What would it be like for two happily married vampires, in love for 100 years, if one of them developed fear of flying? What if poor and powerless women in a remote part of the world were kidnapped and drugged and forced to become a hybrid creature, “part kaiko, silkworm caterpillar, and part human female” in order to create precious fabric? What if a masseuse were able to knead the tattoo on the back of a troubled soldier such that the images of war came to life and she was able to remove his story from him and take it as her own?
These are some of the vexing questions in Karen Russell's third book, a collection of eight stories called "Vampires in the Lemon Grove," and, as might be expected, some are answered more satisfactorily than others. Nonetheless, the range in her narrators and the audacity of her choices are a force to behold.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
In her first book, "St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves," also a collection of stories, and in her second, the Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel "Swamplandia," Russell posits imaginary underworlds amid real ones, espousing a vision filled with humor and dread in near equal parts. Her characters are often changelings, chimeras, ghosts — yet the author grounds them in the mundane. It is as if she read them the riot act or subjected them to tough love: You may be weird, but at least try to act normal.
In the title story, the vampire husband is brimming with uxorial pride. "We went thirsty in every region of the globe," he recalls, pumped by the memory of his and his wife's sense of adventure. "Human marriages amuse me: the brevity of the commitment and all the ceremony that surrounds it, the calla lilies, the veiled mother-in-laws like lilac spiders, the tears and earnest toasts. Till death do us part! Easy. These mortal couples need only keep each other in sight for fifty, sixty years."
Unfortunately, these happy reflections are just a cover for the true feelings of despair he feels as he realizes he can no longer abide the thought of flying and is forced to do the most humiliating thing a self-respecting vampire can imagine: caging a ride on a funicular to get to the top of a mountain.
In "Reeling for the Empire," the women forced to incubate worms to create silk submit to a machine that harvests the threads until the women weaken and waste away. Before their health fails, they lie to each other in the way that people in exile so often do, inflating their former lives: "Several of us claim to have been daughters of the samurai, but of course there is no way to verify that now. It's a relief, in its way, the new anonymity." The matter-of-fact quality of that statement, in dire contrast to the horrors facing the women in captivity in what they call the Nowhere Mill, is vintage Russell, in which the quotidian achieves a kind of horror. "
And the more our kaiko-bodies begin the resemble one another, the more frantically each factory girl works to reinvent her past. … Some of our lies are quite bold. ... Back in Gifu I had tangly hair like a donkey's tail, a mouth like a small red bean, but I tell the others that I was very beautiful."
Of all the stories, perhaps the most memorable is "The New Veterans," in which Beverly, a masseuse, is assigned to 10 sessions with a new vet in a program paid for by the military. The tattoo on the young man's back stuns her. She thinks it is on a par with the Dutch masters, amazed at the level of detail: "Practically every pore on his back is covered: in the east, under his bony shoulder, there's an entire village of squat huts …." Even though her career was a default cut-your-losses move, Beverly is filled with wonder for the human body: "The same spine that has been inside her since babyhood is hers today, the exact same bones from the womb, a thought that always fills her with a kind of thrilling claustrophobia." With its blend of the fantastic (the war-themed tattoo coming alive in the midst of the death it represents) and the routine (the U-shaped pillow, the heated oils, the expert application of enfleurage and cross-grain techniques), it manages an equipoise missing in some of the other stories. This story about touch, literally, is also by far the most touching story in the volume. In the end she has one wish for the soldier: that he can find "a story he can carry, and a true one."
The stories that don't work as well feel forced, including ones about presidents who are reincarnated as horses and partygoers who attempt to tailgate in Antarctica. I found two others, "The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979" and "Proving Up," confusing. They seemed premise-proud and short on narrative. The arc of their action droops, like a clothesline sagging under the weight of luxury fabric. But even those stories are filled with sentences jam-packed with memorable phrasing. They deliver some payoffs, despite being perhaps too cerebral, too much about ideas rather than events and character development.
Russell is a quirky writer. Her work may be too outlandish for some, too reflexively alternative, but those very qualities translate into a dependable stream of admirable originality. What makes Russell so delicious for her fans is the constant trade between the fanciful and the routine, between stories you can live with and stories that are true.
Less ambitious than "Swamplandia" and even more experimental in its overall tone, it is likely that this work is at heart a book between books, a gambit to keep her name afloat until the next major work appears. Even so, she establishes herself as a writer to track and to treasure.
Madeleine Blais is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Miami Herald who teaches journalism at the University of Massachusetts.
"Vampires in the Lemon Grove"
By Karen Russell, Knopf, 256 pages, $24.95Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun