Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Place Between

Back when I was dating my distaster-ex, I picked up Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link. I was on a field trip to Michigan, and the night before, I drank one-third of a bottle of vodka (size: large duty-free), purchased (but did not eat) a white chocolate KitKat bar, and fell asleep under a pool table in my host's living room. When I awoke, I peeled back my sleeping bag to reveal splotches of melted white chocolate from my collarbones to my knees, and a monster hangover (size: Jack Torrance at the end of The Shining). I stumbled out of the house, past the frat boys in UMich lettermans jackets who were drinking beer on their front lawns, and tried to make it the conference.

I made it as far as the bookstore. I was, of course, still drunk, floating through the town of Ann Arbor on an unseasonably cold November day. I felt acutely aware of the eyes of the frat boys on me. I had never been to a "college town" before, had never seen how a town could orbit around the faux-Grecian university campus. The guys in their jackets drank beer out of red plastic cups and shivered in the wind. Some of them were eating pancakes. Their eyes moved as I did.

When I made it to the downtown core, near campus, I stopped for sanctuary in a bookstore. I don't remember the name, or why I picked up Stranger Things Happen. I was probably drawn in by the fake-folksy artwork. I read the back. The room swam. I peeled off an American twenty-dollar bill, marveled sickly at the American cover price, and left.

I spent the rest of the day trying to navigate the conference. Mostly, I hung out on the floor of whatever session we were in. It was a student conference about co-op housing, so the hippie/normals ratio was pretty high. People talked about radical bike organizations and how to have babies in a co-op setting. I saw someone drinking tea out of a mason jar. I watched as the carpet resolved itself from looking like the internal organs of a butchered animal into something more normal. The hangover faded, slightly. I still smelled like white chocolate.

It was in this headspace I was introduced to Kelly Link. Her work is uncanny, in the dictionary sense of the word: characters don't always know if they're alive or dead. People disappear into the ether, and reanimate from the grave. Purses contain Eatern European homelands, but only if you open them just right. But the stories are also grounded in humdrum reality. High schoolers shop for prom dresses. Gangs of friends watch TV. Little girls play hide-and-seek with their babysitters. But is the babysitter really a person? Or is she a ghost? Who's to say, really.

Link's books could be imagined as young adult literature—especially her most recent title, which had a strongly youthful bent to them. Adolescence is a time spent mired in the place between child and adult, when the membrane between both is permeable. It would be easy, then, to slip into some other world altogether, as so many of Link's characters do. It's like a hangover: not quite sober, not quite drunk. Some third, not entirely knowable, thing.

I just started reading Karen Russell's St Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. Russel is the author of Swamplandia!, a magical realism book set on an alligator wrestling attraction. Her writing, like Link's, is lyrical and strange. Unpredictable. When I write fiction, my role models are the sharp, direct words of Dashiell Hammett and Stephen King. But Russell's writing is nearly vegetal in its lushness. Whole pages are devoted to the way the swamp sounds under a particular kind of moon. Her characters, too, inhabit places between worlds. This is not always easy, either to write or to read.

I've also been reading Scare Yourself Silly, a feature series on The Toast. The author, Lucia Peters, takes something creepy or spooky—uncanny might the best term, again—from the dark corners of the internet, and shines a light on it. Her latest is a look at the 200 Phenomenon in the City of Calgary, which ideates that there is another, secret, hidden Calgary under the one we all know and tolerate. You can access this ur-Calgary by doing things like painting a door on a specific yellow wall using hazelnut oil; pushing through this door (now open) will lead you to rooms unknown. Peters looks at Boothworld Industries, which seems to be some sort of Murder Inc., and the true stories of people living undetected in other people's houses, usually in secret basement cubbies. The idea of that makes me want to vomit with disgust and anxiety. What drives her features is the question if these things are real or unreal, that we live in a world that science can't always explain. That sometimes we want to believe in those places between worlds, because we sense that things are not always real, but unreal isn't the right answer either. The membranes are thin.

Taken together, this coven of Link, Peters, and Russell is powerful stuff. I don't know what it is about women working in magic/horror, but they're so good. Maybe it's because we're used to blood and discomfort, to unexplained changes and strange smells. There is power in womanhood that doesn't stem from lipstick or high heels or leaning in or whatever. It comes from literally making food with your body, from being to withstand other people growing inside you. From all that blood, and from pushing down emotions until you too don't quite know if you're alive or dead; only that you're somewhere. In a world in between. A world filled with words.