[11 March 2013]
Karen Russell’s fiction leaps across boundaries. Genre distinctions crumble beneath the weight of her insatiable imagination. Her stories blur the lines between the natural and the supernatural; between her human subjects and the worlds that contain them. Her debut novel, Swamplandia! wove together ghost stories, alligator-themed amusement parks and adolescent ennui to earn her recognition as one of three finalists (alongside David Foster Wallace and Denis Johnson) for last year’s never-awarded Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. And her most recent book, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, brings together eight stories of transmutation, transmigration and transgression for a collection that enchants and beguiles throughout.
These stories penetrate the most unassailable of human boundaries: the one that we draw between ourselves and the natural world. In their mythic realities, humans and animals exist in symbiosis and simultaneity — shifting shapes, trading places and speaking to one another in symbols and incantations. In “Reeling for the Empire”, 19th century imperial Japanese merchants force peasant women to drink a poison tea that transforms them into humanoid silkworms. Russell describes their transformation in devastatingly realistic detail: “We are all becoming reelers. Some kind of hybrid creature, part kaiko, silkworm catepillar, and part human female. Some of the older workers’ faces are already quite covered with a coarse white fur, but my face and thighs stayed smooth for twenty days… then the roiling feeling became solid. It was the thread: a color purling invisibly in my belly. Silk. Yards and yards of thin color would soon be extracted from me by the machine.” In this indelible vision, the women’s metamorphosis renders the merchant’s unquenchable thirst for cheap labor with terrifying immediacy.
Russell merges humans and animals to a more comedic, if still subversive, effect in “The Barn at the End of Our Term”. This story gathers a bewildered assortment of ex-US presidents who awake to find themselves transformed into horses and corralled in the stables of a midwestern horse farm. Some of the horses believe that the farm is Heaven, others Hell, while others band together to escape for D.C., which must surely be floundering in their absence. Somehow, Russell twists this farcical yarn into a moving meditation upon love and death, as Rutherford B. Hayes, longing for his wife, becomes convinced that her spirit has taken up residence in the body of an unsuspecting sheep.
The Earth itself takes human form in “Proving Up”, as a young Nebraskan homesteader named Miles comes face to face with the futility of his people’s hunger for propriety over the land. Throughout this story, Russell uses vivid imagery to draw connections between the homesteaders and the natural world that they seek to tame. As Miles rides through the plains to the aid of another family of settlers, he recalls a haunting dream from the night before: “Dark rain falls and my sisters rise out of the sod, as tall as ten-foot wheat, shaking the midges and the dust from their tangled hair. Like rain, they thunder and moan. Their pale mouths open and they hiss. Their faces aren’t like any faces I know. Stay in the ground, I plead. Oh, God, please let only wheat rise up.”
When a storm blows Miles off-course, he encounters a strange figure in the emptiness of the prairie: “His eyes have the half-moon markings of a pronghorn antelope. He looks like he’s been awake for generations… His voice is almost female, or animal, and the words make no sense whatsoever… I swear I see a nugget of earth fall out of his mouth.” Through Miles’s eyes, this man becomes a menacing personification of the homesteader’s doomed quest for dominion. And his vision of the land transforms, through the course of their encounter, from a promise to a prison: “The man is speaking in the voice of every sodbuster in the Hox River Settlement—a voice that can live for eons on dust and thimblefuls of water, that can be plowed under, hailed about, and go on whispering madly forever about spring, about tomorrow, a voice beyond the reach of reason or exhaustion—a voice that will never let us quit the land.”
The crumbling boundaries in Russell’s stories give way to various forms of emancipation. For the silkworm women in “Reeling for the Empire”, a single window high above their factory floor inspires them to overthrow their oppressors. For the horse presidents in “The Barn at the End of Our Term”, James Garfield’s fearless leap over the fence gives them the courage to escape from their equestrian purgatory. The final two stories in the collection examine boundaries that come from within in the form of people’s haunted pasts.
In “The New Veterans”, a soldier finds respite from his traumatic war experience in the hands of a masseuse. She absorbs his painful memories by tracing the contours of a war-scene tattooed across his back, rearranging the images of his experience, both as they appear upon his body and as they fester inside of his mind. And in “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis”, a group of high school bullies seek atonement for the trauma that they have inflicted when one of their victims materializes as a scarecrow, strung up in a tree overlooking their hideout.
Throughout Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Russell invites her readers to explore the always bizarre, often hilarious and endlessly captivating worlds of her creation. She constructs whole universes of imaginative possibility, whose panoramic scope belies their expression in the unlikely, but somehow perfectly suited medium of the short story. Through her wildly fantastical conceits, she digs deep into human truths and emotions. A yearning for the universal runs through these stories, one that could never be satisfied through a strict adherence to either the realist or the fantastical mode. But by collapsing these formal boundaries of genre and convention, Russell’s stories are free to train their focus upon the very real boundaries of human possibility that her characters struggle to overcome.