Have Pen, Will Travel: The Fiction of Kevin Brockmeier and Kelly Link
Written by: Terri Windling
When I'm asked for good examples of border–crossing fiction, the works of Kevin Brockmeier and Kelly Link immediately leap to mind. These two writers wander freely through the varied countries of domestic realism, magical realism, mystery, suspense, romance, ghost stories, myth, fairy tales, and children's fiction...returning with passports filled with stamps and collections filled with dazzling stories. In addition to literary wanderlust, there are other traits Brockmeier and Link have in common. Both are stylists who combine a pitch–perfect ear for the cadences of language with a sly, playful approach to elements of structure and plot. Both work unabashedly with the themes of love and loss, eschewing the detached, cynically ironic pose that passes for hip these days to write stories fully engaged with the passions that underscore the quietest of lives. Even at their darkest, or most whimsical, or most experimental, stories by Link and Brockmeier are marked by their emotional eloquence; these are writers who are unafraid of delving deep into the regions of the heart. The line between traditional and postmodern storytelling is another border these writers simply ignore, creating works that fuse elements of both, creating tales simultaneously old and new, familiar and utterly fresh.
Kevin Brockmeier's work has been published in The New Yorker, McSweeney's, The Carolina Quarterly, and The Georgia Review, among other publications, and eleven stories have been collected in Things That Fall From the Sky (Pantheon, 2002). Among the offerings in this fine collection: The Ceiling is a disturbing story about the slow collapse of a marriage, oppressed by the weight of its history as much as by the mysterious object that hovers just overhead. The narrator of the award–winning story These Hands is a man romantically infatuated with an 18–month–old girl. "If I could, I would work my way backwards," he tells us, "paring away the years. I would reel my life around the wheel of this longing like so much loose wire. I would heave myself past adolescence and boyhood, past infancy and birth, into the first thin parcel of my flesh and the frail white trellis of my bones." In The House at the End of the World, a young girl reflects on the period of time her father kept her hidden in a shack in the woods. "This was during the collapse
of civilization," the child recalls, "and I believed we were the only people in the world." The Passenger takes place in a mysterious universe encompassed by the interior of an airplane. "My mother gave birth without benefit of midwife," the story begins. "...My newborn body, dangling umbilically above a pool of broken water, floating for a moment between one fact and another, found itself drawing breath — discrete, unanchored, and folded to her shoulder. By this window she released me to this world, and seated here I have spent my days." The most inventive story in the collection is A Day in the Life of Half of Rumplestiltskin, which follows the fairytale figure after the point in which he's spit himself in two. One part of Rumplestiltskin ends up in America, where he receives fragments of letters from his missing half: "Sometimes I wonder when and how it all turned out so _______________ (adjective expressing disconsolation). When you get the chance, _______________ (direction) your half of this _______________ (word that rhymes with better) to me, so I can find out what I've written."
Brockmeier makes deft use of the imagery of dreams, ghost stories, and fairy tales, yet these are narratives firmly grounded in the ordinary details of everyday life. We see this again in Brockemeier's The Brief History of the Dead, published in the September 8, 2003 issue of The New Yorker magazine. It's a powerful meditation on the nature of death, and the things that make life worth living. "Occasionally," he writes, "one of the dead, someone who had just completed the crossing, would mistake the city for Heaven. It was a misunderstanding that never persisted for long. What kind of Heaven had the blasting sound of garbage trucks in the morning, and chewing gum on the pavement, and the smell of fish rotting by the river? What kind of Hell, for that matter, had bakeries and dogwood trees and perfect blue days that made the hairs on the back of your neck rise on end? No, the city was not Heaven, and it was not Hell, and it certainly was not the world. It stood to reason, then, that it had to be something else. More and more people came to adopt the theory that it was an extension of life itself — a sort of outer room — and that they would remain there only so long as they endured in living memory. When the last person who had actually known them died, they would pass over into whatever came next..."
As good as Brockmeier's stories are, his first novel for adults is even better. The Truth about Celia is the story of Christopher Brooks, a science fiction writer whose seven–year–old daughter simply disappears as she's playing in the yard one day. The novel is formed by interlinked stories written by Brooks in the aftermath of this tragedy. (Brockmeier includes an Author's Note about Brooks, and a list of his invented writer's publications). The text by Brooks/Brockmeier tells the story of young Celia's disappearance, and the subsequent dissolution of her parents' marriage. The text also contains a book–within–a–book: a beautiful re–working of the English folktale The Green Children: "They say I was the first to touch them. When the reapers found the children in the wolf pits — a boy and a girl, their skin the pale flat green of wilting grass — they shuddered and would not lay hands on them, prodding them across the fields with the handles of their scythes." Weaving these various strands together, playing with multiple layers of reality, Brockmeier tells a painful story of love and devastation that is also surprisingly uplifting.
Brockmeier has received the Nelson Algren Award, the Italo Calvino Award, a James Mitchner–Paul Engle Fellowship and two O'Henry Awards. His work has been selected for The Best American Short Stories and The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror; and his story The Brief History of the Dead is being made into a film. He has also published a children's novel, The City of Names (Viking, 2002). You can read the following stories by Kevin Brockmeier on line: The Brief History of the Dead, The Green Children (excerpted from The Truth About Celia), and the award winning The Ceiling.