By Morgan Jeitler
On my copy of Kelly Link’s Stranger Things Happen is a review by Karen Russell: “Pity the poor librarians who have to slap a sticker on Kelly Link’s genre-bending, mind-blowing masterpiece of the imagination.” Pity, too, the librarians of Karen Russell.
Karen Russell and Kelly Link are writers who continually defy genre. They create worlds where girls shed their wolf-like habits, a hat bites a pair of identical twins’ babysitter, a boy sneaks into the adults-only artificially-made-blizzard event, and more off-the-rails impossible-to-summarize mind-bending tales. The difference between their work and other writers’ works of speculative fiction? In many of their stories, children allow us to blur the line between the real and the imaginary, the acceptance of the world as it is, and incredulity, in a way that parallels the way these writers blur genre conventions. Link and Russell write fantastic fantastical stories with primarily adult characters, but the real heart of their fiction—and our experience of it—lies in how they write children. It’s not a question of believability (who are we kidding? If you want believable and you’re reading these writers, you’re looking in the wrong place entirely). Children are an avenue into accepting these worlds and these fictions with a real childlike delight, something that can’t be captured by adult characters in the same scenarios. Reading Russell and Link’s narratives is akin to experiencing what it is to be a child. The weird way we accept the strange and the bizarre in fiction mimics the matter-of-fact way children accept the world and all that is impossible to comprehend. When the two come together, it feels like harmony, like unity of form and content.
In Russell’s “Ava Wrestles the Alligator,” the short story that later became the Pulitzer Prize Finalist Swamplandia, thirteen-year-old Ava has a conversation with her sixteen-year-old sister Ossie about Ossie’s boyfriend:
“What about Luscious?” I gasp. “You’re not dating Luscious anymore?”
Uh-oh. There it is again, that private smile, the one that implies that Ossie is nostalgic for places I have never been, places I can’t even begin to imagine.
“Ossie shakes her head. “Something else, now.”
“Somebody else? You’re not still going to, um,” I pause, trying to remember her word, “elope? Are you?”
The only indication that there is anything out of the ordinary for the two girls is Ossie’s response of “something,” which Ava then corrects back to “somebody.” Then the possession begins:
“The ghost is moving through her, rolling into her hips, making Ossie do a jerky puppet dance under the blankets. This happens every night, lately, and I’m helpless to stop him. Get out of here, Luscious! I think very loudly.”
We realize Ossie’s boyfriend is a ghost and he visits via possession. It’s taken as true, as a fact of their reality, that Ossie has a boyfriend at all and that he is a ghost. Ava accepts this fact without question and without fear, in much the same way I stared voraciously out the windows on a plane as a child because my mother told me I’d find Care Bears in the clouds. It’s a kind of magical realism: magic is accepted as an, oftentimes mundane, fact of the world. Gregor Samsa wakes up as a roach. Or a very old man with enormous wings washes up on the beach. No explanation needed, no questions asked. The magic of these occurrences is treated with realism, not much more out of the ordinary than an animal at the zoo. The same is true of Ava and her sister’s ghost boyfriend, whom she strongly dislikes. Ava’s upset not because he’s a ghost and that should be impossible, but because he sucks—he’s a shitty boyfriend.
For Russell, especially in this story, there’s an added layer by virtue of her characters being children: we never know for certain, objectively, if what we’re given stems from the reality of the world or from their imaginations as children. Maybe her sister really is possessed by her ghost boyfriend. Maybe it’s just child’s play. Russell and Link don’t fully explain their worlds—and they don’t have to. Even when we do know more certainly that the elements of a world are a fact of that world (such as in Link’s “Secret Identity,” where a teenager searches for her internet lover at double-booked superhero and dentist conventions and we know for certain the superheroes are real), there’s still an element of unexplained magic. We don’t have to understand the working of the world because it’s told through the lens of children, and this lens allows Russell to construct a world that plays with the way children view their world through these genre-specific elements, often in humorous ways. In that same story, Ossie takes Luscious to the swamp prom. She tries to dance with him as he possesses her and we see Ossie “[struggle] with her empty sleeves, trying to slip her own hand under her dress” (Russell 18). Russell takes the actions of adolescents (grossly feeling one another up) and applies it to her story with a dry humor. It’s funny to us, not Ava or Ossie, because we read it seeing the absurdity of the situation.
