Fiction: Love at First Sight and Other Disasters: Stories From Karen Russell

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ORANGE WORLD
And Other Stories
By Karen Russell

There’s a solid argument to be made that Florida is our most surreal state. It isn’t the only American state with deranging humidity levels and primordial swamps populated by giant predatory reptiles, but of all 50 states Florida arguably does the best impression of a fever dream. It’s the state with the mermaids, the state where you have to drive north to get to the South, and I’m surely not the first to notice that it’s either the point of origin or the long-term home of several of our most original short story writers: Lauren Groff of Gainesville, Laura van den Berg of Orlando, Kelly Link and Karen Russell of Miami.

“In retrospect,” Russell told The Chicago Tribune in 2014, reflecting on the landscape of her upbringing, “there’s a way in South Florida in which the natural and the artificial are just endlessly mixed up together.” Which is actually a reasonable description of fiction as well, with its mix of artifice and realism. She said in the same interview that while her work was influenced by magic realism, “the primary influence was just South Florida.”

Florida loomed large in Russell’s earliest work. A majority of the stories in her 2006 debut collection, “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” seemed to be set there, although the locations weren’t always named. Her only novel to date, 2011’s haunting and critically acclaimed “Swamplandia!,” was divided between the natural and the artificial, the action set in a Floridian swamp and in an enormous, fully enclosed theme park nearby. In “Orange World” — as in her previous collection, “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” published in 2013 — Florida is less central than it used to be, although it shimmers here and there on the periphery. What remains is Russell’s abiding interest in the surreal and the strange.

Striking a balance between realism and artifice is a difficult task for any fiction writer, but for those whose work bends toward the fantastical, the problem is particularly acute. While Russell’s talent has always been obvious, in her earlier books she occasionally slipped into a territory that felt perilously close to weirdness for the sake of weirdness. But one of the great pleasures of reading an author’s body of work lies in observing the progression of her skills and sensibilities, and in “Orange World” the strangeness is never forced, the surrealism always grounded in recognizable emotion and experience.

In “Bog Girl: A Romance,” a 15-year-old boy on a remote Irish island unearths the eerily preserved corpse of an Iron Age murder victim in a peat bog, a girl of about his own age who perished some 2,000 years ago. It’s love at first sight. What follows is a period of collective madness on the island, as he begins hauling the corpse around town and presenting her as his girlfriend. His family accepts her as a silent presence on the living room sofa, keeping the boy company while he watches TV. His schoolmates let her sit with the popular girls, a horribly still figure with an enigmatic smile, closed eyes and a well-preserved noose around her neck. Russell excels at a kind of creeping, low-level horror.

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The boy is devoted, until the bog girl reanimates and begins to speak. The story’s premise is outlandish, but its revelation is not: It turns out he was only in love with the idea of the girl, so long as she remained a blank slate on which he could project his fantasies, as long as she had nothing to say. If you’ve ever endured a certain kind of bad date, this will resonate.

In “The Prospectors,” two young women struggling to survive in Depression-era Oregon find themselves trapped on a mountain in the company of ghosts, a group of men who are either unaware or unwilling to acknowledge that they’re dead. The ghosts are lying to themselves, but we all do that, don’t we? By the end, the lie that sustains them seems no worse than the lie that the narrator has been telling herself about her relationship with her friend. In the spectacularly gothic “Black Corfu,” the undead are walking the earth on the islands of the Dalmatian coast, but the story’s real monsters are racism and unfounded rumors.

The book’s title story involves a new mother, Rae, who makes a deal with the Devil — if she agrees to breast-feed him every night, he’ll keep her baby safe from harm but while the specifics of her situation are unique, her terror at the possibility of something happening to her baby will be familiar to any parent. (Here Russell’s comedic gifts are on full display. When Rae attends a support group for new mothers, she struggles to find a way to tell them what’s wrong: “‘I’m having a hard time with night feedings,’ Rae finally says.”)

The anxieties of our age pervade Russell’s book. “The Tornado Auction” — deeply affecting, exquisitely written and arguably the masterpiece of this collection — is set in a version of reality where storms are bred for sale, which is to say, a reality where we make our own weather in a manner only slightly more personal than the way we contribute to climate change. Fifteen years after his retirement from the tornado-making business, Wurman — in his 70s, a widower not especially close to his grown daughters — finds himself driving almost on autopilot to the tornado sale barn. He buys a storm on a whim, takes it home and finds himself overcome with joy in the roar of its winds: “But that sound spiraling out, I’d forgotten how a roar like that can fill you up entirely. Hearing loss is part of aging, I suppose. But I hadn’t guessed you could go deaf even to a sound’s howling absence. To the absence of all pleasure in your life.”

Russell’s particular gift lies in taking themes that are close to universal and presenting them in stories whose strangeness comes to seem entirely natural, even necessary. Aside from their fantastical elements, these stories are united by Russell’s willingness to engage deeply with darkness and by her penchant for unexpected endings. This is no small thing. While a novel might sprawl off in any number of directions, short stories tend to be more schematic, by virtue of their tightly controlled brevity. “The Tornado Auction” is only one of several stories in “Orange World” that veer away from an ending that seems all but inevitable — because in Russell’s short stories nothing is inevitable. She has impeccable command of her form.

In “The Gondoliers,” the climate change is more explicit: Russell’s narrator is a young woman who pilots a gondola through the ruins of storm-drowned New Florida, navigating by echolocation, until her life is upended by a passenger with a strange request, and she realizes that she’s not the only person inexplicably drawn to a mysterious dead zone in the haunted waters. South Florida is gone, but its strangeness remains.

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