The youthful fantasy worlds of writer Karen Russell are growing up
A teenage girl falls in love with a ghost. A boy on the cusp of adolescence discovers a treasure trove of powerful and seemingly prophetic objects, guarded by a mysterious flock of seagulls. A group of factory workers, half women, half silkworms, stages a rebellion in rapidly modernizing Meiji Japan.
These are all plots sprung from the exceptionally fertile mind of writer Karen Russell, whose body of work now spans two story collections—her 2006 debut, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, and the recently released Vampires in the Lemon Grove—and one novel, the 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist Swamplandia! (Writing for The New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog, Michael Cunningham gushed that the novel “seemed very much like the initial appearance of an important writer, and its wonders were wonderful indeed.”)
On the phone recently, Russell was unfailingly kind and polite; she apologized in advance for being a "long-winded bore, like a grandpa"—though she was not. And she was persistently humble about the success of Swamplandia!, which, she reminded me, "got incredibly mixed reviews too" (Dan Kois, in New York magazine, complained of a “tonal disconnect” between different portions of of the book, while Emma Donoghue, in The New York Times, called the novel “uneven"—though the review was, otherwise, largely glowing).
"There are a lot of people, I learned, that—that was just not the book for them, you know?" she said. "And that's kind of liberating to know. I think that relieves of me of the sense that anything I write is ever going to have to necessarily reach a hundred percent of—you know that's just sort of a doomed goal. So I think that's another secret gift of writing stranger stuff or things that, things set in—working in whatever whacked-out vein I'm working in."
The pressure to be what she called a "humangazoid commercial success or whatever" is off.
If, up to this point, the worlds that Russell builds in this "whacked-out vein" have had a common element, it is one they share with many popular young adult novels. There is often an adolescent protagonist; "my default seems to be strange thirteen year-old boys," she admitted, laughing.
And the border between the mundane and the fantastical is often porous.
"A lot of the writing that I was really drawn to as a young reader, and then, you know, later on, is often something wilder, or something set in—in a world that resembles ours, you know, that has some aspects that are recognizable, but that really feels like the creation of the author too," she said.
But the reasons aren't so much to mythologize or elevate the mundane lives of the characters, or to create elaborate allegories. Russell likes being, in her words, "the single arbiter of a world that you made." When I pressed her on her interest in characters that she described as "on a threshold between a more magical private world and a harder adult reality," she apologized for not being able to give a concise answer, before delivering a graceful explanation.
"Stories that have some kind of supernatural quality to them—those are the stories where I feel like I can be more honest."
"If I can use, you know, vampires or, um, you know, zombie homesteaders"—both of which appear in Vampires in the Lemon Grove—"I think it just—I feel like I have a bigger palette to work with."
That bigger palette distinguishes Russell's work from the work of pure realists; but her manipulation of these elements distinguishes her work from that meant for a younger, specifically the "young adult genre," audience. The adolescents in Russell's work are living in a magical but private world that they will soon leave. In Swamplandia!, Ossie’s love for a ghost turns out to be the treatable symptom of a mental disorder, while the "bird man" that her sister, Ava, befriends is not an otherworldly guide but a strictly earth-bound deviant.
And though Russell was in the final editing stage of Vampires in the Lemon Grove when Swamplandia! was released, one can sense her moving away from the tropes and themes that characterized that novel, and her first collection, even if only by a few steps. Perhaps, Swamplandia!’s reception aside, there’s a certain liberation to be found simply in having written a novel.
In this collection, Russell leaves Florida, her home state and the setting of many of her early stories, and travels to Italy, to 19th century Nebraska, to Australia, to the mind of an aging massage therapist whose manipulation of the tattoo sprawled across a veteran's back seems to change the traumatic event it depicts. And within these diverse worlds, for 10 or 20 pages at a time, Russell is at her peak.
It happens at the sentence level: "There is a loneliness that must be particular to monsters, I think, the feeling that each is the only child of A species," she writes, in the title story. In "The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979," one of the most wrenching and ambiguous in the collection, 14-year-old Nal's insecurities are personified: "All day, he could hear the homunculus clacking his brain like a secretary from a 1940s horror movie: Nal shouldn't! Nal can't! Nal won't! and then hitting the bell of the carriage return. He pictured the homunculus as a tiny, blankly handsome man in a green sweater, very agreeably going about his task of wringing the life from Nal's life."
