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True Mirages

Karen Russell
Karen Russell

Karen Russell’s new collection, Orange World, contains eight stories whose weirdness rests largely in their premises. “Bog Girl: A Romance” is a love story about a teenage boy and the girlfriend he finds preserved in a peat bog; “The Tornado Auction” concerns storm ranchers who breed prize twisters, funnel clouds, dust devils, and waterspouts; “Madame Bovary’s Greyhound” focuses on the tragic heroine’s once-enthralled, now blasé canine, beset by a trickle-down version of his owner’s sexual boredom. In capsule form, Russell’s stories pass among readers like gossip or jokes or memes; some of them have become famous for the kernel of tall tale or urban legend they contain.

I don’t know how Russell, the author of two previous collections of stories and a novel, Swamplandia, works, but it would appear that, like Hawthorne, her plots come to her first, and more or less in their entirety. Hawthorne’s notebooks are full of unexecuted ideas that sound a little like Karen Russell stories: a girl can leap hundreds of feet in the air; a young woman inherits a graveyard. These orphaned ideas sit alongside notions Hawthorne later expanded: “The life of a woman, who, by the old colony law, was condemned always to wear the letter A, sewed on her garment, in token of her having committed adultery.”

I kept Hawthorne in mind while reading Russell’s astonishing new stories. Anthony Trollope found “something indigenous, something inescapably there” in Hawthorne’s work: its roots are in the old-growth New England imagination, the kinds of “twice-told tales,” as Hawthorne called them, that circulate orally long before ever getting bound in a book. Russell’s characters are often interlopers from other places, as well as from other kinds of stories. Here is the opening paragraph of “The Bad Graft,” an Ovidian road-trip tale set in the Mojave Desert:

The land looked flattened, as if by a rolling pin. All aspects, all directions. On either side of Highway 62, the sand cast up visions of evaporated civilizations, dissolved castles that lay buried under the desert. Any human eye, goggled by a car’s windshield, can graft such fantasies onto the great Mojave. And the girl and the boy in the Dodge Charger were exceptionally farsighted. Mirages rose from boulders, a flume of dream attached to real rock.

This is almost a kind of recipe, as “rolling pin” and, perhaps, “evaporated,” suggest. A list of ingredients and instructions: a boy and a girl, visions, mirages, a desert highway, a car whose name elegizes the horse it replaced. Flatten the landscape with a rolling pin; imagine sand castles, then imagine them gone. That note of encouragement—“Any human eye…can graft such fantasies onto the great Mojave”—is straight out of Julia Child. But it is also a note of warning: mind these trespassers and the mistakes they made. This could have been you. That moralizing pitch in Russell’s voice is an old storyteller’s trick, almost a form of marketing. The signposts read “keep out,” and yet we are drawn in.

The boy and girl in “The Bad Graft” go on a road trip, as young lovers everywhere have done, in order to establish their foundational narrative. They are in the business of creating a retrospect. They’re storytellers within the story, blind to the story that surrounds them, disadvantaged by their individual points of view. They haggle about the circumstances: “Hadn’t their trip unfolded like a fairy tale?” Russell appears to ask rhetorically, before assigning the question to the couple themselves when, after the trip, they “quizzed each other.” All four parties—the narrator, the reader, and the two characters—are asked that question; the point isn’t to answer it, but to figure out why it was asked. Or why a question about how the story turns out is posed before it gets going: if things “unfolded” like a fairy tale, was there a happy ending? Or was someone baked into a porridge?

The plot of “The Bad Graft” approaches myth: on a hike, the girl becomes possessed by a Joshua tree. It is not, or we are assured it is not, some kind of psychosis. “During a season of wild ferment,” Russell writes, her tone suddenly factual, authoritative, though not exactly, or solely, scientific,

a kind of atmospheric accident can occur: the extraordinary moisture stored in the mind of a passing animal or hiker can compel the spirit of a Joshua to Leap through its own membranes.

What does it mean that this freak process has a name, and that its name is capitalized? The ranger, whose job is to know everything, has “zero information.” The lovers prepared for their long hike with the usual provisions: “granola bars, water, and an anti-UV sunscreen.” The boy has a premonitory motto from Melville on his arm, “Ever Unfixed.” The girl, “struggling to find her mooring on dry land,” is three years sober and therefore living out a different kind of narrative. Together they try to provide for one another “the illusion” that sex could, at any moment, take place. Everyone is competing, it seems, to steer the story; but “the Leap,” capitalized like a title, has its own story to tell.

