- Vampires in the Lemon Grove
- Knopf, 256 pp.
Karen Russell’s new short story collection arrives a short two years after the publication of her much-lauded 2011 Swamplandia!, a novel that drew the attentions of both literary and mainstream reading communities. Though Swamplandia! is a delightful book, Russell’s second collection of short stories, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, delivers all the snappy, crisp prose readers have come to expect from Russell without the sense of narrative attenuation that arguably burdens her first novel. The eight stories in Vampires explore themes of monstrosity, violence, and alienation. Taken together, these stories examine how we know ourselves—among others and through narrative. These are stories about identity and the way it is constituted through both the stories we inherit and those we tell ourselves. Russell’s characters struggle to discern their own outlines, to figure out who they are and who they want to be, while constrained by history, authority, and their need for human connection. Russell’s stories are deeply beguiling not only for the richness and depth of her imagination but also for the accessibility of the speculative as metaphor. Her stories of alienation through monstrosity seek to draw the reader closer, to whisper in our ear, to make a common cause out of this desire we all have to find ourselves in one another. What makes Russell’s fiction remarkable is that, unlike some other stories of a speculative bent, Vampires seems genuinely invested in communicating with the reader. Instead of leading us out to the edge of an abyss and leaving us there, Vampires invites the reader to plunge into the darkness, to fly.
In the title story of the collection, a vampire named Clyde struggles to makes sense of his vampire-ness in light of the conflict between his lived experiences and the plethora of literature about vampires. “You small mortals don’t realize the power of your stories,” he muses (47). Clyde, like most of us, instinctively seeks love and connection. He seems to know that it is only through a soul-feeding companionship that he will be able to find out who he is and what it truly means to be a vampire. The legends about the dangers of the sun and an insatiable thirst for blood all fail him, leaving him with an unquenchable thirst (for which blood does absolutely nothing), fangs, and immortality. Unlike his wife, Magreb, who is also a vampire, Clyde can’t seem to let the old stories go and thus is lodged in an old man’s body while she flies freely in bat form, joyfully unmoored from myth and superstition. For Clyde, rejecting these stories whole-heartedly also means rejecting his immortality—the most durable of his vampiric powers, while accepting them means isolation and misery. Clyde grapples with how to live among humans when he can’t understand what his relationship to mortals is supposed to be and how to make sense of his own identity in this context. Russell frames Clyde’s monstrosity as a legible symbol for the kind of alienation that, for many of us, comes with aging.
Similarly, “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979” and “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis” both follow characters seeking definition. In “Seagull,” the protagonist, Nal, a devastatingly awkward kid in a small coastal town, can’t seem to rid himself of a hyper-self-consciousness that leaves him reeling with uncertainty about how to make sense of himself in the world. His uncertainty is granted strange traction when he discovers a seagull nest that looks like nothing so much as a vortex of lost things. Nal realizes that each life has a thread, a pattern, which becomes visible to him only because the gulls have been disrupting it, stealing minor objects in a way that nevertheless alters the course of people’s lives. The revelation about the ordered fragility of the universe grants him a new sense of authenticity and allows him to do things he never thought possible. In “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis,” the first person narrator, Larry Rubio, is tethered by a name he can’t pronounce to an estranged father. His mispronunciation—a perpetual discomfort with rolling his “r”s—becomes a metaphor for his character in general. Running with a gang of similarly disaffected youth, Larry bullies and beats up other kids at his school, and this violence serves to shore up his sense of who he is. When the most infuriating target of his rage disappears and then shows up mysteriously rendered as a sort of scarecrow, Larry’s world is thrown off balance. If the doll isn’t Eric Mutis, who is it? If he is not the boy who bullies kids like Eric Mutis, who is he?
Russell’s stories explore the struggle for selfhood in conjunction with others and under oppressive constraints. The most impressive story in the collection, “Reeling for Empire,” invokes these themes of monstrosity, violence, and identity to greatest effect. The main character in “Reeling,” Kitsune, finds herself enslaved in a labor model resonant with many guest worker schemes aimed at trapping people in exploitative situations. Russell describes a world in which a global blight has effectively killed off all the silkworms, driving up the price and demand for silk. An enterprising Japanese capitalist, presumably in conjunction with the state, recruits women from all over the country to work at an innovative new silk factory, appealing both to their own financial need and to their patriotism. Once they sign the Agent’s contract, the women find themselves mutating into human silkworms. The reader follows Kitsune as she grapples with her feelings of guilt over her situation, her conflicted sense of herself as a loyal subject of the Japanese empire, and her newfound monstrosity. Somewhat like the narrators in the other stories in this collection, the women in the Agent’s factory learn to embrace their monstrosity and, in this case, the means of production, in order to achieve full self actualization through companionship and resistance to power.
Russell’s characters come to know themselves through self-chosen stories even as they resist, with varying degrees of success, those that are thrust upon them. They struggle to make sense of their world and their role in it, creating a sense of identity through their experiences with others. Russell presents life and selfhood as transformative projects, articulated through her remarkable prose. For a small sample of the author’s dense, chewy prose, see the following sentence from a story called “The New Veterans,” in which the narrator describes a woman’s struggle with cancer: “She’d flummoxed her oncologists with her fickle acrobatics, swinging over the void and back into her body on the hospital bed while the life-recording machines telegraphed their silent electronic applause” (151). Such prose could breathe life into much duller stories, and Russell’s stories are anything but dull. Even apart from Russell’s wonderful prose, Vampires in the Lemon Grove manages to be optimistic without being smarmy and delicately nuanced without being hopelessly obscure. The author invokes the speculative in the best way possible, as invocative metaphors for enriching and enlivening narrative themes that speak to a very specific aspect of the human experience—identity. Russell’s new collection is a masterfully executed exploration of the self as construct, contested by authority and elaborated by love.