Get in Trouble: Heartbreaking Pocket Universes

Get in TroubleGet In Trouble: Stories by Kelly Link

Published: February 3rd, 2015
Publisher: Random House
Genre(s): Short Stories, Slipstream, Fantasy, Surreal
Format: Audiobook
Length: 9 hrs and 57 mins

Kelly Link has a knack for expertly juxtaposing weirdness with the mundane, and it’s basically catnip for my reading soul. Get in Trouble is no different.

However, one thing I noticed as I read is that only a handful of these stories are terrifying, which is a change from the norm. Link never really writes flat-out horror, but she has a way with chilling details and building suspense.

Although her talent for disturbing atmosphere does still come into play, Link spends most of her energy creating real, lived-in characters that leap off the page. In many ways, Get in Trouble finds her in transition; it’s still odd and unsettling, but it’s also some of her most accessible work.

The audiobook version, narrated by a full cast, features both familiar and new voices, some of whom are better than others. Tara Sands, who reads Secret Identity, is probably my favorite of the bunch. Ish Klein, who reads The New Boyfriend, has a high-pitched voice and staccato delivery that actually adds to the strangeness of the story. The only narrator I had some trouble with is Susan Duerden, whose odd cadence and breathy voice was very distracting at first.

“The Summer People” read by Grace Blewer
Fran and her (alcoholic, absentee) father are caretakers for vacation summer homes. Most of the time this just involves cleaning up after out-of-towners, but sometimes Fran has to deal with a different and far more dangerous type of summer people. This story starts out slowly, but Link steadily builds the danger and weirdness until delivering a punch of an ending. My only complaint is that the audiobook narrator completely ignores Fran’s accent.

“I Can See Right Through You” read by Kirby Heyborne
The Demonlover, aging star of a massively popular supernatural romance, reconnects with his former co-star/girlfriend as she films a TV segment about mysterious disappearances at a nudist colony. This story actually manages to humanize a celebrity couple who bear a very strong resemblance to Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson. That said, the story opens with a prologue that feels completely disconnected from the main plot, and the ending is both sudden and unexpectedly surreal. I enjoyed the middle, but I’m still not quite sure what to think about the rest of this story.

“Secret Identity” read by Tara Sands
Told in the form of a confession and an apology, this story relates the adventures of a sixteen-year-old girl who travels to a New York hotel to meet a man more than twice her age under false pretenses. When she arrives, she discovers that the hotel is hosting two conventions: one for dentists, and another for superheroes. Much to her dismay, everyone assumes she is there to audition as a sidekick. Easily my favorite story in the entire collection; the main character is sympathetic and relatable even when she does terrible things. I also loved how Link plays with the idea of “secret identity” throughout.

“Valley of the Girls” read by Robbie Daymond
Decadent rich kids fight and fuck and build pyramids to house all of their worldly goods while lookalikes called “faces” make public appearances in their names. This story felt a bit overstuffed – too many disconnected ideas and not quite enough character development. Either “faces” or the Egyptian aspects of the story would have been enough to carry it, but both together are a bit too much. Ultimately Link doesn’t spend very much time exploring the concept of “faces”, so it just ends up confusing things.

“Origin Story” read by Rebecca Lowman
A small-town waitress spends the night with her former boyfriend, a now-famous superhero, at a dilapidated Wizard of Oz theme park. They have sex and talk about life, slowly but surely revealing shared histories and the intimacies of a long friendship. As they speak, we get glimpses of the strange world around them, full of mutants and people with superpowers. This story was a little willfully confusing at first, but once I got into the world, I definitely enjoyed it.

“The Lesson” read by Cassandra Campbell
Tan and Harper decide to attend a wedding held on an island despite the fact that their surrogate, Naomi, is in danger of delivering their baby prematurely. This is definitely the most realistic story Link has ever published, but there are still a few quirky touches and moments of strangeness. I liked this story, but I spent the latter half waiting for supernatural occurrences that never arrived.

“The New Boyfriend” read by Ish Klein
Immy and Ainslie are best friends, but Immy kind of hates Ainslie for getting everything she’s ever wanted and more. Especially her “boyfriends”, which are actually lifelike robots entirely devoted to their owner. When Ainslie receives a new boyfriend for her birthday, Immy’s jealousy overwhelms her, and she takes drastic measures. This was probably my second-favorite story in the collection. The narrator’s flat affect and unreliability paired well with the creepy concept of a “ghost boyfriend” who might be possessed by a real ghost.

“Two Houses” read by Susan Duerden
Astronauts on a long-haul spaceship – the House of Mystery – tell ghost stories during one night of their years-long trip to Alpha Centauri. This story was a mix of sci-fi and the supernatural, and although it builds to a particularly creepy moment at the end, it mostly relies on atmosphere and not plot or character.

“Light” read by Kirsten Potter
This story is so full of strange details that it’s nearly impossible to summarize properly. An alcoholic woman with two shadows works security at a company caring for “sleepers” – people found randomly lying asleep on the ground. She visits pocket universes, sleeps with the occasional wolf-man, and fights with her troublesome twin brother, who sprung forth from her extra shadow. Although I did enjoy this story, the strangeness was at such a high level that it was kind of overwhelming at times.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley… and then I listened to the audiobook version on Scribd instead. It was worth it!

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Lucky Alan: When the End Comes

Lucky Alan and Other StoriesLucky Alan and Other Stories by Jonathan Lethem

Published: February 24th, 2015
Publisher: Random House Audio
Genre(s): Short Stories, Literary Fiction, Magical Realism, Surrealism
Format: Audiobook
Length: 4 hrs and 22 mins

The only thing I remember about Jonathan Lethem’s first collection of short stories is that he really liked abrupt endings. Lucky Alan is no different. Sometimes the endings work, and sometimes the stories just feel unfinished. That’s probably why this collection has so many one-star ratings – people assume that Lethem is trying to palm off his fragments on an unsuspecting public, and they react with vehemence.

Thing is, I think the one-star critics are being overly harsh. Yes, a few of these stories are duds, but the good ones far outweigh the misses, and it’s possible that Lucky Alan is Lethem’s strongest collection (although I’d have to re-read his earlier work for a definitive verdict). It definitely made me want to pick up his most recent few novels, and I haven’t been as interested in his work since he starting writing in a more exclusively literary vein.

Although I definitely recommend listening to the audiobook version of this collection – the narrators are all pretty great, even Lethem himself – all the stories (but one) are available online from their original publications.

Lucky Alan” read by Mark Deakins
Very much about New York and the people who live there. An actor and a theatre director strike up a casual friendship, and one day the director tells a story about his fraught relationship with a neighbor. Subtle but great. All about small details and the way people perceive each other and themselves.

The King of Sentences” read by David Wain
A couple is so obsessed with an author they call “The King of Sentences” that they travel to his hometown and stalk him until he appears at the local post office. The object of their affection responds with distaste but it doesn’t faze them in the least. Heightened and satirical but still entertaining – I could almost picture this as a sketch on Portlandia.

“Traveler Home” read by Mark Deakins
A man known only as Traveler survives a blizzard along with his dog, only to find a baby under odd circumstances. Lethem uses a stilted, affected style here that I found distracting. This out of all the stories felt the most like it was the first part of something unfinished.

Procedure in Plain Air” read by Amy Landecker
A road crew digs a hole in a sidewalk outside a coffee shop and puts a prisoner inside. The only witness feels responsible for the nameless, voiceless prisoner and decides to keep watch. I think I liked the oddness of the situation more than the story itself, which felt lacking in incident.

“Their Back Pages” read by Isaac Butler
Characters from classic newspaper comic strips crash-land on an island and slowly but surely devolve. This is probably the most stylistically ambitious of the stories in this collection, alternating between descriptions of comic panels and more traditional narrative scenes. At first I wasn’t sure what to think of this story, but once I caught on to what was happening, I really enjoyed it.

The Porn Critic” read by Bruce Wagner
A man writes reviews of porn tapes for his job, but it ends up interfering with both his reputation and his personal life. This felt a bit reminiscent of a Woody Allen story in some ways, although far more realistic than most of Allen’s fiction. Both this and the title story are very stylistically similar, and both feel like they are specifically about New York City.

The Empty Room” read by Michael Goldstrom
A man designates one room in his house as the “empty room”, explaining to his family that they aren’t allowed to leave anything in the room once they finish using it. Over time, he ends up basically living in that room, away from his family. This story had a nice undercurrent of surrealism that helped bring home its more allegorical aspects. Additionally, although the ending is sudden, it works really well for the material.

The Dreaming Jaw, The Salivating Ear” read by Jonathan Lethem
This story has one joke, really: that if a blog is like a house, a banned commenter is the rotting corpse left resting on the threshold. Once the joke becomes obvious, Lethem just keeps hammering it home. This is the only story in the collection that I’d consider an absolute dud.

Pending Vegan” read by Mark Deakins
A man who has stopped taking his antidepressants goes to SeaWorld with his family despite his looming sense of disaster. For whatever reason, this story wasn’t particularly memorable. I didn’t dislike it, but it didn’t really hold my attention, either. The main character’s anxiety and endless worrying didn’t really add up to much in the end.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

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Dangerous Laughter by Steven Millhauser

Published: February 12, 2008
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Genre(s): Fiction, Slipstream
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 244

I was drawn to this collection of short stories by two things; first off, the cover is gorgeously designed, evoking both the period setting of many of the stories – the 1950s and 1960s – and the unsettling, off-kilter themes that resonate throughout the collection. Secondly, I’d heard of Millhauser’s story “Eisenheim the Illusionist“, which was adapted into a film that was unfairly compared to The Prestige because they were both period stories about magicians. I liked the movie enough that I wanted to know more about the author, although I’ve read that the story is very different from the movie.

