Review: Guessing Games.

I tend to put Karen Russell into the same group as Aimee Bender or Kelly Link, women who casually blend emotional reality with the fantastical, whose work I will pick up on sight. So I was excited, when I heard that Vampires in the Lemon Grove was coming out. Somehow, I’d narrowly avoided the hype, read no reviews, only discovered it on the day it was released. Consequently, it feels a little more magical.

Russell has two other books: St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and Swamplandia!. The strongest material from the former, a book of short fiction, was re-purposed as the latter, a sprawling novel about fantasy and expectation. Vampires in the Lemon Grove has been compared to Swamplandia!, and found weaker. I wouldn’t make that comparison simply because one is long-form and the other short-form, it feels disingenuous.

Vampires is superior to St. Lucy’s, though. It is superior in that way that you can see someone has honed their skills, has a greater mastery of the form. The stories in St. Lucy’s often feel unfinished, a bit restless–it’s easy to see how that material would rip itself free and grow into a novel. The new stories, meanwhile, are more solid and confident in their strangeness. They feel tighter. The prose is fluid and funny, without being ostentatious.

Of the eight stories, I loved six. They move through times and space, always wearing a retrospective veil–either for the reader or for the narrator. For the first few, they get better and better–the title story is good, a sad tale about an old man who lingers every day in an Italian lemon grove, watching tourists, who happens to be a vampire. The second is better, as we shift to Imperial Japan with “Reeling for the Empire.” Women transformed by their government into human silkworms toil for the sake of industrial growth. This story gets much deeper than the previous, slides more firmly inside its narrator, explores the way metamorphosis is something that is done to the women, only to have them grasp the means of production and explore the full evolution implied by the initial shift.

Only two stories fall down for me–“The Barn at the End of Our Term” depends too much on a goofy conceit (that U.S. presidents are reborn as horses on a farmer’s property after they die) and never really blossoms. “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating” similarly fails, for much the same reason: it’s a joke that goes on for too long. It’s hard to read them after you’ve read “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979.” They don’t compare to “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis,” the final story, a long smear of quiet horror about a reformed bully.

Two weaker stories doesn’t invalidate the book, of course. The six strong ones are strong, they plunge us into a new world where exposition is a bare, tense thing delivered only when absolutely necessary. Russell trusts her reader implicitly. Her characters must work out as much as we do–Clyde, the vampire in the title story, has nothing to go on about being a vampire beyond what he has always seen in stories and movies. The women in the silk factory can only guess what will happen, what their potential is–every action they take is as much about discovering the limitations of their bodies as it is an attempt to free themselves. Larry Rubio, narrator of “The Graveless Body” can only guess at the rules defining a scarecrow doppelganger of a kid he and his friends used to terrorize, who has long since vanished.

Vampires in the Lemon Grove is about the menace you can only guess at, have to struggle with internally before you can even begin to grasp tangibly–how the sun might kill you, because you’ve seen it happen in movies, how the things we’ve told ourselves about the world might prove false at any moment.

(Vampires in the Lemon Grove was published by Knopf in 2013.)

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