I think it would be a good idea, while reading Karen Russell’s newest collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, to read the title of each story and hypothesize what the story might actually be about. Most likely you’ll be wrong, unless you think the title story is about vampires in the lemon grove, in which case you are correct.
Karen Russell has become quite the deal, and it’s earned. I read St. Lucy’s School for Girls Raised by Wolves and Swamplandia! and I loved both books, but I loved this collection even more. She is a fantastic writer with a ridiculously exciting imagination. I became so immersed in the worlds of her stories that it was a jolt when one ends and the next begins. I took ten times longer reading this book than any book I’ve read in the last year, simply because I was never ready for it to end.
Russell has all of the tell-tale signs of someone who believes in her stories, and I never know where she is going to take me. She wrote about vampires, horses, a soldier, and various other characters with authority and full consideration. Most of Russell’s stories would be really cute if they weren’t so important. For me, this book was about understanding human motivations, even when the characters aren’t human.
Russell is a master of description, and part of her skill in this area is that she writes details that can only be perfect in the context of the one story it is in. So much in the literary canon is borrowed at this point that it is expected and accepted, but when I read her work I believe that every word sprang new in her mind. She writes sentences that would surely fall flat outside of these little worlds, and in this way, her stories are living, breathing animals. In “Proving Up,” Russell interrupts the narrative with a beautiful parenthetical refrain that allows the reader to get to know the main character’s mother better.
(“Etiquette will take possession of you at the oddest times, won’t it, Miles?” Ma murmured once, when I caught her apologizing to a cupful of grasshoppers before drowning them in kerosene.)
If that had been the only detail I had received about Miles’s mother, I still would have known her better than countless supporting characters I’ve encountered in other novels, and yet this detail serves more than just character development. Throughout “Proving Up,” she uses parentheticals as a way for Miles to reach out to his mother while he is away on a journey, and these pauses allow us to invest ourselves in Miles to an extent that is crucial to the story.
Russell’s stories can be so whimsical and beautiful that she catches the reader unaware. It is clear that she takes joy in writing, she’s having fun playing around, and it makes me forget that she knows exactly what she’s doing. She knows exactly where she wants to take the reader, and she does it expertly (because of, not despite) her love of storytelling.
Russell is funny and clever, but also she made me cry, made me afraid to go to sleep. She can write about a stable of horses who are dead presidents reincarnated in equine form, and yet, in the end, have me take the entire story seriously.
I think part of what makes Russell endearing as a storyteller is that she is not boastful in her writing. Just like some of the subjects of her stories appear to be, there is something about her words that has the sparkle of childlike innocence. Such language can be found in “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis:”
Then the red parchment of the Wisconsin sunset melts, black space erases the geese, it’s night.
It is pretty the way she ends that series with something clean like “it’s night.” She knows when to hold back, and she knows that white space is an important part of any picture.
I need to make a more specific mention of this last story, “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis,” which, in my opinion, does absolutely everything a short story is supposed to do, and does it exceedingly well. This might be my all-time favorite short story right now. The premise of the story is about as simple as Russell gets: a gang of boys find a scarecrow tied to their tree. The scarecrow has the face of Eric Mutis, a boy they used to bully before he disappeared from their school.
Even on a nonscarecrow day I dreaded this, the summative pressure of the good-bye moment—but now it turned out there was nothing to say. We split off in a slow way, a slow ballet—a moth, touring the air above our heads, would have seen us as a knot dissolving over many moth centuries.
Many of the stories in this collection touched on important issues, but this one in particular took a look at pack mentality, bullying, and the problem of masculinity in a way that struck me as fresh, relevant, and moving. This collection is important for everyone to read, because whether we realize it or not, we all know a vampire sucking on lemons, women reeling for the empire, and we’ve all known an Eric Mutis.
Vampires in the Lemon Grove, by Karen Russell. New York, New York: Knopf, forthcoming, 2013. 256 pages. $24.95, hardcover.
Louise Henrich has been published by Blood Lotus, FortyOunceBachelors, and Danse Macabre. You can follow her Twitter handle, @louisehenrich.