Kelly Link. Now there’s a post-analog name for a fiction writer. I just finished reading her latest collection of stories, Pretty Monsters, and was not disappointed.
Ms. Link does not write fiction so much as she lets it slide around her characters’ skulls before rolling them out in cleverly designed droll packages. At times this approach left me scratching my head, but at other times it left me chuckling with admiration. Her art defies categorization, like all great art, so I’m convinced she’s onto something with some serious conceptual crunch.
Pretty Monsters is a collection of longish stories that’s reputedly her first collection targeted at the lucrative Young Adult Fiction market. It’s easy to see why her editors picked that genre. All the tales here feature at least one satisfyingly quirky adolescent mind, and the way she uses adolescent dialogue is spot on. And does so in refreshing, non-stereotypical fashion filtered through the ironic lens of a fully adult writer:
“Let me save you from the biggest mistake of your life,” Madeline said. Her voice took on a thrilling intensity, as if she was about to impart the secrets of the universe to Clementine… “Cabell Meadows is not hot. Cabell Meadows is at least six years older than you and he still doesn’t know that tube socks are not a good look with Birkenstocks. Cabell Meadows voluntarily came to a high-school biology class to talk about how he spent his spring break shooting bears in the butt with tranquilizer darts. Cabell Meadows is an epic, epic loser.”
If there’s any thing I’ve noticed about teenagers it’s that they have a virtually limitless urge to turn things on their heads, while simultaneously trying to fit in with their peers. They can be amazingly clever, creating their own realities as they struggle to fit in with the adult world. “Pretty Monsters,” the story for which the collection is named, not only has social relations crafted by this zany experimentalism, the structure of the story itself feels cobbled together by it. The end of this story is both wacky and chilling, and while part of me was disappointed that it wasn’t more conventional, another part was all, “Yeah! Well played!”
Edgy, angsty teen humor is not Link’s only forte, either. She can spin a beguiling fantasy or two as well, as evidenced by a couple of fine stories in this collection, “The Wizards of Perfil,” and my favorite, “The Constable of Abal.” Both stories construct an interesting alternate reality, but by the end my expectations and assumptions about this reality got tweaked ingeniously. (Although, I’m proud to say, I saw the ending of “The Wizards of Perfil” a mile away. That didn’t keep me from enjoying the story.)
Another story, a kind of new millennium twist on Borges, features kids whose lives are taken over by a TV show about a world that is entirely contained by a magical library—The Free People’s World-Tree Library—and a character named Fox, who either dies or doesn’t die. As is typical in her tales, the plot is propelled by tantalizing clues about what’s happening, but with characters who bravely carry on despite growing suspicions that their version of reality is doomed. You might call it post-modern, you might call it metafiction, but this is no boring Thomas Pyncheon novel. I call it fascinating.