Stranger Things Happen

If you suspect that you might be an ordinary person, one without creativity or imagination... well, then Stranger Things Happen might not appeal to you to begin with, but it certainly won't make you feel any better about your imaginative state. Even if you think you are a fairly creative person, it's hard to believe that you could come close the level of the fantastic and fascinating that Kelly Link achieves in these eleven short stories. A strange combination of fantasy and very modern reality, Link's collection features stories that don't necessarily always work perfectly, but are certainly memorable.

As far as the collection goes, these stories are all linked by undercurrents of fairy tales and mythology, an ethereal tone where the reader understands that not all is as it seems, and the fact that in each of these stories, very real characters (in perhaps not so realistic settings) deal with personal pain and try to somehow make a connection to someone else. On the back cover of my paperback, Andrew O'Hehir is quoted from his NY Times Book Review article as saying that Link's stories "aren't linked to one another, at least not in the sense that they share settings or characters, but they all draw water from the same clear, cold, deep well." I find that to be a profoundly excellent way of explaining the feeling that one is left with at the end of the collection. Not quite ghost stories in a sense of horror, but certainly some blend of Gothic fantasy that yield goosebumps and an eerie atmosphere.

Link is a good example of the post-modern storyteller struggling to find a narrative structure that works for each tale, and as a result, few of these pieces are straightforward narratives. I tended to find that the more straightforward stories (well, as straightforward as Link gets) are the ones that I liked a bit more -- I was able to spend more time thinking about the characters and events and less in decoding her narrative intentions/figuring what she was trying to do by mixing things up so completely. (I'm mostly thinking about "The Girl Detective" as I say that, the last in the collection and, for me, the least satisfying.) There is, however, always a way to connect emotionally with these characters, for no matter how strange the circumstances of the story, it's the deeper emotions that make up the truly compelling foundation of each one.

It's hard to pick a favorite -- and harder to single one out as being the most memorable -- but if I had to, I think I would go with "Travels with the Snow Queen" as the one I enjoyed most in the collection. Of course, I also feel that might be my shortfalls as a reader, because I found it very easy to relate to that narrator. As a young woman coming to terms with a failed relationship, she walks a path shown in the scars of her shoeless feet and whether she must stick to this path becomes an overpowering question. The reader is led to question the sacrifices of heroines in fairy tales and wonder if the traditional happily ever after with a "hero" is quite worth it or if the heroine might be just as happy pursing some other path. A close second is "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose," where a probably dead man exists in a somewhat limbo-like seaside resort, writing letters to his wife, whose name he cannot remember. The uncertainty of his situation and his clinging to what he believes he knows about his wife and their life paints a very poignant picture. As the first story in the book, it drew me in and assured that I would keep reading. "Flying Lessons" draws heavily on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice (and even a bit of Icarus), but with some swapped gender roles, one feels a greater strength in the heroine so that ultimate happiness might just be possible. (Of course, there's also the looming idea of what happens then, but one must first get to the point where one can seriously ask that question). "Survivor's Ball, or, the Donner Party" features two Americans, strangers, that have decided to travel through New Zealand together for a bit. The narrator is a young man, obviously smitten with his traveling companion, and the girl is named Serena -- which led to me explicitly picturing Blake Lively in the role (as her character in Gossip Girl is also a selfish girl named Serena who easily attracts men and always gets her somewhat self-destructive way). They're driving towards a particular hotel and the news is filled with talk over a missing party of hikers in a snowstorm. Clearly, we understand some implications that are drawn with the title, though the lack of specificity in the story allows the reader to imagine all kinds of interesting results. In "Vanishing Act," a young girl is the only one paying close enough attention to watch her cousin slowly disappear (and aid her in that process) so she can rejoin her parents in faraway countries. One feels pain for this forgotten child, but even more painful is the situation of her cousin, watching a girl who seems to have some power to escape, whereas the cousin is stuck where she is, undeniably corporeal. "Water off a Black Dog's Back" features a strange relationship between a young man whose relationship with a girl and her family seems to involve some bodily sacrifice and an acceptance of whatever nonhuman nature they might possess. "Shoes and Marriage" features for vignettes that focus on variations of Cinderella, a beauty pageant and Dorothy/her companions, Imelda Marcos (a dictator's wife hoards the shoes of the people her husband has killed), and a fortune-teller's predictions. With a common theme of shoes (and, well, marriage), I enjoyed all of the vignettes, but I'm not sure how well the piece worked as a whole. I didn't much enjoy "Most of My Friends Are Two-Thirds Water," where the narrator is hopelessly in love with a friend that doesn't think much of her at all, beyond her usefulness as a person who will listen to him. He's too preoccupied with the question of whether the women in the world are turning into aliens. "Louise's Ghost" deals with two best friends named Louise, which made things challenging, but interesting, as Link was able to really play with the question of where they blended into the other and where they were decidedly distinct. "The Girl Detective" touches upon the fairy tale of the twelve dancing princesses and the idea of lost mothers. Unwittingly, I seem to have found an order of my favorites in this collection by describing them, but I'm also struck with the fact that, even though I had to look for some exact titles, I was able to remember every single story in the series without forgetting a one.

I took my time in reading Stranger Things Happen, keeping it for subway rides so I could swallow it in small bites and frequently pause to consider the ideas at play. At moments, I would have no idea where Link was taking us or why -- and at others, I felt profoundly moved. I'm fairly sure that some alchemy is at play in her words where it's possible for two people to read the exact same Link story and yet come out with completely different experiences and understandings of what happened. Link trusts the reader to draw his or her own conclusions, and often, that's what yields a spookier result. She's not afraid of open-ended ideas that have no precise answer. Several stories end without a single resolution, and so the reader is left to imagine all kinds of results. While the stories themselves might be open for interpretation, I find that one thing is certain: Kelly Link is a master of the short story.

No comments: