Saturday, September 28, 2013

Pretty Monsters, by Kelly Link

I first encountered this book of short stories in one of my fiction writing seminars at Western Washington University. My professor who assigned the book wasn't particularly in love with it, but it had been recommended by another professor, so she taught it. I am very grateful that she did. I am not normally very interested in short stories. I figure that's why I often find myself daunted by the idea of writing them; because I don't read them often enough to write one well. But I'm getting off track, and short story long, pun unintended, without this book being assigned to me, I might have never known it existed.

Pretty Monsters is perhaps best characterized as Slipstream (a nicer and more accurate name for the western-appropriated portion of Magical Realism). The worlds put forth by Link's stories range from ones that largely obey the rules of our world to full-on worldbuilt fantasies (three guesses which settings I prefer). Many of these characters are really solid. The concepts are intriguing, and the language is casual but masterfully crafted.

The only thing which put me off was the structure of some of these stories. One or two that I can think of off the top of my head introduced conflict, rose to a climax, and then stopped abruptly. I understand from my classwork that this is a somehow "fashionable" move in fiction, but Link's application of it seemed a little extreme. I could spout some existential defense of the cutoff ending, saying it mirrors life because we never know what will happen or what is to come, making the stories more relatable, relevant, resonant, whatever you please. However, I personally prefer a story that answers - or at least acknowledges - a few of the questions the body of that story raises.

SPOILERS FOR SAKE OF EXAMPLE FOLLOW. PLEASE HIGHLIGHT IN ORDER TO VIEW THEM. In the story "The Library," for instance, things get pretty strange toward the end. There is some indication that the main character has passed out of his reality and into a reality where the television show he and his friends are addicted to, called "The Library," is real. He arrives in a location where, as a reader, you have no idea whether the people he interacts with are human or not due to this potential reality shift. These characters, and whether or not reality has shifted at all, are not addressed in the end of the story. Every question raised by the story is left to hang. The same thing happens with "The Specialist's Hat."

In contrast, stories like "The Constable of Abal" and "The Faery Handbag" raise lots of questions in the body of the story, but each picks at least one and gives it a solid resolution before cutting off. I think the reason this is more effective for me as a reader is because the sense of resolution in the one answered question lends a sense of resolution to the whole story. "The Faery Handbag" doesn't answer its biggest or most important question - in fact, it answers its least important question - but that leaves the open ending much less frustrating because the story still feels complete. The fact that the main character has the majority of her adventure ahead of her by the story's conclusion, where the reader cannot see it, isn't relevant because the story feels as though it has come to a natural conclusion.

Perhaps this convention is just a part of short story-telling that I don't understand. I plan on reading several more collections in the future, so hopefully you'll see more analysis in the future. I'm open to changing my stance, depending on what I see. And even though I was frustrated by the endings, many of the stories in Pretty Monsters I strongly disliked right after reading them somehow grew on me. Perhaps they just need time to breathe.

If you like short stories, and even if you don't like them, Pretty Monsters is worth more than a gander. If you give it a look, let me know what you think! I would love to discuss it with you. Cheers everybody, happy Saturday, and have a great rest of your weekend.

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