True Mirages

Karen Russell
Karen Russell; illustration by Joanna Neborsky

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…

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