What the hell is Karen Russell doing, and also: how? Reading her new short story collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, is like taking off on a round-the-universe trip, each story a new adventure where the usual rules don’t apply. Russell whisks you from an Italy where lemons soothe the desires of a vampire in love to a Japan where girls have been transformed into silkworms; from a farm where horses are actually reincarnated former United States presidents to a massage parlor in which a masseuse realizes she can change the images in a veteran's tattoo, perhaps editing his past in the process. Some of the stories read like horror (I hope the terrifying image of human bones from “Proving Up” is not permanently lodged in my mind), some like science fiction (can the seagulls in “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979” really gather pieces of paper from the future?). Some stories broke my heart as wide open as the work of my favorite realist writers (I’m talking to you, “The New Veterans”).
What exactly do we call what Russell is writing? Demented fairytales? Hemingway-esque realism, oftentimes set in alternate universes? Stories as rich and strange as the world we live in? The only answer I could come up with is that what Russell is doing doesn’t yet have a name. And that’s why her work is so wonderful.
Russell has been featured in The New Yorker’s debut fiction issue and on The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 List. Her first short story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, was the winner of the Bard Fiction Prize. Her first novel, Swamplandia!, was a New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year selection, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize (during the year that no winner was chosen—a twist seemingly out of a Russell story), and a winner of the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award. Though Russell’s work is dark and daring, her restless imagination is such an alluring place to visit that she has gained a wide readership.
One of her secrets is that even the weirdest of Russell’s fictional worlds is fully imagined, the characters vivid, sympathetic, and often in peril. Just because a woman named Kitsune (in the chilling story “Reeling for the Empire,” a tale that gave me nightmares) has begun to make green silk in her belly doesn’t mean I can distance myself from her. Kitsune’s voice is so winning that I found myself sympathizing with her, even as she plots to trap her captor in a silk cocoon (really). And more astonishingly, I was riveted, worried for Kitsune, despairing at all she had lost. When the story was over, I had to close the book, my mind (forgive the pun) reeling.
Russell often begins her stories innocuously. At the start of the title story (also the first in the collection), I figured I was reading about an Italy that’s possible to find on a map: “In October, the men and women of Sorrento harvest the primofiore, or ‘first flowering fruit,’ the most succulent lemons….” But just as I relaxed, feeling comfortable (even a little bored) with the first-person narrator, who admits, “Most people mistake me for a small, kindly Italian grandfather, a nonno,” Russell throws a curve ball: “They never guess that I am a vampire.”
Sound hokey? Sure. But the story has absolutely nothing in common with a typical horror tale. It’s a testament to Russell’s gift that I empathized with the vampire narrator by the end of the story. And I’m a reader who prefers Raymond Carver, as real (and grim) as it gets.
How does Russell come up with these bizarre ideas, then? “Some of these stories,” she says, “have humble, even stupid beginnings.” Take the title story. “I was in a lemon grove with my siblings, and a very tan, elderly man was just sucking on a lemon, and I said something like, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if lemons were just like vampire methadone, and that man is a vampire with a tan?’ And nobody thought that was funny.”
Why did Russell stay with the concept, then? “Something about the premise made it feel already bounded, constrained,” she explains. “The ‘what if’ was set up in such a way that it felt like: here was the place where I could explore some question. A diorama where I could explore the question that seems almost too huge to confront in realist fiction.”
This, in the end, is what’s so exciting about Russell’s fiction. She takes questions that plague us, painfully real questions about desire, love, and immortality, and then she explores them in places that are new, even amazing. So even as you marvel at her research–the weird details that make her stories shine–you’re being sucker punched. You are just as filled with desire as a vampire. You, if tricked into spinning silk, would also do absolutely anything to escape. Like Derek Zeiger, the man with a moving tattoo in “The New Veterans,” you are searching—at least I am—for “a story he can carry, and a true one.”
Amanda Eyre Ward is the author of a short story collection and four novels, most recently Close Your Eyes, which was named one of Kirkus’ Best Books of 2011 and Elle magazine's Book of the Year. Her work has been optioned for film and television and published in 15 countries. She lives with her family in Austin, Tex.