Get in Trouble

By Kelly Link

Random House.

333 pp. $25

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Reviewed by Katie Haegele

Do you like magical realism? Stories that start out in normal places, with regular people, and then get impossible and weird? I don't, either. It makes me feel as if the rug has been pulled out from underneath me, that I've been fooled, led somewhere I didn't intend to go.

But then, I'd never read anything by Kelly Link before.

The stories in Get in Trouble are something like the wonderful stories of Ray Bradbury, whose science fiction transcended the genre. Link's tales are reminiscent of Neil Gaiman, too, with something dark, feminine, and punk-rock blended in, as YA author Cecil Castellucci might cook up, only these are boozier, more grown up, and full of sex.

Whatever you want to call Link's fiction - how, for example, a superhero convention lands in the same hotel as a meeting of dentists - these stories do share some characteristics. Tales such as "Two Houses," set on a spaceship floating through the cosmos, are, well, otherworldly. Some tales start out normally enough, as with "The Summer People," which introduces us to a girl who lives out in the country with her hard-drinking dad - but then they take a sharp turn - in this case, into a backwoods lit up by magic, a haunted house of sorts, and antique toys that come to life.

There are even a couple of conventional stories, and these will really break your heart. When it comes to the world we live in, here and now, Link couldn't be pithier, funnier, or more on-point. In one story, there's a band called O Hell, Kitty. "Light" takes place on some alternate plane where people are born with two shadows and mermaids are an invasive species, but is also most definitely the florid and alien landscape of Dade County, Fla. It has "tunnels of coral reef, barely covered by blackish, sandy dirt. . . . Geckos with their velvet bellies and papery clockwork insides, tick-tock barks. . . . Lakes so big and shallow that you could spend all day walking across them."

After a few stories, I was hooked. I trusted Link to take me places I wanted to go, even if I didn't know where. Her wildly out-there stories are about unreality, an idea we grapple with all the time. They're about the way you can believe in a fantasy with all your heart, if you're feeling sad enough. They're about the line between reality and imagination, which in our technology-driven world grows blurrier every day.

In "The New Boyfriend," a teenager named Immy is poisonously jealous of her best friend, Ainslie, for having not one, but three Boyfriends - all of them fake - expensive, lifelike robots she stores in a basement closet. When she wants to spend time with them, she switches a button underneath their hair, and they follow her around, gaze into her eyes, and fetch her drinks and snacks.

But Link manages to make this horror story seem entirely plausible. Ainslie's Vampire Boyfriend wears a dark suit and is devoted to his owner for all eternity, and the Werewolf Boyfriend comes with both a boy head and a wolf head. As you'd expect. Just like the teenagers you know, those in this story have grown up in a world where simulated reality and actual, living things coexist, and Link has a wonderful knack for showing us how eerie and beautiful this is, and how it changes our human natures not one bit.

Immy loves Ainslie's Ghost Boyfriend; tries to make him hers. Are a robot's eyes, she wonders, so different from the vitreous humors and lenses that ours are made of? Does interacting with something unreal that's pretending to be real make her less real, too?

Or more?