January 18: “Secret Identity” by Kelly Link

The daily execution of Story366 faced its first real hurdle today: I have a cold. It’s not a bad cold by any means, but it’s the kind that lives in your head, makes you tired and foggy. I took a four-hour nap yesterday and woke up more tired. That kind of cold.

So today was the first day that I read the story on the day of the posting—usually I read and write the post, or most of it, the day before. I’d carried Kelly Link’s Get in Trouble around with me yesterday, and as I slept the evening away, it sat next to the box of tissues next to the bed. I had to wake up this morning, read a story, and post, all before everyone leaves the Internet for today to get on with their lives. Lucky for me it’s Martin Luther King, Jr., Day and I have off.

Not sure, then, why I chose a fifty-page story, why I didn’t use one of my “Hey, let’s write about a short-short” days here instead. I think it’s because I carried Link’s book around with me so long, I felt indebted to it. Plus, I was just itching to get back into this book. I read a few stories when I bought it, but hadn’t gotten back to it since. I’ve loved everything I’ve ever read by this author, have taught her stories in my classes, and really admire the complexity of each piece. With my kids still asleep upstairs and Karen out at the grocery store, I dug into the behemoth “Secret Identity” as my story of the day.

The aforementioned complexity I find in Link’s stories is certainly present here, and explaining the set-up is no small task. Our narrator and protagonist, Billie Flaggart, has taken a bus from Iowa to New York to meet, in person, a man she’s known on the Internet. Billie and the man, Paul Zell, met as characters  in the same online role-playing, wizards-and-warriors-type game. Like any cyberspace hook-up, they don’t really know each other, but just take for granted what the other says. Only now, they’ve agreed to meet: You can’t hide behind clever handles and avatars in person, but Billie is ready to take that chance. Everyone in these online-dating scenarios has something to hide, whether it’s sixty pounds, the lack of a good career, or something much worse. Billie’s lie is that she’s only fifteen years old, as she’s used her big sister’s photo and life story as a divorced algebra teacher to  authenticate her age. Paul Zell? Billie believes in Paul Zell, that he’s really a techie for a non-profit that protects endangered animals. As soon as I read “endangered animals,” a buzzer went off, as that’s just creepy-guy cover, some bro trying to get laid. For Billie, it’s the truth. She’s fifteen and she can lie, but why would Paul Zell? Billie is naïve and unreliable, or otherwise, we would’t have a story.

All of this would be enough for most authors to go on, just placing young Billie in NYC, alone, meeting up with an unsuspecting older man for romance. Link doesn’t settle for that, though, as she sets “Secret Identity” in a sprawling old New York hotel, the kind in movies with illustrious lobbies and employees everywhere. This hotel is coincidentally (maybe) hosting two conventions, the first for dentists, the second for super heroes. This is a world like that of Mystery Men where the heroes have agents, interview sidekicks, and boast corporate sponsorships. The convention has booths to get badges, panel sign-up sheets, and glad-handing in the bar. Everyone Billie runs into assumes she’s there to audition as a sidekick, not for a steamy love affair with an older man. The joke runs so many times, Billie considers putting in a resume.

And all of this, more or less, is established in the first few pages, forty-something to go. Link establishes her character, what her goal is, places her in a setting, and then the story really starts. The rest of Billie’s tale involves near run-ins with Paul Zell, some shady hotel employees and transients, and lots of crossing-over with the super heroes populating the hotel. I was never able to guess where the story was going, even at the end, and that’s why I like it so much. After all, a story entitled “Secret Identity” is all about a lie, about lies; fibs inhabit this story so fully, Link has a lot of fun, never letting on what’s real and what’s incognito.

Did I mention that the story is sort of first person, second person, and third person all at one time? “Secret Identity” is an epistolary, a letter written by Billie to Paul Zell, to a “you,” but intermingled with a  third person narrative—Billie distances herself from the proceedings, detailing her adventures as if she’s another person. Who knows? Maybe she is.

Kelly Link is someone whose work I’ve admired for some time now. “Secret Identity” is just another rung on the ladder, taking her higher up the echelon of the best story writers out there. I’m so glad I embarked upon this one, all fifty pages of it, foggy head notwithstanding.

Kelly Link

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One thought on “January 18: “Secret Identity” by Kelly Link

  1. Pingback: November 30: “School Bus” by Peter Grandbois – Story366

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