It's been an eternity since we had a book of Kelly Link stories for adults. And Get in Trouble is somewhat different than I was expecting. Less dreamlike and strange than I remember her work being, more snarky and comedic, with lots of pop culture humor. But it's also some of her darkest, most indelible stories.
I wasn't really prepared for the stories in Get in Trouble to be so silly, and so self-aware. Where Link's earlier work felt more mysterious and opaque, more poetic even, this new batch is much more meta and pop-culture obsessed.
This time around, Link is commenting on a lot of geeky stuff, even more than the stuff about games and puzzles in her earlier books. Get in Trouble has two different superhero stories, and a third story is built around a slightly DC Comics reference, the House of Secrets and the House of Mystery.
Like, here's a passage from "Origin Story," where a superhero named Biscuit is talking to Bunnatine, a girl whose only superpower is that she can float a couple feet off the ground. And they're talking about his costume. (The screenshot comes from Google Books, from an anthology called Super Stories of Heroes & Villains.)
The other thing that jumps out at me about this new book, in particular, is how jam-packed every story is with ideas and plot devices. There are faeries, mutants, ghosts, robots, ghosts who are sort of robots, spaceships, a woman with two shadows and pocket universes. Link seems eager to encompass as many zany plot devices as possible, as many neat ideas as she can come up with in the moment.
At the same time, one thing hasn't changed — Link doesn't over-explain, or really explain much at all. Except for a few notable bits here and there, she's content to let the reader figure out exactly what the deal is with those ghost-robot "Boyfriends" on his or her own.
And there are still those moments in some of these stories, where things click into place, and you suddenly get what's really going on, and all of the sly hints and clues that Link has left for the reader suddenly make total sense.
And Link's great strength remains her instinct for how people really interact and talk to each other, and the understated way she captures fraught relationships and brittle emotions. There may be more zany jokes and goofy plot devices this time around, more lines like "The mutants were sweet, but they were more into music" — but her characters are still fragile and consumed with loneliness, and Link conveys a lot of sadness with a few careful notes.
These are stories about survivors, women who escape from weird situations and get to safety. And about what that actually means. Not surprisingly, a lot of Link's protagonists this time around are older and more damaged. There's a fair bit of stuff about dealing with fame and celebrity culture — most notably in "I Can See Right Through You," where an aging "demon lover" gets roped into being on a nudist reality TV show with ghosts.
At the same time, she still has a few stories about teenagers, where she proves she can still capture the voice of a struggling teen. Like Billie, who runs away from home to meet a man from an MMO and finds herself at a superhero convention in "Secret Identity." And Immy in "The New Boyfriend," the girl whose best friend Ainslie always gets everything — even the rare and valuable Ghost Boyfriend.
There's a wryness and irony to these stories that sometimes feels a bit too knowing and self-aware — my favorites are probably the stories where Link's characters are trapped in self-destructive or impossible situations, but still maintain a kind of hopefulness or bravery. The most powerful story of the bunch is probably the least fantastical: "The Lesson", in which a gay couple reluctantly go to a friend's wedding while their surrogate is in danger of giving birth to their child prematurely. That's the story where the characters have the most breathing space and the light touch feels the most potent, without quite as many ideas and jokes layered on top.
There's also an interesting theme running through the book of dualities, duplicates, facsimiles, and fakery. Link's characters have good reason for preferring, say, a fake boyfriend to a real boyfriend, or not being able to tell a fake haunted house from a real haunted house.
Kelly Link remains one of the most potent storytellers we have, and Get in Trouble is some of her most playful and intense work yet. It's a great reminder of not just Link's unique voice, but also the fact that stories can be more than just nuggets of invention — they can be precious and life-enhancing.