Posts Tagged ‘Karen Russell’

sleepA year after reading the short stories in Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove, I’m still haunted by her weirdly wonderful — or wonderfully weird — tales.  “Reeling for the Empire,” in which Japanese girls turn into grotesque furry silkworms, spinning thread out of their hands, still strikes me as the stuff of nightmares. So I made sure to read Russell’s new digital novella Sleep Donation (Atavista, purchased e-book) during the daytime. Even then, I think some of it seeped into my restless dreams.

But, hey, at least I can sleep and dream, unlike many  of the people in Sleep Donation, where the Americas are undergoing an Insomniac Crisis in the near-future. You can die if you can’t sleep, like Trish Edgewater’s sister Dori, whose mind was crushed by waking moments. “Once sleep stopped time for Dori, she could not dig herself out. She was buried under snowflakes, minutes to hours to months.

“The official cause of death was organ failure.”

It may sound relatively peaceful, but it wasn’t, and it’s because Trish can recount Dori’s agonizing Last Day with such immediacy that’s she’s a prize recruiter for Slumber Corps, the non-profit that encourages healthy dreamers to donate sleep to terminal insomniacs. The system — with its Sleep Drives to recruit donors, its Sleep Vans, where their dreams are painlessly siphoned, and its Sleep Banks, where donations are processed and tested for nightmares — works well for the most part, like the blood banks of our time. But there’s never enough good sleep to go around, and the number of insomniacs needing transfusions continues to grow. On the outskirts of town, the sleepless seek relief at the Night Fair, paying fortunes for potions or a prime spot in the Poppy Fields.

At first, Trish’s discovery of Baby A, a universal donor, seems like a miracle. But Trish wonders how much sleep the poor child can give, as do her parents, Justine and Felix. Will their generosity with their daughter’s sleep last until researchers can synthesize the perfect artificial sleep? How many times can Trish recount Dori’s story before it’s just another story? And what of Donor Y, whose tainted sleep has led to a nightmare contagion resulting in elective insomniacs and suicides? What is so awful about his dreams that people refuse to go to sleep ever again?

Russell’s world-building is impressive, as is her verbal dexterity. Her imagination is simply fantastic, Ray Bradbury on speed. “It is a special kind of homelessness. . . to be evicted from your dreams.”

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vampslemonWhat if? That’s the question fiction writers start with. What if there’s a stranger in the backyard? What if the stranger looks like a bear? What if the stranger-bear is really from outer space?

You think I’m pushing the envelope? Hardly, at least not compared with Karen Russell, who writes wonderfully weird — or just weird — short stories juxtaposing the everyday with the extraordinary. As such, she’s working in the same genre-bending mode as writers as diverse as Angela Carter, Neil Gaiman, Kelly Link, Aimee Bender, Manuel Gonzales and George Saunders.

Thre were touches of magical realism in Russell’s glittering first novel, Swamplandia, about the decline of an old-time Everglades gator-themed park. A Pulitzer Prize finalist, it grew out of one the tales in her first short story collection, St. Lucy’s School for Girls Raised by Wolves.  The eight stories in Vampires in the Lemon Grove find her layering the super on the natural with startling results.

In the title tale, the elderly man in the Sorrento grove who looks like an Italian grandfather is really a vampire, who, along with his bat-flying wife, sinks tiny, razor-sharp fangs into “bracingly sour” lemons to slake a more monstrous thirst. Clyde relates his strange history, his courtship of Magreb, their search for a vampire analgesic. But things are changing. Clyde can no longer fly and he knowingly eyes the collarbone of a teenage girl.

In  “The Barn at the End of Our Term,” eleven former presidents are reincarnated as horses living out their days in a stable with a fenced pasture. It is, possibly, Hell. Although Rutherford, “a skew-ball pinto with a golden cowlick,” debates this with the other presidents, he thinks that if they “could just reach consensus that this is Heaven. . .we could submit to it, the joy of wind and canter and the stubbed ashy sweetness of trough carrots, burnished moons, nosing the secret smells out of grass. I could be free to gallop.”

