MAY 18, 2019
ALLIGATOR WRESTLING, rehab for lupine girls, epidemic insomnia, vampires who slake their bloodthirst with lemons — lovers of delectably strange and surreal worlds can’t help but gravitate toward Karen Russell. Since her 2006 debut collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, Russell has managed to traverse the tissue-paper tightrope that runs between literary and genre fiction with rare dexterity. Her cult following is earned by a combination of her distinctly playful control of language, the wild breadth of her imagination, and her fidelity to the emotional realities of her characters.
Alternate realms and wacky ideas can only take a writer so far; the works of literary surrealism that never leave us are those that find the perfect blend of the fantastic with the familiar. Russell’s work claims its place at the literary heights by accomplishing just that, and by remaining accountable to the consequences. This is particularly true of her new and deftly chimeric collection, Orange World and Other Stories.
Multilayered and complex, these new stories reveal a maturity that results from persistent experience and, of course, that fiendish trickster we call time. It’s no surprise to learn that Russell penned them amid significant transitions in her own life, as well as the nightmarish tribulations that have developed in our society and world. In the publicity letter that accompanies the bound galleys, Russell explains this segment of her life in her own words:
I wrote this collection during a five-year period between 2013–2018 when my own life changed profoundly. I went from bouncing between temporary jobs and dubious sublets to falling in love, making a home in Portland, OR, and having my son. Disorientingly, the most stable span of my own life has coincided with a period of overlapping crises in our nation and world.
The transitions Russell faced while writing these stories have imbued them with an emotional credibility that makes this collection stand out from her previous books. Devotees will have no trouble recognizing Russell’s unique thumbprint in these eight stories; the style and voice belong without question to Russell, but they are noticeably sharper, both in craft and cunning.
That said, there are a few things conspicuously missing from this collection. Russell takes fewer structural risks in these stories than she has in her previous collections — not necessarily a bad thing, but noticeable all the same — and we don’t get to see her wield that wonderful collective first-person point of view that made us fall in love with stories like “Reeling for the Empire” and her debut collection’s title story. Readers expecting to find these elements in Orange World may be slightly disappointed. Nevertheless, it will be hard for Russell fans to finish her newest collection without thinking it her strongest or, at the very least, her most multivalent and invigorating work to date.
Each of Orange World’s stories contains its own vast and self-sustaining world that forges an indelible circuit to our own. Flickering below the surface are the anxieties and fears that permeate social and quotidian hegemonic structures, where we are ushered into close encounters with the beauties, aches, and routines of ordinary life in the apocalyptic present.
There are stories of impending futures, like “The Tornado Auction,” where we meet a widowed tornado farmer who returns to his calling after years of retirement and decides, against the wishes of his three grown daughters, to raise a tornado to its peak destructive force despite the harm it could do to himself or those around him. In “The Gondoliers,” a young woman in postapocalyptic “New Florida” (formerly Miami, before it was submerged) takes an unlikely passenger on her gondola and, with the promise of excessive compensation, agrees to ferry him to the very dangerous seawall. Russell’s description of the way her narrator navigates the waterways via a presumably evolved form of echolocation is particularly poignant:
Launching my voice against a wall, I can hear the sunken pylons that mean to kill me, and I swerve, changing the future. This happens hundreds of times a day in New Florida. […] It’s easy to pretend that I am transporting the sea itself, the wind made flesh. […] The song hunts for an opening, and water spits us into unbroken sky.
The power and control the narrator wields with the cooperation of her song and pole as she maneuvers through dangerous waters is similar to what Russell does through the page with her pen. Like her gondolier, she is hunting and discovering openings as she writes, charting unexpected pathways and avoiding unseen dangers as she guides the reader through her narratives. There are few who can write so convincingly as Russell that the apocalypse is not the end of the world.
