White Cat, Black Dog: Stories
(Random House, 2023)
There’s something about starting out on the adventure of a new book by Kelly Link that feels like breathing out. This feeling doesn’t come from entering into some form of escapism but more from a release of tension and a willing of myself into the space and place she creates with her mastery of the written form. If you don’t already know her work, Link has published four previous story collections, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for one of them (Get in Trouble, 2016), and awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2018 for “pushing the boundaries of literary fiction in works that combine the surreal and fantastical with the concerns and emotional realism of contemporary life.” I’ve never been a fan of the separations between “genre” fiction and “literary” fiction particularly as much that passes for “literary” is, quite honestly, less than. There’s also much to be said for moving past tired forms of a specific type of “realism” into the boundless spaces available in “the surreal and fantastical.”
Link’s new collection contains stories that demand rereading with so many layers of meaning they move from brain into blood and bone and back again in a cyclical process. I did a first read late one sleepless night in my freezing NYC apartment, again on a long flight out to Seattle, and again holed up in a hotel room on the very rainy Olympic Peninsula. It would be easy to write about these stories as simply modernized fairy tales but I’ve never been one to take the easy path and they are more than that. Over almost three hundred pages, Link presents seven stories full of life and love, magic and death, and does it in sparkling prose. In a recent feature on Link, Shelley Jackson says, “[Link] has an internal compass that steers her infallibly toward strangeness … It’s true of her writing as well: There’s always something held in reserve, some core that remains inexplicable.” It’s that inexplicable, perhaps ineffable, quality that keeps me coming back to tease out more details in each of these stories.
I’ve heard more than one reader compare Link’s work with that other brilliant recreator of the fairy tale—Angela Carter—but that’s as lazily unobservant as comparing Butler to LeGuin. I grew up on Carter’s sharp-toothed tales and, arguably, those stories shaped my own feminism and how I see the world. But Carter and Link are different writers with different goals writing in very different times. So, while I read Link with the foundational experience of reading other writers in mind (Carter, Winterson, LeGuin), the experience of reading Link is more contemporary and often, somehow more disorienting. For example, in “The White Cat’s Divorce,” a rich man sends his three sons out on impossible quests in order to postpone his own death. The youngest son ends up lost in a snowstorm and pondering the nature of reality, “he began to feel…as if he and his dogs were not living creatures at all but only small figures posed inside a snow globe.” He’s rescued by magical cats who are also successful marijuana cultivators and befriends a beautiful white cat. We learn that, as in Link’s other stories, “Anything seemed in the realm of the possible here.” Eventually the story plays out, with a shocking but great ending, and we’re left with a piece of advice from the white cat, “If we let our fear of death stop us from what we wish most to do, then what is the point of living?”
This question folds neatly into the next tale, “Prince Hat Underground,” a repositioning of “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” with Prince Hat and Gary as the parted lovers and a jazzercising woman named Agnes as the evil Queen of Hell who comes between them. Gary must travel to Hell to find Prince Hat and here Link draws in elements of Icelandic lore and a foundational choice between love and immortality. It’s both darkly funny and artfully poignant. In “The White Road,” the Musicians of Bremen are a group of traveling actors surviving in a post-apocalyptic world vaguely reminiscent of the troupe in Station Eleven. The opening sentence illustrates just how story can work for the teller and the reader, “All of this happened a very long time ago and so, I suppose, it has taken on the shape of a story, a made-up thing, rather than true things that happened to me and to those around me.” It’s never clear what the white road actually is but it brings monsters that can only be deterred by the presence of a corpse. When there are no corpses, bad things are bound to happen. It’s a chillingly good read with the lesson, “One may be remarkable or not, but as a quality it has little bearing on whether or not one lives a long life. Or, for that matter, a happy life.”
In “The Girl Who Did Not Know Fear,” Abby, a married lesbian academic with an unspecified condition is stuck at the Detroit airport for four days. The nightmare of being lost in dark woods is replaced here by the monotonous nightmare of endless flight delays and antiseptic airport hotels. The rich description of Abby’s daily swims in the hotel pool—and her dream that the pool is full of moonlight—add to the surreal texture of the tale. This is not reality as we know it. The story becomes ominous when the narrator tells us, “I do not do well in small space. I do not feel safe when I am far from home. I am not safe when I am far from home.” And we soon learn that Abby isn’t the only one who isn’t safe when she’s far from home.
The sci-fi tale “The Game of Smash and Recovery” is a strange take on “Hansel and Gretel” where Hansel is a presumably human boy (Oscar) left alone to take care of his increasingly non-human little sister (Anat). Told entirely from Anat’s childlike point of view, it’s only toward the end that we realize just who and what she actually is. In stark contrast is the more traditional fantasy-like rewrite of “Tam Lin.” In this tale “The Lady and the Fox,” Miranda is the daughter of Joannie, the former dresser and seamstress to famous actress Elspeth Honeywell. Joannie is imprisoned in Phuket with no hope of release for an unknown crime. Miranda is invited every year to celebrate Christmas at Honeywell Hall with the extended family—nearly all of them actors. The prose throughout this story is very rich, echoing the wealth of the family, the luxurious surroundings, the falling snow. One year Miranda sees a man in the garden standing outside in the snow, looking in. He wears antiquated clothing including a justaucorps (a sort of seventeeth-eighteenth century frock coat) with “a fox stitched in red and gold, its foreleg caught in a trap.” While the story of Miranda and Fenny (the man in the snow) moves forward, there’s a parallel coming-of-age story with each detail building to a marvelous ending.
In the final story, “Skinder’s Veil,” Snow-White and Rose-Red both feature as characters but their stories aren’t central. Instead, this story stars Andy Sims, starting with “Once upon a time there was a graduate student in the summer of his fourth year who had not finished his dissertation.” When Andy’s friend Hannah asks him to do her a favor involving housesitting a remote home in the Vermont woods for a lot of money, of course Andy agrees. But, as his roommate’s girlfriend Bronwen says, “Weird shit happens to everyone.” And so it does to Andy throughout his stay in the house in the woods. His first clue should have been the framed cross-stitch on one bedroom wall that read, “West East Home is the Beast.” While he spends time getting high (off edibles, the hallucinogenic well water, foraged mushrooms) and enjoying himself with Rose White, he works on his dissertation. One night after a particularly intense risotto, he comes to “the realization that Skinder’s house has no walls, no roof, no foundation. The walls are trees, there is no ceiling, only sky.” But despite any misgivings, Andy doesn’t want the stay to end, “It was like being inside an enchantment. Why would he want to break the spell?” By the end of the story, Andy has moved on through his life until late one night, lost in the Vermont woods, he makes an important discovery that, rather than breaking the spell, brings it full circle. Like Andy, I didn’t want the spell to end and so, I will continue rereading this collection, discovering different details, different layers through each read. This is a truly well-wrought and magical work, rather than simple updates of fairy tales or fables, these stories have a chilling core and deep observations on modern life that we can all learn from.