Writing in the New York Times on February 15, 2013, Leslie Kaufman identified a “resurgence” in short story collections, “driven by a proliferation of digital options that offer not only new creative opportunities but exposure and revenue as well.” Among the new collections Kaufman cited to make her point was Karen Russell’s VAMPIRES IN THE LEMON GROVE. Whether or not there is a renewed interest in short fiction, it’s certain that the work of a writer of Russell’s scope and daring will be noticed. In this second collection, she demonstrates an impressive breadth of subject matter and the same flair for the unconventional that brought her 2006 collection, ST. LUCY’S HOME FOR GIRLS RAISED BY WOLVES, such critical acclaim.
Of fiction, Russell has said it “helps me to reconnect with the true, deep weirdness inherent in everyday reality, in our dealings with one another, in just being alive.” That ethos surges through the best stories in VAMPIRES. It’s perhaps best displayed in “Reeling for the Empire,” the chilling tale of a group of young Japanese women who are sold by their fathers into service at the “Nowhere Mill” in the late 19th century. There they fall victim to a terrifying transformation brought about by a “tea that turns girls into silkworms.” The plan that the suddenly self-empowered women construct to end their ordeal is devilishly ingenious.
"[Karen Russell's stories] vibrate with originality and life, and most have the imaginative reach and moral weight of works of much greater length. As long as she keeps producing work of this quality, the future of the short story, digital or otherwise, is bright."
The title story, far from trying to capitalize on the current literary lust for vampire tales, upends the conventions of the genre, especially when the narrator, Clyde, discovers that vampire bloodlust is a myth. “If we didn’t have to drink the blood, then what on earth were these fangs for?” he asks. It’s an emotionally rich story of the tensions in his enduring relationship with his wife Magreb, with whom he has lived everywhere from Salamanca to Cincinnati. The pair find themselves in an Italian lemon grove, where Clyde discovers that “lemons are a vampire’s analgesic.”
In the two stories that conclude the collection, Russell demonstrates her skill at transforming what might be fairly conventional narratives of contemporary life --- the psychological problems of returning Iraq War veterans and teenage bullying --- into odd and dramatically original treatments of those subjects. In “The New Veterans,” Beverly, a massage therapist in a small Wisconsin town, becomes obsessed with the tragic story depicted in a tattoo on the back of the veteran whose stress she’s been hired to relieve. As their sessions proceed, she wonders, of his terrifying memories, whether “she really can adjust them from without.” “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis” explores the emotional reckoning experienced by one of the members of a group of middle school boys who have inflicted a series of savage beatings on a hapless boy they call the “Mutant” when, following his unexplained disappearance, he returns in the form of a scarecrow.
The stories “The Barn at the End of our Term” and “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating” offer a taste of Russell’s wit, but they feel slight by comparison to their companions. In the former, the spirits of deceased presidents of the United States inhabit the bodies of horses, where they “reminisce about their political opponents like old lovers” and “are still hungry for power.” The latter is a mildly amusing send-up of our passion for spectator sports, expressed in a whimsical formulation of rules for watching the “Food Chain Games” between Team Krill and Team Whale in -89˚F cold.
In a “By the Book” interview with the New York Times Book Review, Russell listed 17 authors, as diverse as Stephen King and Virginia Woolf, whose work she says has “inspired” her. The list contains the names of two contemporary short story masters: George Saunders (whose new story collection was the subject of an admiring cover story in the New York Times Magazine) and Jim Shepard. Without suggesting that Russell’s stories are in any way derivative of Saunders’ and Shepard’s, their influence is evident in her work --- Saunders for his more than slightly off-center view of modern American life and Shepard for the historical and geographic range of his short fiction. While Russell may not yet be in their class, she has staked her claim to a place in this vibrant territory.
One criticism of the short stories produced by graduates of some of the elite MFA programs is that they sometimes feel as fragile as hot house flowers, their concerns narrow and their reach limited. The stories of Karen Russell are one vigorous response to that criticism. They vibrate with originality and life, and most have the imaginative reach and moral weight of works of much greater length. As long as she keeps producing work of this quality, the future of the short story, digital or otherwise, is bright.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on February 22, 2013