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Karen Russell's 'Vampires' Deserve The Raves

Feb 21, 2013 (Fresh Air)

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Karen Russell's debut novel, Swamplandia!, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2012.

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I don't have a good track record when it comes to raving about Karen Russell. Last year, along with my two fellow judges, I nominated Russell's novel, Swamplandia!, as well as two other finalists, for the Pulitzer Prize. Result? The Pulitzer Board made headlines by deciding not to give out the award in Fiction. Nevertheless, I rave on: this time about Russell's new short story collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Russell is so grand a writer — so otherworldly, yet emotionally devastating; so daffy and daring — that she doesn't need an imprimatur to stake her claim to literary genius.

The title story kicks off this collection by doing the near impossible: making me care about vampires, a breed more overexposed these days than Labrador retrievers. Vampires in the Lemon Grove features an undead married couple who have spent centuries trying to slake their thirst with something other than blood. They find some relief at a lemonade stand in Italy. The way Clyde, the husband of the pair, describes his first sip should give you a taste of how Russell's language bursts open:

I took a gulp, [Clyde says] and a whole small lemon lodged in my mouth; ... It was bracingly sour, with a delicate hint of ocean salt. After an initial prickling — a sort of chemical effervescence along my gums — a soothing blankness traveled from the tip of each fang to my fevered brain. ... If you have been thirsty for a long time, if you have been suffering, then the absence of those two feelings — however brief — becomes a kind of heaven.

As a short story, "Vampires in the Lemon Grove" also expands in its reach, ultimately surveying the disappointments of a (very) long marriage, a marriage that Clyde says he conceives of "as a commitment to starve together."

As evocative as Russell's title story is, there are three others here that are in another league altogether. Call it the League of Wonder. "Reeling for the Empire" imagines a one-room factory in 19th-century Japan where girls spin exquisite silk. The catch is — and we learn this in the opening pages of the story — that the girls themselves have partly metamorphosed into silkworms, sporting white fur on their faces and spinning thread out of their own bellies. As always with Russell, the horror of this specific situation ripples out, summoning images of sweatshops, past and present, where workers are reduced to what they repetitively do. Another raw standout is the final story, called "The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis." This tale of tough boys and their scarecrow victim should be made required reading for anti-bullying workshops across the land.

The instant anthology keeper, though, is called "Proving Up." Imagine, if you can, Willa Cather crossed with Emily Dickinson in her Gothic mood. Our narrator is named Miles, and he's an 11-year-old boy staking out a claim with his family in 19th-century Nebraska. Here's his description of their house, "a dugout in a grassy hill":

It look[s,] [Miles says,] like a hiccup in the earth. The floor is sod, the roof is sod, hardened by the red Nebraska sun. ... My mother covers the cook-stove with her mother's pilled linen tablecloth to keep the lizards and field mice and moles and rattlesnakes and yellow spiders from falling into our supper.

To secure their claim, the homesteaders must show the federal inspector that they have bought a glass window. For reasons I won't get into, Miles is the one who must ride out on his horse, carrying the window, to meet the inspector. Miles tells us he's "eager for the crystal risk of riding at full gallop." But, as he sets out, a blizzard whips up and Miles' horse becomes blinded when his eyelashes freeze together. Alone, Miles staggers through the blizzard, holding the window, until he meets an inspector, of sorts — but one from, shall we say, a higher authority than the federal government.

"Proving Up" is a stark tale about the American Frontier and the payment — in sanity and mortality — that the land demanded from the settlers. I love the sweep of these stories, their goofy-to-majestic tone, the authority of Russell's narrators. I loved some of those very same elements in Swamplandia! My calendar of literary events tells me that the apparent retirement of Philip Roth comes at the same moment when Russell announces herself as one of the great American writers of our young century. The awards will take care of themselves.

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