Karen Russell is moving fast, and she’s having the kind of enormous early success I thought was no longer possible for a literary writer in America. Her novel Swamplandia!–about a family of alligator wrestlers living in a quasi-mythical version of the Everglades–was short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize last year. This year she was awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant, and she published Vampires in the Lemon Grove, her second collection of short stories. And she is just thirty-two years old.
What’s even more remarkable is that she has found her own approach to telling stories that doesn’t resemble the work of anyone else. Russell is able to combine a realistic understanding of the natural world with a sense of our often-surreal interaction with it, and along the way she brings in myth and even popular culture. This complicated literary stew is often funny and provocative, and usually feels like a metaphor for the largest issues of life. Although it is often difficult for this reader to pinpoint exactly what the metaphor might be, the uncertainty itself is usually very interesting.
For instance, the title story, “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” takes place in Italy. An aged vampire–if they can age–is living–if that’s what they do–in an Italian lemon grove. He’s trying to keep himself off “the blood” by eating lemons and watching the tourists parade through the beautiful landscape. He understands his longings, and he tries to control them, even though he knows that in the end he must succumb. The dust jacket says this is a tale of addiction and terror, but I read it more as a fable about aging and the inevitably futile efforts we make to avoid it.
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.