31 Days of Halloween: Kelly Link

Narrators in the Modern Fiction of Kelly Link

What stands out in the quirky short fiction of Kelly Link’s book Stranger Things Happen, more than the stories themselves, is the narrative voice that gives each story its color, its flavor. Link plays with the narrative voice of each story, pairing the right story to the right voice to create the right feel. She does this without truly altering her modern craft roots—the minimalist, the careful use of dialogue, the modern technique taught in current U.S. creative writing programs.

The narrators aren’t always named, but they mostly seem inclusive in the story. The narrator of “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” is the dead man who can’t remember his own name or his widowed wife’s name. Therefore, we aren’t allowed to know it. His narration in the form of letters written to his still living wife while he (lives?) exists on this weird island with weird ghosts and a weird hotel and weird mailbox, is punctuated with italicized 3rd person narration that gives the basest of direction for the dead man. The reader is allowed into his mind when he is in charge and we are denied that when the italicized narrator is in charge, book-ending the love-letter narration.

Punctuating the narration works well for “Flying Lessons” as well.

  1. A point on this annotation

I will not cover every story, though I did read every story. For example, between these two stories was one of the creepiest and one of my favorites, “The Specialist’s Hat.”

  1. Back to “Flying Lessons”

Aphrodite’s story of June is intermixed with her own observations of the fallen gods’ dull lives in modern London. The story is straightforward enough in and of itself, but never can I recall, not once (and this could apply to more than one story here) are we TOLD anything. “In London in this modern time, some ancient Greek Goddesses have adopted the bastard son of their king, Zeus, from the time he raped Helen as a swan, and Aphrodite—who has a cheeky pen name and is famous for writing trashy romance novels—has decided that they should hide the boy from Zeus’ wife Hera.” Which, to be fair, my interpretation of the narration is bad writing anyway. But the point is the narrator still manages to hold onto one of the most important jobs for a narrator even as Link plays with the narration itself–narrative flow, that is, when and how to release information. A lot of what I said in the quote above is not directly revealed in the story by the narrator, but the reader still knows it to be true. Just as we know the girls are dead by the end of “The Specialist’s Hat.”

Narration in “Travels with the Snow Queen” is 2nd person, turning the story around. The narrator addresses the main character as “You” so that the reader becomes the story. It works, even when the reader is a guy like me and the main character is obviously a female.

It is only because the narrator, writing in third-person limited or free-indirect style, can the reader keep the two Louise’s apart in “Louise’s Ghost” even in prose as laden with Louise as “The light loves Louise, the other Louise thinks. Of course it loves Louise. Who doesn’t?” (206).

There are other examples. What the narrator does, however, is follows only one Louise, the one with the ghost, not the one with the child, Anna. The narrator only lets the reader into one head, and we learn a lot about the two Louise’s, so that even just talking about one Louise (the travel agent, say, calling her mother in the retirement home), the reader knows which Louise to whom the narrator is referring. Even more vague, when the narrator introduces us to the two women and the girl, and then says, “She has a notebook full of green paper, and a green crayon,” we know the narrator is talking about Anna because Anna is the character obsessed with the color green.

What is important to take away from Kelly Link’s Stranger Things Happen, is the power of the narration, their abilities to manipulate the story well and hold it like a tightly-wadded multi-colored scarf and only slowly release it so that you see what they want you to see and you don’t see every color, but by the end you know every color there whether you saw it or not. I pluralized the narrators of these stories not because I didn’t realize they were all Kelly Link, but because their voices are all so distinct but they feel like Link, so that one has to wonder without pretense of joking if the creator of this set of stories is a wonderfully balanced person with multiple personality disorder. Maybe that’s what all of us as authors should aspire to be: a multitude of personalities living under one flesh, perfectly in harmony and waiting for each one’s chance to speak.

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