Reading “The Bad Graft” and other stories in Orange World, you realize what a complex game Russell constantly sets up for herself. Elements that suggest genre stories (fantasy, mystery, science fiction) are everywhere, sometimes picked up by and commented upon and therefore altered by her characters. A grand ghost story, “The Prospectors,” is set in the 1930s at the Evergreen Lodge, “the centerpiece of a new ski resort on Mt. Joy,” a “New Deal miracle.” A ski lift delivers two eager Floridian grifters up the steep mountain face to an overnight party at the lodge:

At first, the climb was beautiful. An evergreen army held its position in the whipping winds. Soon, the woods were replaced by fields of white. Icy outcroppings rose like fangs out of a pink-rimmed sky. We rose, too, our voices swallowed by the cables’ groaning. Clara was singing something that I strained to hear, and failed to comprehend.

These are details (“fangs,” “groaning”) from a ghost story, which is how the narrator knows she’s inside one. Later, the conventions of the genre have to be reversed for the girls to survive until morning: they must convince a group of ghosts of men killed in an avalanche that they are still alive. Jean, the narrator, mesmerizes her ghost-suitor by divulging her embarrassing full name, Aubergine, “a glamorous name” that her parents only later found out was French for eggplant: “Unbelievably,” she reports, “I heard my voice in the darkness, telling the ghost a true story.”

Russell’s first-person narrators differ, I would say, only minimally from her much more common third-person narrators. They are often psychologically plain or neutral, blanched of personal idiosyncrasy, averse to introspection. Telling the story gives them no special advantage over its outcome. It is part of the skeptical logic of her stories that such superficial forms of control only paper over the abyss. Some of Russell’s own tics get assigned to Jean, who, late in the tale, interrupts her description of a sinister photographer she has just called a “devil.” “Excuse me,” she writes, “let us continue to call him ‘the party photographer,’ as I do not want to frighten anyone unduly.”

Such moments expose the narrative artifice, but they do not break the spell. The real horror in “The Prospectors” has to do not with ghosts but with men: the idea of two women, alone in the mountains, with no way home, whose survival depends on keeping mens’ illusions about themselves alive—this terror, expressed in the flexible genre terms of a ghost story, becomes almost unbearable by the story’s end. “The Bad Graft,” likewise, is about the feeling of having indescribable, secret changes take place inside your body: an unwanted pregnancy, a tumor, the onrush of depression or anxiety. These subtexts, never disclosed, are left vague. Supernatural events are allowed to unfold on the same plane as ordinary life. The narrative poise, the surface comedy, the quantum of quirk in Russell’s stories only suggest the depth of the waters below.

Stories so tempting to summarize should not also be such a pleasure to excerpt. I sometimes wonder why Russell didn’t become a poet, since her verbal imagination at times seems to want to fly clear above the entangling branches of narrative. A poem provides a place for the astonishing image, the ravishing metaphor, the unforgettable phrase, without subordinating these unruly imaginative bits to narrative logic. Nobody in a poem has to be the kind of person who might say, in the kind of situation in which it might be said, that a low-lying shrub called macchia “breaks into sudden shouts of yellow and violet like the singsong joy of the mad.” That is a lot of human torment to impose on a plant. Such descriptive wonders, so common that nearly every one of Russell’s long paragraphs contains a few, do not always easily recede into the surrounding story. Pick up the book at random, and you will find, for example, Emma Bovary’s body in the bath looking “as still and bright as quartz in a quarry,” or desert sand described as “pulverized time.”

These kinds of details are ways of knowing the world, not merely pretty descriptions of its shifting phenomena. They remind me, at times, of details in Elizabeth Bishop’s prose. Russell seems the most natural storyteller alive, so completely does she give herself to premises that might undo a lesser writer. But she also seems, at times, to have chosen her stories and story forms the way a poet chooses forms, as sheaths or delivery systems for her own sparkling, idiosyncratic attentiveness. Though Karen Russell discloses nothing about herself, we seem to know her even behind the various masks; her stories feel like wild, bravura renderings of a sensibility consistently and essentially watchful, curious, considerate, wary.

Orange World is centrally, I think, a book about girls and girlhood, a state that Russell seems to associate alternately with invigorating freedom and lethal boredom, and that returns as a feature of adult life with irritating regularity. In “Emma Bovary’s Greyhound,” a fan-fic spin-off that contains some of Russell’s most sumptuous descriptions, Emma’s narcissism becomes so unbearable that the poor dog, Djali, flees into the woods to reconnect with her wild nature as “gazehound, huntress.” A game warden named Hubert rescues her and names her Hubert, after himself. The two live happily together, except for one brief, poignant encounter with Emma some years later.

Under one roof with the greatest tragic heroine of nineteenth-century literature, the dog had led a miserable but outwardly dreamy life; under another, outwardly spartan: a new name, freedom, happiness. Of course the dog has more latitude than Emma to flee into nature and take up with a kindly game warden, which is part of the point. In a passage that mimics Flaubert’s tone and rivals his beauty and sadness, Russell describes the moment when the dog decides it is time to go:

One day Emma’s scents began to stabilize. Her fragrance became musty, ordinary, melting into the house’s stale atmosphere until the woman was nearly invisible to the animal. Djali licked almond talc from Emma’s finger webbing. She bucked her head under the madame’s hand a dozen times, waiting for the old passion to seize her, yet her brain was uninflamed….There in the bedroom, together and alone, they watched the rain fall.

What accounts for happiness? If you’re a dog, you’re mainly interested in the scents. One of the most precisely filigreed literary accounts of the human heart in all its tragic fluctuations, Madame Bovary ends in tragedy. Reassign the pathos to the dog, and problem solved: you get a happier outcome. Like many of Russell’s stories, it has a droll politics: Flaubert, a man, focuses on the picturesque misery of his heroine, setting into motion a plot that can resolve only with her death. Russell, a woman, leaves Emma Bovary alone. She simply changes the channel.

The title Orange World calls to mind Russell’s native Florida, which is otherwise mostly missing from this book. (If you Google the phrase, you find a huge orange-shaped superstore selling all things orange-related, in Kissimmee, Florida.) Only when you begin the title story, which is placed last in the collection, do you learn the primary meaning of the phrase. It’s like Citizen Kane or the Bond movie Skyfall, ending by deciphering its opening metaphor. The protagonist of the story, who is pregnant, is attending one of those mandatory prenatal scare sessions. The ones we went to, a decade ago, left us shaken and essentially resigned to the fact that our babies would be very gruesomely killed in a household accident:

“Orange World,” the New Parents Educator says, “is where most of us live.”

She shows a slide: a smiling baby with a magenta birthmark hooping her eye. No—a burn mark. The slides jump back in time, to the irreversible error. Here is the sleepy father, holding a teapot.

Orange World is a nest of tangled electrical cords and open drawers filled with steak knives. It’s a baby’s fat hand hovering near the blushing coils of a toaster oven. It’s a crib purchased used.

In other words, it’s domestic life, made visible under the terrifying light of almost certain catastrophe. The protagonist, Rae, has made a pact with a hideous devil who nurses from her breasts every night, emerging from a sewer grate, in exchange for not harming her family. This is, I suppose, what people mean when they use the phrase “the new normal”:

The gutter is a cold canoe. Rae lowers onto an elbow, stretching flat. Asphalt pushes her shoulders, her tailbone. It seems impossible she hasn’t gotten sick yet, in all these weeks of appointments. Perhaps the devil is keeping her well. She tries not to look at it; when she looks at it, her milk dries up. It lays its triangular head on her collarbone, using its thin-fingered paws to squeeze milk from her left breast into its hairy snout. Its tail curls around her waist.

The story finds a rhythm that alternates between these horrific feedings and ordinary life with a newborn, including a new-mom’s group that meets (since this is Portland, Oregon) next to a weed dispensary. If you omit the devil-feeding sections, the other moments, which are, in a gentler way, equally strange, lose their meaning. The devil is both secret nightmare and deep solace: if we could banish fear of the absolute worst by accepting something nearly as bad, Russell suggests, almost anyone would accept the bargain. Russell has written one of the great accounts of becoming a mother and caring for an infant, but without that devil she has no story at all.

I read “Orange World” last summer, when it appeared in The New Yorker, on a family trip to Paris, sitting outside the playground at the Luxembourg Gardens. Our own children were beside us, on their phones; we peered through the fence at kids the age they were when we were last at that playground, almost ten years ago. Those families on the inside were still slogging through Orange World. We had made it to apparent, though no doubt illusory, safety, a “fantasy realm” Russell calls “Green World”; but we would have given anything, anything you could dream of, to go back.