Fiction is special. It’s the only place, arguably, where one person can do absolutely whatever they want all on their own. It defies logic (to a certain extent—so long as it adheres to its own internal logic) to construct the Weird. Like women breastfeeding devils weird. Children, I think, are special in similar ways. They’re remarkably elastic. And imaginative. Children have no real defined sense of how the world works and they take things at face value. It’s not so bizarre when a kid tells you they’ve fallen in love with a two-thousand-year-old bog girl as it might be coming from an adult. Russell says she likes “to write from adolescent points of view because of that kid-elasticity—at that age, you can really straddle two worlds, a childhood realm that’s colored by games and fairy tales and an adult reality.” It’s this kind of tightrope walking that allows their fiction to work: the merging of both worlds, adult and child, fantastic and real.
Other authors, too, write from the perspectives of children, but unlike in Link and Kelly’s work, there’s none of that kid-elasticity, that straddling of worlds. Take Stephen King’s It. There’s no wonder or innocence. Instead, the Losers Club understands, without a doubt in their mind, the horror in Derry should not be happening, that this space-alien-fearmonger should not be in their town and should not exist at all. Much of the novel is spent learning where the monster came from and how it sprouted a deep-rooted evil in the heart of their town. Russell and Link very rarely make their characters engage in any kind of understanding of reality as it exists in our world and as it should be.
Because Russell and Link understand the wonder and inherent humor in how a child’s mind works, reading their work is to again become a child. But more than that, their children’s acceptance of the weird allows them to engage with the other side of the line children straddle – an emotional adult reality. Russell’s “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” depicts the children of werewolves as they’re taught to be human, sure, and yes, Link’s “Vanishing Act” tells the story of a girl who becomes more and more invisible over the course of the narrative until she disappears. But these narratives also have more profound understandings of the characters that we’re only able to grasp through this strangeness.
In “Vanishing Act,” ten-year-old Jenny Rose moves in with her cousin Hildy’s family from abroad while her parents are in Indonesia. As time passes with Jenny Rose at Hildy’s home, she becomes more and more inconspicuous to the adults in the house. Hildy’s mother forgets a spot for Jenny Rose at their dinner table and doesn’t notice when Hildy adds a place and chair for her. Only the children of this story, Hildy and her friend Myron, observe the disappearance of Jenny Rose. It’s uncanny and how her invisibility works as part of the story’s internal logic isn’t entirely clear. Eventually, Jenny Rose’s “magic trick is over, the bathroom is empty: [she] has gone home” and all that’s left is a photograph sent from Jenny Rose labeled with illegible punctuation: Hildy can’t tell whether it says “Wish you were here.” or “Wish you were here?” The story’s conclusion is as uncertain as to its premise, yet Link represents, from the perspective of a child, the loss and smallness Jenny Rose feels.
“St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” explores, quite literally, what it is to be human as Claudette leads the reader through the process of becoming one:
Stage 1: The initial period is one in which everything is new, exciting, and interesting for your students. It is fun for your students to explore their new environment.
Some struggle to adapt. Some adapt a little too well. But at the end, in one of the most rewarding concluding lines of a story, Claudette reunites with her werewolf parents, having become fully human:
“So,” I said, telling my first human lie. “I’m home.”
Silly as the scenario is, Russell so beautifully captures how tragic it is for this girl, Claudette, to grow up and away from the only family she has until she no longer knows them at all. And what does she do? The human thing: lie. In this case, the line Claudette straddles isn’t child and adult, but wolf and girl, though the two parallel one another closely enough.
Karen Russell and Kelly Link’s fiction is weird. It’s strange and it’s delightful, and through the child’s perspective, we watch the fantastical elements grow darker and more real until we’re no longer laughing. These stories are witty and humorous in their speculation, but an emotional depth creeps in beside the supernatural until it tips the scale from the childhood realm that’s colored by games and fairy tales towards the emotional adult reality that anchors the stories to our world. Link and Russell’s worlds, strange as they are, are reflections of our own, distorted by perspective and the supernatural until the face beneath the rippling water is barely, and uncannily, recognizable as our own.