In the collection's last story, "The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis," about a group of boys haunted by the repercussions of their bullying, the protagonist says, of his mother: "Ma punished me any time I flaunted my mortality, reminded her that her son was also a bag of red fluid."
Russell’s refusal to fully explain the details of the unusual worlds in which her stories take place gives her narratives a more natural feeling, and more authority, as well.
"You don't want to answer that for the reader because that's actually the question that's animating the story itself," she said to me.
In the case of the title story, about vampires who are subsisting on lemons—what Russell described as "vampire methadone"—the main character, Clyde, is stuck in a way that is both recognizable and unrecognizable to the typical reader:
"I think the original impulse was, what if there's a vampire who has figured out, he's in a strange like kind of purgatory, like recovery, like recovery from an addiction or something, and he's in a pretty sour place in his relationship as well because he's realized that he's not, he doesn't have to be a monster, you know, that he doesn't have to be governed by this appetite, and also that it wasn't in fact fixing anything for him, helping him at all. But he really doesn't have a new story that's giving him any kind of consolation. I mean he's really sort of stuck, he's just sort of—he's got these lemons that are like vampire methadone or something, you know. So that, I think, as a way to think through—and I, it's funny because there's I think the same questions that sort of will plague us on a regular Tuesday often bother these characters."
The reader never learns whether there are other vampires, besides Clyde and his partner, Magreb, nor what their ideal form of sustenance is—though both lemons and blood can be ruled out.
"So, it turns out that there are many myths that I don't have to believe about myself," she said, adopting the vampire's point of view. "I thought of it in a weird way as kind of analogous to overcoming any kind of addiction, alcoholism or whatever, where there's this funny Limbo, you know, sort of like what do you do, how do you avoid, um, despair now, now that you've discovered that this isn't necessary, it was never the solution? Kind of, what's next?"
In "The Barn at the End of Our Term," one of the most bizarre in the collection, and also one of the most charming, various presidents—Buchanan, Harding, Rutherford B. Hayes, who is the central figure—find themselves reincarnated as horses.
"That just seemed like a particularly crazy one," she said. "Just the idea of these powerful men who would be sort of reborn in these really humbling circumstances and that the afterlife—which they still wouldn't, like—I was just thinking, what a beautiful and sort of pervasive fantasy that some people have that if there is an afterlife, that our questions will be answered there. Like, why would it ... all necessarily have to come together then?"
In the universe she's created for these reincarnated presidents, she pointedly chooses not to answer our questions, instead mining remarkable pathos from Rutherford, as a horse, trying to convince himself that a sheep on the same ranch might be his wife, Lucy, also reincarnated.
The space between the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood is one that everyone can remember—perhaps, we are, in fact, doomed to recall it with more precision than other parts our lives. So perhaps it's unsurprising that someone so deft at mining this threshold, as she described it, where beautiful illusions are shattered and one experiences one's first heartbreak, one's first disruption in the vision one has for oneself.
That almost has to be larger than life, and magical, right? In fact, Russell described “The New Veterans,” in which a veteran of the Iraq war comes to a massage therapist seeking relief for back pain, as “insanely risky,” precisely because of its realism. "It's a realist story set in the Midwest with an adult woman protagonist,” she said.
Even in “The New Veterans,” there’s a fantastical element to the massage therapist’s effect on her client. But one sees new possibilities opening up for Russell here just the same. Russell's writing now seems ready to explore the ambiguities of the adult world, to press upon those moments—perhaps even more tragic—when the private worlds of the fully grown are revealed as unstable, unreliable, incompatible with a more generally recognized reality.
It's not a simple thing to evolve as a writer. Going forward, Russell does worry, after the Pulitzer nomination, about letting her supporters down.
“On the one hand," she said, “I always have this kind of little-league feeling that I don't want to disappoint the people who put me in the game, you know. I don't want to, I really want to try to live up to that vote of confidence.”
But on the other hand: "I also have this sense now that the stuff that I am writing is not for everybody, right? Like, it's really—it's truly not for everybody. And knowing that is kind of a blessing."
Not that Russell, who has been researching a new novel on the Dust Bowl, will suddenly become unrecognizable to her early and eager fan base, or make them regret their early contribution to her prominence as a writer: “You don't want to, you know, put out like a cookbook for cats or something where everyone's like, oh, our bad.”