To live in a Karen Russell story is to risk encountering your own worst fear come to life and grinning at you. Or to find yourself stuck in an afterlife wherein a tossed-off metaphor for your ambition has become daily reality. If you're a lucky Russell character, you may get to briefly experience your fondest wish come true, a dalliance you never thought possible. Russell's fiction demands readers deal with the fantastical, but never the otherworldly; for the characters in her stories, improbable and magical events are not mystical interruptions but the inner life made all too real.
Russell's collection Vampires in the Lemon Grove, her newest book after the 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist Swamplandia!, is a procession of unlikely scenarios. A vampire in the title story experiences immortality through the lens of an endless relationship with his wife; a young boy hoping to help his homesteading parents prove their claim on the land is met by a grimly familiar stranger; a massage therapist finds herself shifting a veteran's combat memories by manipulating his tattoos. Over and over again, Russell places her characters in contact with a literal manifestation of their fears, desires, and dreams. The internal is made external, the surreal imbued with the reality of sincere feeling.
When this style of storytelling works in Vampires, it really works. In "Reeling for the Empire," Japanese women are coerced into a particularly horrific form of labor as human silkworms—they drink a mysterious tea and before long are unspooling thread from their bodies for export. The protagonist of the story is Kitsune, a rural young woman whose yearning for autonomy and self-reliance led her to the mill in the first place, a cruel irony. Russell's ability to dramatize Kitsune's thwarted dreams becomes the core of the story, the fantastical elements structural rather than peripheral; that is, the fabulism at the center of the story is not a simple dash of weirdness, but allows for Kitsune to become fully realized as a character. "Reeling for the Empire" is macabre, surprising, sympathetic, and in the end deeply empowering.
Other stories, too, linger in the reader's mind. "Proving Up," in which a young boy struggles to help his family secure their claim as homesteaders, moves into the realm of pure horror. At the story's center is an inventive conceit—that neighbor families share a single windowpane; they're too poor individually to satisfy the provision that all legally recognized homes have a window. As the boy rides from home to home, carrying the window in the hopes that each family can install it before the government inspector arrives, the story takes a truly frightening turn. Along with "The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis," about a group of bullies who find a doll resembling one of their victims, it shows that Russell is capable of committing to the allowances of horror as a means of excavating her characters to the fullest. The events of each story pull out the deeper, unspoken desires of her protagonists—the desire to capably help one's family, the desire to break through a toxic social system and form real connections—as the terror of their circumstances mounts.
Throughout, Russell's prose is sturdy and complements her accomplished characterization. She traffics in tight perspectives—she writes in first-person or an extremely close third-person—placing readers in the center of her surprising narratives. The result is a straightforward but intimate emotional sensibility, eloquent more than elaborate. When the protagonist of the title story watches his wife—transmogrified into a bat, as vampires do—fly away, his own body aching, he tells us: "Love has infected me with a muscular superstition that one body can do the work of another." Similarly does Kitsune reveal her fixation on reliving the events that brought her to the mill: "Regret is a pilgrimage back to the place where I was free to choose. It's become my sanctuary here in Nowhere Mill. A threshold where I still exist."
Sometimes, however, the narrative elements become predictable, almost too literal an extension of the characters to surprise or delight. This is the case with "The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979," in which a young boy named Nal mysteriously begins to finds movie tickets, receipts, and other small mementos from his future. But as he begins to use the scraps to influence coming events and woo his brother's girlfriend, on whom he has a longtime crush, the story peters out into inevitability, a parable about the fleeting nature of desire and satisfaction.
The collection's longest story, "The New Veterans," is also its weakest. Massage therapist Beverly treats a scarred Iraq War veteran when she finds that his tattoo moves under her touch; as she shifts his tattoos she also shifts his memories. Uncharacteristically for a Russell story, Beverly's life is filled in with almost rote detail—unsurprisingly, her caretaking is an extension of her guilt surrounding her deceased mother and the experience with the veteran moves her closer to her embittered sister. "The New Veterans" is the only story in Vampires that fails to reward each turn of the page.
In some ways, the heart of the collection is "The Barn at the End of Our Term." The protagonist, a deceased Rutherford B. Hayes, discovers himself at a barn in which he and other ex-presidents are kept as horses. It's a mystifying, surprising afterlife; the presidents puzzle over why they have been turned into horses, how they might escape, and whether their governing power will ever be restored to them. Telling it all is the rueful Rutherford, who in addition to his bafflement mostly pines for his wife. The story encapsulates the full spectrum of the Russell experience: it features a conceit that is nearly distracting in its inventiveness, redeems that distraction with a surprising tenderness and sense of vulnerability, and leaves the reader satisfied at the confluence of the fantastical and emotional.
And so Vampires in the Lemon Grove finds itself in the same territory as Swamplandia! That novel succeeded when the weirdness and mystery of its storyline achingly dramatized the pain of adolescence and how an individual grows within the context of a damaged family. Like Vampires, it sometimes struggled to strike the balance between satisfying and unexpected resolutions. Still, at her best, Russell converts your doubts about her narrative audacity into a hard-won revelation of the truth in her prose. As she gracefully unspools the interior of her best-realized characters, you forget that her stories could ever feel unnatural.
Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
256 pages / $24.95