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You Must Read These Gleefully Deranged Stories

by Karen Russell
May 17, 2011 (All Things Considered)

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Stranger Things Happen Karen Russell is the author of the book Swamplandia!

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Pity the poor librarians who have to slap a sticker on Kelly Link's genre-bending, mind-blowing masterpiece of the imagination, Stranger Things Happen. Are these stories horror or fantasy? Science-fictional romances? Travelogues to nonexistent countries: a nightmarish North America and a very weird New Zealand? Some read like detective manuals for solving crimes in the afterlife; others could be topographical maps of the unconscious. At least one has a naked ghost. This is a book that would probably cause the old wooden card catalog to catch fire.

Link's uncanny tales draw the reader into a state of fluid, lucid dreaming. Works like "Travels with the Snow Queen" and "Flying Lessons" send you reeling through a landscape of heavy snows, "great balls of greenish light," alarming castles, and overnight trains to hell. You won't feel like you're reading at all. More like walking on water, suspended by the trembling gel of Link's prose. These stories cast spells. The sentences in Stranger Things Happen work as a kind of solvent, breaking down the walls of "ordinary" reality and revealing a vast, speechless realm of dream and appetite, the "long white distances" beyond the reach of our conscious control.

I've tried to describe Link to my students as an American Harukai Murakami, or a blue-collar Angela Carter, or Franz Kafka with a better understanding of lady's footwear and bad first dates. But the truth is that Link is like no other writer on the planet. She eschews conventional plot arcs in favor of quests, catalogs and epistles from the afterlife. In her work you are as apt to meet a sardonic reindeer as a mailman.

In one story, two friends who both share the name of Louise accidentally seduce the same cellist; in another, newlyweds watch an apocalyptic beauty pageant in their honeymoon suite. "Miss Alaska raises the dead," Link writes. "This will later prove to have serious repercussions ..." My favorite story in this collection, "The Specialist's Hat," features two motherless twins in a scary mansion who bail on Go Fish and Crazy Eights to play "the Dead game," a frightening exercise in non-being.

Yet even the most gleefully deranged stories in Stranger Things Happen have a serious moral center. Link draws on fables and myth to expose the core reality of our emotional lives, detailing loneliness, grief, desire and romantic failure with an almost unbearably painful realism — children are bereaved, lovers are left bewildered, family members transform into monsters and strangers.

To paraphrase what these stories are "about" feels in some ways like a betrayal of Link's sorcery, a bogus misrepresentation of their real magic. As Flannery O'Connor said, "A story is a way to say something that can't be said any other way, and it takes every word of the story to say what the meaning is." And every word in these 11 stories is perfectly placed to make meaning out of the mysteries that bedevil our "ordinary" lives, and to make the impossible true.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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