Book Review by C.V. White
Vampires in the Lemon Grove and Other Stories
by Karen Russell
Softcover, 243 pages
The final image of “The Barn at the End of Our Term,” the fifth of Karen Russell’s eight new stories, finds the main character in midair, leaping over a seemingly insurmountable fence. This is a vivid reflection of Russell’s focus and structure in this dynamic collection. Her characters consistently launch out, like shifting projectiles, into the unknowns and impossibles of their lives.
Yet it’s not the landing that’s important. Instead, it’s the process of getting to the point of take-off, where one can finally take that first step into the unknown, that provides meaning to Russell’s work.
While this thread may be the common one that weaves these varied, otherworldly stories together, it also starkly reflects Russell’s own development as a writer. Her first book, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, was a stellar introduction to her fantastic world of childhood perceptions and a nascent reflection of Russell’s genius. Her second book, the novel Swamplandia!, managed to land itself smack between Denis Johnson and David Foster Wallace in the highly disputed 2012 Pulitzer for Fiction. Although the award was not given that year, Russell became a powerful example to women in the highest echelons of the often male-dominated literary world.
Yet Swamplandia! in all its genius, its impeccable and wholly unexpected universe, and its incredible language, could still feel a bit overwritten from time to time. Russell, a master of both simile and verb, used these masterfully in Swamplandia! Yet there were points where her words became too much of a construction within themselves.
That, and there was this pesky issue of the ending.
And here, folks, is where we get to that development thing.
Just like her wildly disparate characters, one can feel Russell launching out into the unknown with this new collection. She’s traded in her childhood Florida for Northern Italy, early Nebraska, natty Jersey suburbs, and a “Nowhere Mill” somewhere in Japan. She’s also traded the consistency of a child’s point of view (this time only half of the eight stories) for a more varied narrator.
But most notably, Russell’s extraordinary figurative language is dialed back in a manner that only strengthens her writing: A boy’s dead sisters sprout nightly from their grave, “Glowing taller and taller. White legs twining moonward like swords of wheat.” A woman tries to make out the contents of a tattoo while, “Light hops the fence of its design.” Her words throughout Vampires in the Lemon Grove move past powerful adornment into something that is a pure embodiment of character, setting, and sight.
This theme of the unknown that both author and character vault into, is even more powerful because the main undercurrents of this collection rely on dark humor, regret via instinct, and the underlying violence and menace of life.
It is humor that welcomes us in to her book when the first, eponymous tale finds vampires stifling their instincts by hooking lemons onto their sharp need. While it’s easy to laugh at the sight of a monster with a lemon in his maw, the regret is lodged there too.
This regret runs through the book and is based upon some strange instinct or intuition that the universal-we somehow failed to follow or carelessly neglected. This, in the same way the Russell’s vampire refuses the blood that both nourishes and defines him.
The final story of the collection, “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis,” is almost unreadable (in the best way possible), as it soaks up and expels the horrific regret of childhood violence and its lifelong effects. The boy who develops a conscience, likely too late, notes that “somehow this made me feel as if I had broken a mirror, missed my one chance to really know myself.” And “know thyself” is something that each of these characters fight to do in worlds that reflect the current forms of violence in our contemporary, post 9/11 world.
While this violence runs through many stories, “The New Veterans” clearly places it in present history. Beverly, a massage therapist who has failed to develop her own life, finds herself trying to change Sargent Derek Zeiger’s with her strangely powerful hands. Beverly believes that, “Each body…has a secret language candled inside it,” and as she finds Zeiger’s, she also discovers the impossibility inside these “new veterans….Flash frozen into citizens again.” Beverly’s epiphany is that she is a healer, but finds that not everything can be “healed.” These “new veterans” (much like the ones before them) are caught in an endless cycle somewhere between the unbearable experiences of war, the stories one must tell to survive, and the truth.
And in this, one of the best stories of the collection, Russell seems to ask how we can possibly develop when we are both surrounded by and carry such dehumanizing acts of violence. On a larger, more removed level, she seems to wonder why our development appears to demand a certain amount of violence in the first place.
No matter the answer, Karen Russell’s questions are exactly those that need to be asked. She successfully and lovingly interrogates her characters, the reader, and her own masterful hand, as we all launch out into the unknown, in the face of what may be insurmountable odds.
One can only hope her later works will show us what happens when we land.
* * *
A native of Miami, Karen Russell has been featured in The New Yorker’s debut fiction issue and on The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 list, and was chosen as one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists. In 2009, she received the 5 Under 35 award from the National Book Foundation for her first collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. Three of her short stories have been selected for the Best American Short Stories volumes. Her novel Swamplandia! won the 2012 National Magazine Award for fiction, made the NYT “10 Best of 2011,” and was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. There was no award that year.
She is a graduate of the Columbia MFA program, a 2011 Guggenheim Fellow, and a 2012 Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. In 2013, she was awarded a MacArthur Foundation, Genius Grant and will be the featured keynote speaker at AWP in 2015.
Buy Vampires in the Lemon Grove and all of Karen Russell’s books here.