by Kelly Link (Random House)
Do you like magical realism? Stories that start out in normal places, with regular people, and then get impossible and weird? No? Me neither. It tends to make me feel the rug’s been pulled out from underneath me, that I’ve been fooled, led somewhere I didn’t intend to go. But then, I’d never read anything by Kelly Link before.
It’s reductive to compare a writer to other writers as a means of understanding what they do, but in the case of someone whose work is so hard to describe, it’s tempting. So: The stories in this new collection, Link’s first in ten years, are something like the wonderful short stories of Ray Bradbury, whose science fiction transcended that genre classification and always had so much heart. They’re reminiscent of Neil Gaiman, too, with something dark, feminine, and punk rock blended in, like something YA author Cecil Castellucci would cook up, only these are boozier and more grown-up and full of sex.
And when it comes to magical realism, or science fiction—whatever it is we’re calling the elements of Link’s fiction that put a superhero convention in the same hotel as a meeting of dentists—the stories in this collection fall into one of a few interesting categories. There are the ones like “Two Houses,” which takes place on a spaceship floating through the cosmos, that are strictly, well, otherworldly. There are ones that start out normal enough, like “The Summer People,” which introduces us to a girl who lives out in the country with her hard-drinking dad, before it takes a sharp turn into a backwoods lit up by magic, a haunted house of sorts, and antique toys that come to life.
There are even a couple of regular old literary stories in here, and these will really break your heart. Because when it comes to the world we actually live in, here and now, Link couldn’t be pithier, funnier, or more on-point. In one story, there’s a band called O Hell, Kitty. Another one, called “Light,” takes place on some alternate plane where people are born with two shadows and mermaids are an invasive species, but is also most definitely Dade County, Florida, a florid and alien landscape in its own right. It has “tunnels of coral reef, barely covered by blackish, sandy dirt … Geckos with their velvet bellies and papery clockwork insides, tick-tock barks … Lakes so big and shallow that you could spend all day walking across them.”
Once I’d read a few of these stories, I was hooked. I trusted Link to take me places I wanted to go, even if I didn’t know what they were. Because as it turns out, her wildly out-there stories are about unreality, which is an idea we grapple with all the time. They’re about the way you can believe in a fantasy with all your heart, if you’re feeling sad enough. They’re about the line between reality and imagination, which in our technology-driven world is growing blurrier every day.
In “The New Boyfriend,” a teenager named Immy is poisonously jealous of her best friend, Ainslie, for having not one, but three boyfriends—all of them fake—expensive, lifelike robots that she stores in a closet in the basement. When she wants to spend time with her Boyfriends, she switches a button on their heads, underneath their (real, human) hair, and they follow her around and gaze into her eyes and fetch her drinks and snacks.
It sounds creepy, but Link hasn’t written a horror story just for the thrill of it; she’s written one that seems entirely plausible. Ainslie’s Vampire Boyfriend wears a dark suit and is devoted to his owner for all eternity, and the Werewolf Boyfriend comes with both a boy head and a wolf head, as you’d expect. Just like the teenagers you know, the ones in this story have grown up in a world where simulated reality and actual, living things coexist, and Link has a wonderful knack for showing us how eerie and beautiful this is, and how it changes our human natures not one bit.
Immy loves Ainslie’s Ghost Boyfriend, tries to make him hers. She looks at his fabricated face and thinks about how weird, or not weird, this really is. He has the most beautiful eyes she’s ever seen, which is silly to say because they’re not real eyes, they’re made of colored gel and electric components that light them up. But how is that different from the vitreous humors and lenses that ours are made of, she wonders? Does interacting with something unreal that’s pretending to be real make her less real, too?