Looking back on some previous reads, it’s perfectly easy to associate an illustrative style or cover image with the text; Quentin Blake’s loose and light scribbles for Roald Dahl, golden age comics for Chabon’s ‘The Amazing Adventures of Kavelier and Clay’, moments of German expressionism in Pynchon’s ‘Gravity’s Rainbow.’ At times while reading stories in Karen Russell’s ‘Vampires in the Lemon Grove’, to be released tomorrow [Feb. 12, 2013], I couldn’t help but to think how Edward Gorey would flesh out the scene. If he was alive, wouldn’t it be great if he signed on to dot the collection with his crosshatching and starkly unaware faces? But that would be a misfit; what defines Russell’s stories is an absurdly humored kind of Victorian horror with a strong but unassuming magical realism, and while this may be the same bent as that of Gorey, Russell crafts a contemporary fiction that itself crafts it’s own illustrations.
And these images that coalesce between the reader and the text (without any such illustrative help) are quite stunning.
Sometimes a change in weather sucks a bat beyond the lemon trees and into the turquoise sea.
It is a simple sentence, one a precocious child might lay out to elucidate his peers on things he noticed during spring-break vacation, if so prompted by the teacher, described from his unique vantage point and select vocabulary. The most arresting images in this, the eponymous story, and the others are delivered just this way, and their simplicity belies their craft. A sparseness of objects each draped in a singular color and connected by a minimal, lively action. Russell can fill a frame this way, even with sound; a rooster’s morning crow is simply, astoundingly ‘gargled light, very beautiful.’ Very beautiful.
The color especially stands out in her description. The second story ‘Reeling for the Empire’ strings colorful lines of silk, produced by ‘some kind of hybrid creature’ silkworm-workers, across the set; not unlike the infinite rivers of stories in Rushdie’s sea, but if Murakami penned it for the pages of 1Q84 (both interestingly have some similar themes, flow, and strange cocoons). Taken in another story to Fedaliyah, Iraq, she gives us a cow’s red silhouette on green water as it shoulders an ‘obscenely’ blue sky.
Silkworm-workers. That is to say, Japanese girls tricked into drinking a potioned tea that adds quite a few characteristics of a kaiko, a silkworm caterpillar, to them. She can add cats to walls, too:
Sleeping cats had slotted themselves between the stones, so that the walls themselves appeared to be breathing.
In the same story, of a soldier receiving message therapy on his ‘Dutch master’ tattooed back, one that changes despite honoring an unchangeable, done-and-over day, well over a dozen animals are mentioned, from mastodons to jellyfish. Across the whole collection there is a small zoo’s worth of animal similes, comparisons, and images draped in equal measure in primary colors.
Another reason Gorey wouldn’t work; his visions are mainly of grim mishap and death, Russell’s are motifs of life and its requisite learning. Black versus primary colors. Animals throughout, winds that suck like the whales inhaling plankton in another of her stories, Suns that don’t evaporate lakes but eat them; she can remarkably instill life into even grand concepts, like the future:
A new crop was pushing into the spaces that the tractor had abandoned – husks hissing out of the earth, bristling and green, like the future sprouting new fur
Even when she does deal with death, she makes flowers out of it:
…Humvees were always getting blown to bits on it. I saw it happen right in front of me, fireballs swaying on these big fucking stems of smoke.
‘The Barn at the End of Our Term’ goes so far as to take past American Presidents, decidedly, documentedly human, and make them all horses instead (Rutherford Birchard Hayes is a skewbald pinto with a golden, of all things, cowlick). And even then, as horses, they must strive to figure things out and learn. Her plots and characters, her settings and style are imbued with a greenness, a wilderness that naturally promotes a level of optimism, even if covered in undergrowth and past falls’ leaves.
Except in ‘Proving Up.’ Not since meeting Harold in ‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’ as a 3rd grader in a shuttered closet (not good for eyes, but good for effect) have I been so on edge from a story trying to put the reader on edge. This inclusion was previously released as ‘The Hox River Window,’ but has an eery coincidence of length in this collection; at the zenith of realization of the horror this story mesmerizingly builds to, the page turns to white. On the recto; abject terror. On the verso; an even more shocking blank. The story ends, to the very, bottom margin on that last right-side page, zero visual foreshadowing. The next, empty page is no mistake, but the full, blindingly white gravity of where Russell leaves a young boy on a desperate errand. Here, whether the editor’s work or Russell’s, is a great arrangement. Here is where a paper book in hand, quick-tempo, carriage-return reading of each line, page after page flipping culminates; and just as amazingly, shockingly the collection continues to Rutherford B. Hayes in a stable. And after that? A man I can only picture as Yukon Cornelius, cheering on plankton in the Antarctic.
More than a title, ‘Vampires in the Lemon Grove’ is an aphoristic ingredients list for Russell’s work. The young, already labeled prodigious writer matches all her imaginative plot and characterization with controlled tone and well cropped imagery. Some questions of carrying one or two stories too long or being, frankly, a bit downing, slide to the book’s gutter in the face of the creativity and masterful storytelling present. By the end, she always seems to scrape away any fallen foliage and undergrowth to reveal an inherent vivacity and life:
The [scarecrow’s] torso looked weirdly reanimated now with the tiny rabbit digging sideways into its soft green interior, palpitating like a transplant heart.
Russell creates her own emerald landscape, opting for it to be a wild and wildly imaginative garden instead of a city; she eschews things of tin and machinery, instead giving the scarecrow a heart. Karen Russell is her own Great and Powerful Oz in contemporary American fiction.
‘Vampires in the Lemon Grove’ by Karen Russell, published by Alfred A. Knopf ISBN: 978.0.307.95723.8