Orange World and Other Stories
With her third story collection, Orange World, Karen Russell continues to create a fictive world where fantasy, horror, humor, science-fiction, and realism co-exist. Some of these eight stories originally appeared in The New Yorker and Zoetrope, and republished in The Best American Short Stories (BASS) and The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses, with one story forthcoming in Tin House. To call her work “magical realism,” as some have, is to slight her writing. In an interview shortly after the publication of her second story collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove (2013), Russell suggested, “Maybe what I’m writing is ‘magical-thinking’ fiction,” which seems as apt as any appellation, and certainly an improvement on “magical realism.” Just what does “magical realism” include? Stephen King’s horror stories? Chaucer’s tales? Dean Koontz? Mary Shelley? Maybe Shakespeare’s Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but how about Hamlet and Macbeth, after all, ghosts appear? Just about any fiction—whether prose, drama, or poetry, wherein lurks the ectoplasm of the supernatural or the surreal seems to fall into the murk of magical realism.
In Russell’s World stories possess the strangeness that the critic Harold Bloom values as one criterion for inclusion in his Western Canon. Russell’s stories concern love and lost love, friendship, and fear; greed, abandonment, and guilt. Her tales may derive from Shakespeare as Bloom might insist, but they definitely owe a debt to ancient mythology, Americana, and classic European literature. Her imaginative stories find new ways to tell age-old tales, and sometimes a description of the plot of the stories seems so absurd that it sounds preposterous. But Russell is accomplished enough for her tales to be accepted as serious fiction. That’s not to say there isn’t a touch of genre-like horror in them, humor and a few jokes. She augments what might satisfy Bloom and the serious reader with a touch of Rod Serling.
So, I submit for your approval one of the best stories in this eight-story collection, “The Prospectors.” Selected by Junot Díaz for Best America Short Stories (BASS), 2016, the story recounts the friendship of two young women who supplement Roosevelt’s New Deal by “prospecting”: Clara and Aubby mine and extract money, gold, and gems from wealthy men and women. On a trip to Mount Joy in Oregon, their friendship is tested when instead of arriving at the Evergreen Lodge (inspired by the actual Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood), they wind up at the unfinished Emerald Lodge after a chairlift mishap. There, they are confronted by twenty-six men of the Oregon Civilian Conservation Corps who want to dance and party with the only girls in the place. If that weren’t fretful enough, Russell intensifies the fear by making the men ghosts, workers who died when an avalanche ended construction. The ghosts seem unaware that they’re dead. The girls refuse to be photographed with the men for fear it would bring them closer to their own deaths. They lie to “feel safer” and flirt with the men, but are more interested in escaping any way they can, though their fright ultimately doesn’t exceed their greed.
Other lesser stories include “Black Corfu” about racism told through a seventeenth-century doctor who cuts the hamstrings of the undead, and “The Gondoliers,” appearing in Tin House this summer, about a woman who gondoles a boat in a dystopic, globally-warmed Florida.
Florida is also the setting for Russell’s first novel, Swamplandia! (2011), a finalist for the unawarded 2012 Pulitzer Prize, which featured men wrestling with alligators. Russell, a MacArthur Foundation “genius,” has also written a collection called St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (2006), and, of course, she’s written about vampires in her follow-up collection. So, it should come as no surprise that Russell would write a story about women grappling, in a sense, with a beast-like devil, as in the title Story “Orange World.” It’s a tale about a mother’s love for her child, told in a way that only Russell (or Christopher Marlowe and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe) could tell it. When Rae, an older woman, finally becomes pregnant with her first child, she makes a deal with a devil to safeguard her child throughout her geriatric pregnancy and throughout the child’s life. Instead of exchanging her soul, Rae, who isn’t very good at bargaining, agrees to suckle the demon. Wouldn’t you know it--this demon, a lesser-devil and “knockoff Satan,” has preyed on other mothers in Southern Oregon. This time it has taken a shape similar to a badger or a capybara, which Russell must feed every morning at 4:44. It’s a time Russell has picked for its irony—when angels, not demons, surround you. The demon offers protection at first, but then only threatens, “Feed me or else.” (p. 239) But its feeding, biting, and threats exhaust Rae, and she gets help from the Old Moms and another New Mom in her support group. Yvette, their leader, advises Rae to quit feeding the demon. Although Rae can’t believe that Yvette could possibly advise breaking a pact with the devil, she eventually agrees to exorcising it. Often funny and horrific, Russell even manages to make the reader pity, for a moment, the fleeing shape-shifting demon.
A beast of a tamer and gentler sort is the central character in “Madame Bovary’s Greyhound,” originally published in Zoetrope and included in BASS 2014 and The Pushcart Prize XXXIX. Russell contemplates love, its loss, and eventual abandonment from the viewpoint of Djali, Madame’s dog. In this story, we learn why the greyhound in Flaubert’s novel ran off. Even Djali could no longer tolerate Madame’s lack of love. In a twist of an ending, Russell has Djali return to the “game warden.” I presume this is supposed to be a reversal of the Flaubert story. But I don’t know why Russell writes that Djali “had been a gift from the young woman’s husband, Dr. Charles Bovary,” when it was «Un garde-chasse, guéri par Monsieur, d’une fluxion de poitrine, avait donné à Madame une petite levrette d’Italie...». (“A gamekeeper, whom Monsieur had cured of pneumonia, made Madame a present of a little Italian greyhound...” Madame Bovary, Steegmuller tr.) There’s some clever writing in the story, too— a comment for the rationale behind the story, “perhaps this is a sentimental impulse, a storyteller’s desire to sync two flickering hearts,” and the playful description of Madame “dervish[ing] around in another man’s arms.”
Almost any writer could write a story about a boy and a girl who elope after their first date and travel through the desert on a kind of honeymoon. “The Bad Graft” is a love story that only Russell could write, blending evolutionary biology and ancient myth. Andy and Angie “elope,” though they vow never to actually marry. He’s a twenty-two-year-old wanderer and an avid Melville reader with the tattoo EVER UNFIXED on his arm; Angie, twenty-six, never got her GED, but she’s been sober for almost three years, and “still struggling to find her mooring on dry land.” When Angie is infected with the spirit of a Joshua tree, the narrator muses, “how old such stories must be, legends of the bad romance between wandering humans and plants!” Indeed, Russell’s best tale in the collection reverses Daphne’s metamorphosis from woman to laurel tree to flee Apollo. (Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Horace Gregory tr.) The Joshua tree has a co-evolutionary history with insects, so it seems natural that Russell’s World would provide such a tree to graft its consciousness onto a human for a while.
“Bog Girl’ is a fantastical and often hilarious take on the traditional love story in which mother disapproves of her son’s new girlfriend, the ultimate Cougar, an especially quiet two-thousand-year-old. Fifteen-year-old Cill has always been shy and afraid of girls in his own grade. One day, while walking through the bog of his northern European island, he discovers a hand sticking out from the mud. Men dig up the body and Cill falls in love. “There is so much more to you than what they see,” he whispers. “I am so sorry about what happened to you. I am going to keep you safe now.” After the police determine that the girl, who has a noose hanging from her, is not a recent murder, the Chief lets Cill keep her. Cill and Bog girl watch TV and eat together. He takes her to school with him, where she becomes popular for her quiet charm and aloofness. Some of Russell’s inspiration and research about Northern European bog bodies came from “rereading these incredible Seamus Heaney poems [North] about bog bodies and violence—trying to understand how they worked in the cultural imagination.”
A different sort of research underpins “The Tornado Auction,” which whirls the science of creating an artificial tornado to new heights.
In Russell’s story, it’s hard for a small-time storm farmer to make a living anymore what with the competition from corporations and with litigators making weather-assisted demolition illegal. But back in the seventies, Robert Wurman used to raise twisters in Nebraska’s Tornado Alley. His storms helped demolish burnt buildings and bankrupt businesses. Nowadays, “Prices for violent storms have bottomed out, and farmers are downsizing, doing dust devils, doing siroccos.” Wurman, now seventy-four and about fifteen years retired, can’t get storms out of his blood. At “The Tornado Auction” he bids and wins a small storm that he hopes to grow into a twister. But along with the new twister, trouble grows and rekindles his guilt over harming his daughter because of his passion for the business of raising weather.
Russell, along with Lauren Groff, Allison Amend, and Rebecca Makkai, is one of the best younger writers around, and someday Bloom may deign to include her work in his Canon. Russell has made quite a few best-writer-under-a-certain-age lists, but says the roster she’d truly like to make is the “‘85 Writers Who Are Still Lucid at 85’ list.”
A master storyteller whose myth-making take on life is natural and supremely honest, Russell seems more comfortable writing her brand of short “magical-thinking” fiction, but she has written one novella, Sleep Donation (2014), and is working on a second novel, according to a recent interview. While you’re waiting for that novel, read her new and best collection, then catch up on her previous work.