M. John Harrison writes:

As a reader I’m not interested in a “fully worked out” world. I’m not interested in “self consistency” … When I read fantasy, I read for the bizarre, the wrenched, the undertone of difference & weirdness that defamiliarises the world I know. I want the taste of the writer’s mind, I want to feel I’m walking about in the edges of the individual personality.

And as if by magic, a new story by Kelly Link appeared, which doesn’t come within ten city blocks of being “fully worked out”. It’s the story of Lindsey, a 38-year-old woman whose husband has left her, and whose gay brother has just come to stay with her. Chris Barzak says of it:

I think the rhythm and pacing of the story is different from any of her others. There’s less lyricism than usual. The characterizations feel flatter, but purposively so. The fantastical elements seem to float unfixed, as if the reader shouldn’t be able to contextualize them and understand what they “mean” or for what many readers would try to read as metaphor. In many ways it’s a fantasy that feels like science fiction, if that makes any sense at all. For me, these are different attributes than the ones that usually show up in Kelly’s stories. Or I should say, they have all appeared variously in her stories, but not all in once place as they do here. The closest story of hers that it feels similar to, for me, is “The Hortlak”. But even that story feels as if you can read the fantasy elements as a metaphor for entrapment in a world where consumerism is the lens through which people view and understand, or fail to understand, one another. I didn’t necessarily get that feeling for this story. I can make attempts to analyze it in such a way, but it feels more resistant to analysis than any other story of hers, for me.

I agree that “Light” feels resistant to analysis, but I’m not sure it’s particularly more so than the rest of her fiction. I also agree that the story it feels closest to is “The Hortlak”; both are basically linear stories, and in both the fantastic elements are described in a deadpan way that makes them just another part of the world. (As opposed to a story like “Magic for Beginners”, where the deadpan delivery makes you wonder just which aspects of the story are magical.) But for me the big difference between this story and the rest of Link’s work is the extent to which the fantastic elements saturate the landscape.

I think I’m right in saying that in every other Link story set in our world (which is most of them) the fantastic is only experienced by, at most, a small group of people — the clerks in “The Hortlak”, the poker-players in “Lull”, “The Specialist’s Hat”. The arguable exception is probably “Most of my Friends are Two-Thirds Water”, but that story isn’t explicitly a fantasy in the way that “Light” is — the blonde women might be aliens, but they might not — and even if they are aliens, nobody else knows about it. In “Light”, everyone knows that the world is very weird. In the first scene, Lindsey overhears conversations about the limitations of being raised by wolves, and about how prosthetic shadows are a “not expensive and reasonably durable” option for those born without shadows of their own — and about how children born with two shadows won’t grow up happy. (Lindsey is dismissive of this, since she had a second shadow, which itself grew up to be Alan, and had a happy childhood.) More importantly, though, she overhears people talking about “a new pocket universe”.

Although other fantastic elements are introduced throughout the story — the weather-witches; the unwakeable sleepers who it is Lindsey’s job to look after; the fact that the sky always seems to be a shade of green — it’s the pocket universes that have the most far-reaching implications. We’re told people go there on holiday, or retire there. We’re told that mermaids have come back from a Disney pocket universe. And there’s an offhand remark by one character referring to people who “want everything to be the way it was before”, which certainly gave me the fantasy-that-feels-like-science-fiction jolt that Chris refers to in his comment. It’s still a version of our world — Florida is mentioned, as is the fact that Tibet is “riddled” with pocket universes (which, like the best Linkian observations, somehow feels intuitively right) — but it’s one where magic has become ubiquitous, commonplace, accepted. (It feels, in fact, much like the way I wanted Justina Robson’s post-Quantum Bomb dimensionally-split world in her Quantum Gravity series to feel.) Having read the story, I can’t tell you what any of it means, but I can tell you what it feels like: it feels strange, defamiliarising, and like the taste of an idiosyncratic mind.

6 thoughts on “Light

  1. I thought it worth mentioning that the issue of Tin House in which “Light” appears is called “Fantastic Women”, and is devoted entirely to stories (and poems) by women which touch on the fantastic. I’ve got the issue, haven’t read it yet, but I suspect there are a number of worthwhile fantastical and slipstream stories here.

    Which doesn’t mean that I’m not looking forward MOST to the Link story …

  2. Finally got around to reading this. Perhaps the most SFnal aspect of the story is that it holds out the possibility of exploration. When the pocket universes are first introduced, they’re basically tourist destinations or exclusive gated communities. At one point, however, we’re told that there are wilder universes, and pocket universes that branch off each other so that one can explore them forever. In other words, in the story’s universe, it’s still possible to travel to somewhere unfamiliar and unexplored, which nowadays is exclusively the purview of science fiction.

  3. Oh, and I’ve finally read all of that issue of Tin House and it is definitely worth picking up. Link’s story is wonderful, and there are also very good stories by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, Shelley Jackson, and Gina Zucker, along with plenty more decent stuff (and a few tedious pieces). Also a fairly interesting memoir of Angela Carter by Rick Moody.

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