Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Readings 2K9: Pretty Monsters

Pretty Monsters
by Kelly Link

This is a recent collection of Link’s stories aimed at the Young Adult market. One piece, the title story, is new; the rest have appeared elsewhere, some of them in previous collections by Link. I know some people are annoyed by this, and I can see their point. On the other hand, this was my first exposure to Link’s writing, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. 

Would I have enjoyed it if I’d been a younger reader? I don’t know. I might not have liked the storytelling perspective of Link’s work; all but one of the stories are told in the third person, with a narrator who comments on the action in asides directly to the reader. I can remember not caring for that point-of-view when I was younger. Then again, the one first-person story seemed to me to be one of the weakest in the book, so who can say? Most of the stories here focus on children or teens, which presumably gives the book its promotional focus, but I have no idea whether it’ll actually appeal to its presumed audience.

In some ways, that’s a good thing; the best books usually don’t have built-in audiences. Link’s stories are a good example: they confound expectations. They’re not structured the way stories normally are — a plot description might sound like a series of random elements, but Link crafts these often-surreal events into something that feels like a narrative. In part that comes through a strong grasp of language, of pattern and rhythm; also of imagery, but not in any usual way. Typically one watches an image develop over the course of a story, and extracts meaning based on the way the image is used in different places. It’s difficult to do that with Link’s work, because the images she uses are so strange, and recur in such unexpected ways; also because connections are so plentiful. If a typical pattern of images in a work of fiction is additive (this occurrence, then this one, then this one, illustrating this thematic development), Link’s use of imagery is somehow multiplicative, or even exponential: a new appearance of an image can cast a theme, a major plot element, or even the story itself in a completely new light.

This probably makes the stories sound more complicated than they are. In fact, they’re very intuitive; that’s how they work. Link’s authorial voice is calm, precise, and infinitely suggestive. There’s a clarity to the pieces, even when Link is juggling multiple layers of narrative and fictionality. Yet at the same time there’s a dreamlike feel to much of this material, something emphasised by the relative lack of conventional characterisation. Or, at least, lack of individuated characters. Link generally provides hints about things, letting the reader fill in details of scene-setting, plot, or other aspects of the story. That doesn’t necessarily work the same way with character — lacking detail, Link’s characters tend toward the archetypal. Not flat, necessarily, but not clearly defined, one against another. This may be for the best; Link is not necessarily at her best with character — in the first-person story, “The Surfer”, we’re told that one character isn’t terribly smart while another is a genius, but that doesn’t come through in the behaviour of the characters (or in their perceptions, as far as I could see). 

Abigail Nussbaum gave a favourable review to Link’s story “Magic for Beginners” — also included in Pretty Monsters — while noting that her fiction often lacked an easy emotional connection (for Nussbaum, the element of television fandom made this story more accessible; I don’t have that experience of fandom, but this story, and the collection in general, worked for me just fine). Nussbaum notes, I think correctly, that Link is more surrealist than fantasist, and further suggests that the surrealism could be what’s alienating her from a direct connection with the work while she still nevertheless enjoys it. It sounds likely to me, and it would seem to me that most people who appreciate Link’s writing at whatever level would be dedicated readers of one stripe or another. People who like to think about what they read, and why it works, and how it all fits together. 

On the other hand, this review at Locus notes that Link made a conscious effort to develop more traditional approaches to plot and character in her work. I think that’s there in the work, especially in the stories the reviewer cites. But I don’t know if it represents an improvement, in that I’d have a hard time arguing that those stories are better than “Magic for Beginners” or the other more surreal work in the collection. They do seem to me to be probably more accessible, though, and who knows where it will lead? Who knows what new kinds of fictions might come out it?

If I'm struggling with these questions — surrealism versus standard narrative, audience expectations and marketing versus what's there on the page — it's because Link's stories most often feel like distinct creations of a distinct sensibility. They're not written for a marketing category. So to me there's a level where Pretty Monsters feels like a bit of a misstep purely for that reason — a category error. On its own terms as a fiction anthology, it's excellent. In terms of its packaging, and specifically its positioning as a Young Adult anthology rather than a general story collection, I wonder whether it's the best possible presentation.

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