23 July 2008

Locus Magazine's Amelia Beamer reviews Kelly Link

from Locus Magazine, July 2008

Pretty Monsters, Kelly Link (Viking 978-0-670-01090-5, $19.99, 464pp, hc) October 2008.

What happens in a Kelly Link story? Let me try to tell you. In the title story of this collection, "Pretty Monsters", four schoolgirls kidnap one of their classmates (whose sister demands to be taken along) in a goofy hazing ritual. One of the schoolgirls is reading a novel in which a young girl named Clementine falls in love with a boy who repeatedly saves her life; "Pretty Monsters" alternates between sections of this romance novel and the schoolgirls' so-called ordeal. Werewolves are promised and eventually arrive, sort of, and the two narratives are inextricably tangled, and the story becomes about reading as much as it is about werewolves or schoolgirls.

"‘If you were all hairy and ran around in the forest maybe you'd have a chance, but you're not and you don't."'

Even if I tried to spoil the ending by telling you exactly how it happens, I'm not sure I could. The interaction of the multiple narratives is what resolves the story's arc. What I'm trying to say is this: Kelly Link stories aren't exactly about plot. Link is aware of this, and said in a recent interview (at WisCon in 2007, printed in Vector 255) that she is trying to "learn how to use more conventional tools" in storytelling. Like plot.

"'Out of the frying pan and into the next frying pan,' Clementine's mother said."

In a general sense, plot is what the characters do; it's how they achieve their goals or get out of their troubles. Plot is work; plot has to work, and plot is central to the way most SF and fantasy writers practice their craft. Link is doing something new in several of these stories by writing linear plots. "The Wizards of Perfil" is a fantasy story with psychic children, a man who buys orphans, and a predictable ending. "The Surfer" is a science fiction story that ends up mostly being about science fiction, with an adolescent male narrator trapped with his father and others in a refugee camp, reading Kim Stanley Robinson and Alfred Bester paperbacks while waiting for aliens to arrive. These stories feel like conscious attempts to write a fantasy story and a science fiction story. The inimitable Kelly Link voice is still present, but the resolution for each story derives from plot elements rather than the narrative complexity and strangeness Link has mapped as her territory in previous collections Magic for Beginners (2005) and Stranger Things Happen (2001), and indeed in most of the stories in Pretty Monsters.

"'La la la, Spoiler Girl!' Lee sings loudly, covering her ears. 'Not listening!'"

Link's two experiments with writing plotted stories in this collection are not, I think, an attempt to do a simpler story for younger readers, but an effort (as Link admits) to grow as a writer; to invest in some Craftsman tools for her narrative toolbox. If you look at a Heinlein novel, for example, plot is paramount. Plot is what makes the pages turn; what keeps readers awake into the wee hours: we want to know what's going to happen. Contemporary YA fiction achieves this page-turning effect in part by portraying the lives and problems of young protagonists coming of age. The stories in this collection do this: for example, in "The Constable of Abal" the main character Ozma starts magically to turn into a boy — a literalized version of the horror of puberty.

"'Not that I was planning to take advantage of what is obviously some unfortunate quirk of your otherwise undoubtedly mature and capable personality.'"

The stories in Pretty Monsters include three reprinted from earlier Link collections, one original to this collection, and the other five from recent YA anthologies. In all of her stories, Link freely uses the cast and furniture of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, but for the most part, the narrative worlds in Link's stories do not follow the rules of any of these genres. Her characters aren't afraid of (or astonished by) zombies and ghosts and wizards. Strangely enough, the emotional payoff from all of this wackiness is something akin to what science fiction readers call sense of wonder. Link's stories are unsettling, confusing, funny, and rewarding — just like life, particularly for a young reader.

"She gave up wishing she could die and began to wish, instead, that she had never been born."

YA itself is a relatively new section in the bookstore, somewhere between the bright plastic displays of the children's section and the various regions of general and genre fiction. And today's kids, more so than any other generation, have lots of choices for entertainment, with YouTube and iPods and cell phones and blogs competing for eye and ear time. So maybe they're distracted, and a little less mature than adults, but this collection presumes they're smart enough to follow complicated metatextual narratives. Anyone reading Link's stories must be a reader, someone who understands how reading can help make sense of a nonsensical world.

"The book has put her in a strange mood. She wishes she hadn't read it."

But, gee, let's not presume that teens need simpler stories. Look again at "Pretty Monsters". Why does it have several narratives? Well, it's an intellectual challenge that helps build tension through narrative shifts, and makes space for thematic commentary, each story reinforcing or subverting the other. Perhaps more importantly, the multiple interacting narratives are a way to play with stories and storytelling. The voice is fresh and funny, as I've tried to show by including italicized quotes from "Pretty Monsters" between the paragraphs of this review. Because what I love most about Link's stories is the voice, and that can't be described in any other terms. Also, I wanted to attempt (if artificially) to do what Link does intuitively: create tension and resolution by playing with the rules — which, in a book review, generally involve telling people where your quotes are coming from. Link's stories usually work because they make something strange, or something familiar, because they are funny and tragic and different, and because they require the reader to piece together the ending.

"The end of the story will have to wait."

Read more! This is one of three dozen books reviews from the July 2008 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe or buy the issue.
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