More than a collection of dystopian visions, Russell’s book also visits and reimagines the past to dredge up present nightmares. In “The Prospectors,” two young women swindling their way through the Great Depression mistakenly find themselves at a haunted ski lodge surrounded by long-dead men, and their one hope for escape is to avoid fracturing the fragile egos of their phantom hosts. Though a ghost story set almost a century in the past, the ghoulishness of the tale is in its depiction of two women in desperate need to perform for men in order to avoid certain violence. “People often mistake laughing girls for foolish creatures,” explains the narrator. “They mistake our merriment for nerves or weakness, or the hysterical looning of desire. Sometimes, it is that. But not tonight.”
“Madame Bovary’s Greyhound” plunges the reader into a reimagining of Flaubert’s masterpiece. As Emma Bovary falls out of love with her husband, the reader’s focus is trained on the Bovary’s greyhound, whose love is concurrently fading for Emma. This story doesn’t leave quite as strong an impression as the others, but its ironic parallelism and eccentric genre of canine bildungsroman make it an enjoyable read nonetheless.
Some may initially find “Black Corfu” to be a more challenging read than the other stories, but its payoff is one of the strongest. The tale is set in the early 17th century on the small island of Korčula, where the dead roam the woods at night. Here we meet an aspiring doctor who is forced, due to the color of his skin, to be a posthumous surgeon. His disagreeable, yet necessary, job is to operate on the dead — “the only bodies a man of his class is permitted to touch” — to keep them from leaving their graves. Though his track record has been flawless, a rumor surfaces that a woman he’d worked on has been seen walking around the village. The fear that spreads among the villagers is a complicated mixture of homespun superstition and institutionalized assumptions: “Those few who do meet the doctor’s gaze still fail to see him. Eyes trawl over his skin, and a monster springs into their nets. His voice shakes, and they presume his guilt.” What proceeds is a chillingly familiar story in which privilege speaks louder than fact, and race and class are the true underlying determinants of one’s fate.
“[The devil] knows his demographic,” says Russell in a 2018 interview with The New Yorker. “Fear makes people very easy to control.” There is, indeed, a terror coursing through Russell’s work that is difficult to pinpoint precisely because it isn’t any one thing in particular, but rather a reality that everyone, everywhere lives with — the looming presence of the unknown. In “The Bad Graft,” an impulsive young couple stumbles upon the unknown when they decide to run away together to the Mojave Desert, where their happily ever after is tested when the girl becomes possessed by the spirit of a Joshua tree. In the title story, a woman is so fearful of the uncertain future awaiting her and her unborn child that she strikes a deal with the devil, agreeing to breastfeed him every morning in return for the promise of her new baby’s safety. With bold and vulnerable clarity, Russell reveals here that the horror of being a new parent is not in the weight of responsibility, but in the powerlessness that accompanies the limitations of foresight.
“Bog Girl” approaches the topic of the unknown from a slightly different angle. On a remote island in northern Europe, a 15-year-old turf cutter falls in love with a 2,000-year-old girl that he’s found in a mass of acidic peat. Believing himself to be the girl’s rescuer, the boy brings her home and cares for her in what he considers to be a perfect romance until an unexpected gesture topples everything he thought he knew about her. It’s easy to assume that the unknowable is something that happens to us; this story, however, illustrates how the unknowable is present within us and the ones we love, insofar as we can never fully know what it’s like to walk the world as someone else.
“[T]here is hilarity inside of terror,” Russell explains in another New Yorker interview, this one in 2016 while discussing the publication of “Bog Girl.” “[A] giddiness that bubbles up in the face of the unknown, a hysterical response to some monstrous truth that requires ventilation. Howls of laughter and howls of terror aren’t so far removed from one another.”
Life owes us nothing, neither sustenance nor safety nor love. This grim truth becomes more cutting with each passing year, like a tree slowly growing into razor wire. At a time when it is tempting to escape from harsh and apparently helpless realities, Russell’s uncanny and tightly rendered worlds invite us not only to embrace our own frightening circumstances, but to recognize the punch line within them and allow ourselves to laugh. For an author who has accomplished so much, whose career has already been momentous, how remarkable it is to say with all sincerity that Russell has, in fact, outdone herself. In true surrealist fashion, she has created a writing world for herself where ceilings no longer exist, and where traversing uncertainty is simply a matter of singing into the water in search of a wall, and changing the future accordingly.