ask Immy’s question? I think the answer matters. And also (a little more abstract) are the ghosts the astronauts tell one another about in the star spaceship really there along with them? Are we happy letting a machine decide? Or is it good enough just to poke fun at that kind of question?

Kelly Link walks a jiggling tightrope, and when she successfully gets to the other side it’s a credible scary complex show. When she falls into the safety net it’s not quite as much fun, but hell she’s just getting started. You could say the Pulitzer judges made a good call in giving this short story collection only honourable mention. Unil you read the one they chose to win this year’s prize.

Unscorable because both the content of the style are all over the lot.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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