The president-horse saga is as funny as it is affecting. Rutherford wonders if the turkeys in the barn also “have human biographies hidden beneath their black feathers. The presidents spend a lot of their time talking about where the other citizens of the Union might have ended up. Wilson thinks the suffragettes probably came back as kicky rabbits.”

But Russell also can go dark, as in “Proving Up,” about Nebraska homesteaders trying to make it on the tallgrass prairie during a drought. And sometimes she mixes it up, as in “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic,” which I can’t begin to describe. Go, krill!

Her verbal dexterity at manipulating reality, mixing the mundune with the miraculous, fairly dazzles in the haunting, horrific “Reeling for the Empire,” in which Japanese girls recruited as workers at Nowhere Mill turn into grotesque, furry silkworms spinning thread out of their hands. One girl, though, remembers her humanity even as she instinctually begins to weave the black fiber of a cocoon. And once again, Russell weaves themes of transformation, flight and freedom.

Open Book: I read a digital galley of Vampires in the Lemon Grove (Knopf). Russell, who grew up in Miami, will speak Thursday evening (Feb. 14) at Rollins College as part of Winter with the Writers. More info at http://rollins.edu/winterwiththewriters. Also be sure to catch my former colleague Matt Palm’s Feb. 8 interview with Russell in the Orlando Sentinel, http://tinyurl.com/aq3cjab.

errantryI’m rather weirded out by weirdness at the moment, but I also want to recommend three more new collections I’ve been reading: The Miniature Wife and other Stories by Manuel Gonzales (Riverhead, purchased digital edition), Errantry: Strange Tales by Elizabeth Hand (Small Beer Press, purchased paperback) and Tenth of December: Stories by George Saunders (Random House, digital edition, gift). More fantastic fiction.

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Back in the early 1930s, a white Ohio timber mill worker bought — sight unseen —  what he thought was prime Florida farmland. Sure enough, his Everglades parcel ”turned out to be covered with six feet of crystal water. Stalks of nine-foot saw grass glittered in the wind, in every direction, the drowned sentinels of an eternal slough.”

But Grandpa Sawtooth Bigtree, who changed his name to suit his new surroundings, saw possibilities in a hundred-acre island inhabited by hundreds of alligators. He called the gators all “Seth,” and their home (now his), “Swamplandia!” Soon the tourists were flocking by ferry to see Grandpa’s son, the Chief, wrestle the primordial beasts into submission, and daughter-in-law Hilola, “swim with the Seths” by starlight in the silky black water.

Ava Bigtree, the 13-year-old narrator of Karen Russell’s picaresque debut novel, Swamplandia!, summarizes the glory days of gators and airboat rides, reptile walks and cheesy souvenirs, within a few pages. Then she gets down to business, noting: “The Beginning of the End can feel a lot like the middle when you are living in it.”

Swamplandia! is under seige, threatened by suburbs and Big Sugar to the south, the invasive melaleuca woods to the northeast. The Bigtrees are falling, too. First, Grandpa Sawtooth, slipping into senility, exiled to mainland assisted-living. Next, the lovely headliner Hilola, succumbing to cancer. The grieving Chief and his three teenagers — brainy Kiwi, beautiful Osceola, resourceful Ava — do their best to carry on, but then the death knell tolls: a modern theme park arises nearby. The World of Darkness offers “escalator tours of the rings of Hell, bloodred swimming pools, boiling colas. Easy access to the mainland roads.”  

Russell charts the decline and fall of Swamplandia! with the sure hand and silver tongue of a born storyteller. The Chief goes AWOL, Kiwi defects to the dark side by working for the competition and going to school. Osceola, possessed with the spirit world, runs away with a possibly phantom lover. And Ava sets out on a perilous journey with the mysterious Bird Man to try and rescue her family. A rare red alligator may yet save the day.

Russell’s inventive tale grew out of one of the stories in her acclaimed first collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. A Miami native, she’s just 29 and already honored as one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists and a New Yorker “20 under 40” writer. Swamplandia! dazzles as bright as the sun even as it casts an unsettling shadow of innocence and paradise lost.

Open Book: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell is being released this week by Alfred A. Knopf. I received a bound manuscript from the publisher, but I plan to buy a copy because I want it for my Florida collection and for its most excellent cover.

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