Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
Joseph Conrad once said that there is nothing more fantastical than life. This, I think, is largely true if we exclude imagination from the discussion. We dare to imagine things that are beyond the realm of possibility and probability, beyond the limits of convention and the likelihood of the everyday. Karen Russell’s imagination, however, stretches farther than most, from the plane of the surreal to the terrain of the absurd, from the wickedly magical to the downright supernatural. Even the title of her new short story collection – Vampires in the Lemon Grove – requires some assimilation. Russell takes the orthodox idea of the Gothic fable and turns it on its head, with humour, intelligence and linguistic gusto. The eponymous story follows Clyde and Magreb – a married couple – who resides in Sorrento, Italy, trying to contend with the impracticalities of being vampires by feasting on lemons instead of human blood. “Over the years, Magreb and I have tried everything,” Clyde says, “fangs in apples, fangs in rubber balls. We have lived everywhere: Tunis, Laos, Cincinnati, Salamanca. We spent our honeymoon hopping continents, hunting liquid chimeras: mint tea in Fez, coconut slurries in Oahu, jet-black coffee in Bogota, jackal’s mil in Dakar, Cherry Coke floats in rural Alabama, a thousand beverages purported to have magical quenching properties. We went thirsty in every region of the globe before finding our oasis here, in the blue boot of Italy, at this dead nun’s lemonade stand. It’s only these lemons that give us any relief.” The story is, of course, about more than just lemons and vampires. It is a candid inquiry into the varied course of human relationships, into marriage in particular, the general brevity and customs of which Clyde finds deeply dispiriting.
Every story in the collections is rooted in some topical theme, some conscientious exposition on the human condition which is one of the things that make them so resonant. Reeling for the Empires is, for example, about oppression and empowerment. It is told by a Japanese silkworm worker, living in a reeling mill in Japan. The twist here – and there’s always a twist with Russell’s work – is that the female factory workers manufacture the silk themselves by being plugged into a machine. The women are recruited for this specific purpose from villages across the country; their fathers sold a machination about nobility, about their daughters being specially selected to reel for the Empire. But the truth of it is quite contrary. “Every aspect of our new lives,” the narrator tells us, “from working to sleeping, bathing when we can get wastewater from the Machine is conducted in one big room.” Russell makes very explicit allusions here to the debasement of factory-working culture, human rights infringements and the patriarchal forces driving it. The Agent, who recruits the silkworm workers, is the embodiment of capitalism, an abjectly oppressive force in the women’s lives, from whom they liberate themselves by way of direct reversal of fortune. It is a simple enough story, but one told in an entirely unique voice and from an entirely unique perspective. Russell finds new and innovative ways in which to relay old and familiar ideas, surprising, challenging and entertaining the reader. Every one of her narratives has foundations in some aspect of our cultural heritage – be it folklore, fairy tale, legend, myth – and is scrupulously researched before being transformed into something quite new and unexpected, akin to modern day folklore and allegorical dreams.
Russell is also someone who finds inspiration in the world around her, in the things that have – directly and indirectly – impacted all our lives. She borrows her plots from reality and loops them round, drawing out the comedy, the mystery, the eeriness and the despair out of the ordinary. One of the stories in the collection is about a young sergeant back from Iraq, haunted by the death of his friend. The New Veterans is an emotionally loaded look at the past’s influence over the present, combining psychoanalytical examination of memory and how it can redeem and offer salvation. Here again the story’s seemingly straightforward plot is given the Russell treatment, when Derek begins physiotherapy and the woman treating him is able to manipulate the commemorative tattoo on his back, depicting the death day of his comrade Arlo. Russell’s brand of storytelling has been invariably described as magic realism and while the appellation certainly fits I think her work would be more accurately described as macabre realism in its use of dark and haunting ideas and human experiences. All the stories gathered in Vampires in the Lemon Grove toy with some ominously pathological aspect of human personality or despotic element of nature, which Russell explores with great psychological insight. In The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach 1979, for example, she chooses betrayal as her topic centering the story on a 14 year old boy called Nal, who loses the girl of his dreams to his older brother. The story could quite easily read as a simple tale of adolescent angst if it weren’t for Nal’s ominous encounter with a minatory sea gull, who proffers the youngster the possibility of reconfiguring his life. This is something Russell does time and again in the collection, by adding extra-ordinary elements to everyday life.
Vampires in the Lemon Grove is Russell’s second short story collection, and showcases her talent as a writer who is coming into her own. She has a preternatural capability of combining the old with the new and making it appear original and inventive. And her inventiveness extends throughout the book, even to the less convincing stories such Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating, which is precisely as the title suggest – a loosely assembled list of axioms about dehydrated foods, Zodiac boots and gaiters to aid aficionados of the sport in their endeavours, because ”tailgating in the Antarctic is not joke”; and The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis, which reads like a gauche cautionary tale about a gang of bullies, who torment an outcast peer until they come across a scarecrow that resembles their victim and haunted by the effigy begin to feel remorse. The stories gathered here vary in quality and calibre, but have a sustained originality which reverberates with imaginative effulgence. There is a tangible materialism to every world that Russell creates, down to the seemingly inconsequential details, from the colour of sunsets on the Mediterranean coast in Vampires in the Lemon Grove to the adolescent jargon in The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis, from the partisan divisions among the dead presidents in A Barn at the end of Our Term to the ins and outs of the Homestead Act in Proving Up. Russell pays very close attention to the little things while pushing narrative and linguistic boundaries, and paving the way for unexplored possibilities in new fiction, stretching over several genres and categories. This brave young writer clearly enjoys creating bewildering scenarios, designed to highlight the more unsettling aspects of composite realities, which on the surface appear intrinsically “normal” and average.
This is something Russell set out to explore, she says, adding that she’s fascinated by how “matter-of-factly people talk about crazy things that happen”. This quality of everyday madness echoes through the volume with a sense of bizarre verisimilitude. One wonders what source of voodoo Russell uses to solicits her ability to render life so eerie and unnerving, which when she does successfully attests to her literary brilliance. Vampires in the Lemon Grove offers a real mix, however, ranging from the superb to the mediocre but reading Russell’s work one can certainly see why this young writer was nominated or the Pulitzer Prize. And even though her ideas can sometimes fall a little flat and her language feels a little over-laboured – often relying too heavily on metaphor, which makes her prose seem florid and overly imagistic – Russell never fails to redeem herself through her exuberance and use of humour which surges through the collection. Speaking about writing in a recent interview Russell said she had two rules both of which materialised from advice given to her by two of her professors. One of which urged her to remember that “blue doesn’t stand out on blue” when juxtaposing “fantastic elements to the naturalistic elements in a story” and the other that “good writing should be surprising and true”. The heed of the latter is especially evident in Russell’s work, as the line between reality and fantasy is almost indistinguishable and only made conspicuous by the writer’s flourishing imagination.
Publisher: Chatto & Windus
Publication Date: March 2013
Hardback: 256 pages