Karen 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.
Most Americans are now entrenched in something like a partisan apathy toward the Iraq War, which is as woven into the absurdity of the twenty-four-hour news cycle as any other inanity, indistinguishable from the deluge of background noise. It's a stiff task to expect any novelist to thrive in so crowded an imaginative space, so it was a relief to this reader that 2012 saw the success of two major Iraq War novels.
The novel’s strength lies in Kang’s skillful unspooling of Philip’s inner life. Like most hard-bitten ironists, Philip nurses a persistent, low-frequency grief, and Kang fills in the particulars with a deft hand. Two corridors of Philip’s psyche lead to the novel’s most potent passages: his recollections of his adolescence in Chapel Hill, and—in the most ingenious, surprising motif of the novel—his fascination with Cho Seung-Hui, the perpetrator of the Virginia Tech massacre.
It is through his looping and learned cadence that the painful moral problem of the novel is dramatized: Readers are forced to parse Nat’s mortal outrage and lethal delusions to determine whether his rebellion was the inevitable outcome of the peculiar institution or the work of a singularly warped mind.