It’s rare to find a truly consistent short story collection; in my experience, even the best authors swings and misses in this kind of collection. I read Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things earlier this year, and those stories alternated between gorgeous, disturbing, and incredibly slight. Dangerous Laughter has a few stories that I felt miss the mark, but by and large Millhauser’s collection is one of the strongest I’ve read in a long time. The stories alternate between macro-level narratives that read more like entries in a history book, and more personal stories that focus on specific characters. In general, my favorite stories fell in the latter category, but all of the stories in this volume have something to recommend them.

The first truly stunning one is “The Room in the Attic”, which tells the story of a young man who befriends a girl that lives in darkness. During his junior year at school, the narrator, David, befriends an odd, bookish new kid named Wolf. One day Wolf invites David over to his house and introduces him to his sister, Isabel, who lives in the attic room and keeps her lights turned off at all times. Wolf tells David that she is recovering from a nervous breakdown, but that she seems to like him, and David begins regularly visiting Isabel in her attic room.

They dance together in the dark, play games, and talk about anything and everything. Soon enough David is spending more and more time with Isabel, and can think of nothing else but his daily visit. Eventually the idea of Isabel looms in David’s mind, and her invisibility becomes an indelible part of her personality for him, until he is no longer sure he wants to see her face. I loved the way this story every-so-gently tweaked reality and played with symbolism; it manages to fill something seemingly mundane with incredible power.

The title story, “Dangerous Laughter”, also plays with something apparently normal that becomes twisted and strange. It focuses on one summer when a group of students start playing a game where they gather in secret and laugh as loud and long as they possibly can, until they are exhausted, spent. Eventually they form laughter salons, each with its own specialty, and the games start turning into a ritual.

The laughter salons seem both innocent and deeply, darkly personal; where other games like spin-the-bottle or seven minutes in heaven are naive or childish approaches to sexuality, the laughter games seem to tap into something more primal but similarly illicit. Things start getting even more intense when a formerly anti-social girl joins the laughter salons and starts laughing harder and longer than everyone else. This story perfectly captures the lyrical mysticism and strangeness inherent in those bygone teenage summers, and quickly became one of my most favorite in this collection.

Other stories in the collection deal with creativity (“In The Reign of Harad IV“), spirituality and belief (“The Tower”), identity (“The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman”), and more. Although at first they may seem gentle and understated, many of them are filled with a creeping tension or an impending sense of tragedy. Few of the stories wear their fantastic nature on their sleeves, but all of them are just a few steps to the left of reality, edging into more unsettling territory. More often than not, it was just enough to get me thoroughly hooked and keep me reading. I thoroughly enjoyed this collection, and look forward to reading more by Millhauser very soon.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

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St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves

Title story from St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell, published 2007.

I’ve recently been making a point of reading more short stories because I’m interested in trying my hand at writing some. As I’ve read more, I’ve discovered that there are certain genres that seem to excel in a shorter form. There’s a vaguely defined genre known as “slipstream” – sort of an odder cousin to magical realism, perhaps – that seems perfectly suited to short stories. To me, slipstream refers to stories that are just to the left of realism, ones with a slight surrealistic tilt, usually just enough to make you feel slightly uncomfortable.

Karen Russell seems to fit nicely into that category. I’d heard of her previously after reading some interesting blurbs about her first novel, Swamplandia! (exclamation point included), and both of her books have particularly eye-catching cover designs. I stopped at the library on my way home today to see if they had anything of hers on hand. They didn’t have the full collection, but I was able to find this story in a Best of 2007 collection edited by Stephen King.

At the start of the story, we discover that there are special schools for children born of werewolves. The condition skips a generation – alternating between wolfishness and humanity – and most werewolf parents feel it best that their more human children be taught the ways of humanity so that they can exist properly in both worlds. The story is narrated by a girl named Claudette as she experiences the different stages of becoming acclimated to human society.

The story works on several levels; when the girls are first brought to the school, they are given human names, much like missionaries gave “Christian” names to natives in Africa. A theme running throughout is what it really means to be “civilized” and how losing touch with nature changes someone. The youngest sister of the bunch never lets go of her animal nature, and she is shunned by the others for not conforming. The question of how to handle this ever-present reminder of their former wild nature is always at the front of the narrator’s mind.

On another level, the story works as a commentary on gender roles; there is a separate school for boys, and when the two groups are reintroduced to each other, they are told to speak in carefully prepared human dialogues. When one of the boys goes off script, Claudette snaps and lets her wolfish nature come through, and the boy is shocked and unable to respond. The girls are taught to control their emotions and behaviors very carefully, and the stress of that repression clearly wears thin.

Ultimately the story is a fascinating dissection of civilized society and the roles that are imposed on us as we grow up. The setting is evocative, the characters are nicely drawn, and it’s a brisk, easy read. I look forward to reading more stories by this author. Definitely recommended.