Tuesday, May 3, 2011

This story made me sweat.

I'm not sure if the idea with Short Story Month is to focus on more recent material -- that seems, at any rate, to be what most people are up to -- but for me it's hard to talk about short fiction without talking about Kelly Link. The truth is I don't often get along with short fiction very well: my allegiance is to the novel first, mainly because I think it's the most challenging, most richly engaging, most entertaining form. And I think another problem with short fiction is the trouble I have with a lot of literature: it exists to be itself, that is, to be short fiction. We teach students to write fiction by making them write small, self-contained short stories. You get bonus points if your short stories are "humble" and "quiet," and you get more points still if your quiet, humble story can be read as a direct imitation of someone else's quiet, humble story. Applied properly, this formula can get your work into any number of reputable (i.e., long-lived) magazines, where several people will pretend to have read it in order to improve their odds of said magazines publishing their variations on the theme.

This system is why most people don't think they like short fiction. Short fiction doesn't generally make a very good argument for itself. One exception, however, is Kelly Link -- a writer who works in short stories not because she was told she had to, not out of any sort of humility, but because the form suits her writing, because this is what she does best. Her work is always ambitious, always wild, always itself.

Like maybe a lot of people, I came to Link's work through Conjunctions 39. I had handed in my first story for workshop the first semester of my MFA and the question was quickly becoming what tradition I wrote in. To be honest, this is never something I worried about: I can name a lot of writers I love, I can name a lot of writers I want to emulate, but I've got no idea how my writing relates to anybody else's. It's not something I've needed. But it's something programs seem to want from you. So when my instructor Evan handed me Conjunctions 39, saying that this was a major issue, that it had served to establish the so-called New Wave Fabulists, and that maybe I was one of those.

I still don't know if I'm a New Wave Fabulist -- I like Lethem a lot, and he is one apparently, and I like Kelly Link, but honestly I'm not sure she fits the bill. Some of the stuff in there didn't strike me as especially great, just like with any literary magazine, and some of it was amazing. I remember an Amy Bender story about sculpture that I felt I could emulate very happily. But it was Kelly Link's story "Lull" that really melted my face.

This story is just about impossible to summarize. It begins with a card game. The game's participants are telling each other stories. Some of the stories are brief. But gradually they get longer, and we get lost in them more and more, and they get stranger, and deeper, and more frightening.

At first I will be honest: I was a little skeptical. I don't like stories about Men Being Men, and I had never heard of Kelly Link before, and I was only half-reading it anyway, and I thought that maybe this was another story about Men Being Men. There were some failed husbands in the mix. They were, if I remember correctly, maybe making some jokes about women. (I don't have the story in front of me: this is From Memory.) I wasn't sure if I was going to read it all the way through. I wasn't committed.

But there were sentences here and there that made me think, Okay, I will read another page. I will read another. Okay.

And then before I knew it there were a devil and a cheerleader in the closet, and they were telling each other stories in the closet. And then there was a man in a house with his wife and her name was Susan and she grew green clones of herself. And the clones made green Susan Beer and the husband drank the beer. It was maybe changing his body.

I was sitting there and sweating. I was sweating and shaking and I sat there until I finished the story, and it was a long one, but I was shaking and sweating the whole time.

I may or may not be a New Wave Fabulist, but Conjunctions was the first literary magazine that ever made me sweat. I will admit I am afraid of that magazine, that I have never yet submitted. I never feel I have the right story. I don't know how to make a body feel that way with my writing, though this is all I really want most days.

Kelly Link's stories continue to wow me, and her work -- weird, sprawling, unpredictable, funny, beautiful -- is the very best of the short story, the most I can ask. Kelly Link always forgets to be small, to be anything less than great.


  1. This post has convinced me to hunt up this story. I have read some Link, and foolishly skipped an AWP panel she was on a couple years ago, but it's been some time.

  2. Tim: Her collections are awesome. I read Pretty Monsters straight through.

    Matthew: Yes!

  3. This issue was also my introduction to Conjunctions, and it had much the same effect on me. I think I've mentioned this to you, Mike, but there was a pseudo follow-up to it a couple of years back, #52: Betwixt the Between, edited by Brad Morrow and Brian Evenson, that has some terrific stuff in it.