Russell's stories move all over the globe and through all kinds of characters, many of them more easily recognizable than the old vampire in Italy. She can get even more wonderfully strange and turn young women into gigantic silk worms spinning perfect colors from their abdomens (in "Reeling for the Empire"), or she can write a haunting story about American pioneers failing to succeed on their arid farm in Nebraska in the late nineteenth century (in "Proving Up"). In "The New Veterans," a masseuse practices her art on a returning veteran from one of our recent desert wars. The tragedy that has damaged his psyche has been tattooed on his back as an act of homage to a fallen comrade. By massaging his back, the masseuse lessens the psychological pain, but she finds the veteran's story moving into her imagination. This is a tale of redemption, but more than that, it's about how those of us living in our illusions and our comfort must genuinely confront the horrors experienced by those we send to war in our name. We knew that was a necessary imaginative leap for our cultural amnesia, but Karen Russell has made it for us.
Russell reads at UMMA on November 21.
[Originally published in November, 2013.]