January 19, 2009

Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link

I always find it a little difficult to review a short story collection. My instinct is to take the stories individually and review them one by one, but that would take forever and I doubt if anyone has the patience to read an epic blog post. The trouble is that the stories in many collections are oftentimes either unrelated, or tied together by a general theme as loosely as six year old's tennis shoes. However, the curse of the unrelated story does not plague Kelly Link's dark and lovely collection, Pretty Monsters. While all of the stories here stand on their own, they are united by the theme well expressed by her title: they are stories about monsters - some pretty, some subtle, and some simply monstrous.

"Monster", the first story I'd ever read by Kelly Link, literally made my neck twitch, which is not an easy thing to do. It is also an excellent example of the quality  that permeates her entire collection - the quality of Wrong.

I'm not referring to Wrong in a moral, ethical or societal sense. I'm referring to that subtle ache one gets when something is vaguely Wrong, when something nebulous is unsettling the lizard brain. That is the quality that best defines all of the stories in Link's collection, although it shows up most strongly in "Monster," which is about a scout troop's camping trip, an urban legend, and a monster in the woods. What makes the horror element so effective in Link's work, is the lightness of her hand, the humorous charm of her narrative voice, and the politeness of her monsters - they aren't trying to scare you, they're just being themselves. 

In the subtler stories, like "The Wrong Grave," Link uses communicative ambiguity to great effect. She allows the narrator to connect with the reader, then destabilizes the reader's sense of not-Wrong with the narrator's subtle Wrong-ness. The result of this is that I finished the story feeling vaguely disturbed for reasons I couldn't pin down.

The only place that I felt even slightly dissatisfied with the collection is exemplified by the story, "The Faerie Handbag". It's a completely successful story that borders more on fantasy than horror. Still, the story's narrator is incredibly, if subtly, unreliable. What left me dissatisfied was the potential for a deeper exploration of the narrator - why does she believe what she believes? Why is she telling us this story? Is she having fun at our expense? Is she traumatized? Is she mad? There were a lot of psychological possibilities at play and I wanted Link to explore them. That said, I recognize that this is a matter of writerly preference - while I as a writer who tends to plumb characters' psyches, Link's story functions successfully without doing so. It's just a matter of taste. 

Kelly Link is one of the most exciting young writers around right now, and the fact that she writes genre fiction in the short story form is especially exciting, given how far out of favor the short story form has fallen... but then, that's a discussion for another post. It's enough to say that Kelly Link's collection is a well-crafted, funny and subtly disturbing read. The experience of reading Pretty Monsters is like being tickled while the world tilts around you, and that, as experiences go, is one that I would recommend.

7 comments:

JimDesu said...

I like Wrongness -- I wish there were more fiction that used it.

Madeleine said...

Me too. I wonder if it's that a lot of authors don't have a sense of Wrongness, or if they do and they're hesitant to use it... I suspect it might just be something a lot of writers just don't develop, unfortunately.

mexalapotis said...

I think that a lot of authors don't have a sense of Wrongness, (if they are anything like painters)and so they get Wrongness confused with Angst, which is a whole different thing.

Madeleine said...

I think you're right. With all due respect to those who deal in Angst, Angst is a much more common critter compared to Wrongness. Pick up any book written for teens and you've got Angst. Wrongness is more subtle and it plays with your lizard brain in a way that Angst can't touch. Angst also isn't as interesting...

mexalapotis said...

I wonder if that is because Angst is easier, or if it is because authors had the same types of teachers that I had who insisted on screaming, "Where's the ANGST!?!?!" whenever I turned anything even remotely happy in...

Madeleine said...

I think it might be a bit of both. Also, people tend to like Angst in art because it's recognizable - they know what to do with it and so it doesn't make them feel uncomfortable, while it still gives them the ego-boost of feeling "edgy". Wrongness can be unsettling and therefore uncomfortable, so it doesn't tend to be as sought after.

Kelly said...

I loved this collection too! Interesting what you say about the handbag story. I didn't pick up on it while reading, but I'm going to go back and see if I can see what you mean. Always trying to learn to be more aware as a writer-reader. :-)