Karen Russell seems to be a magician. Her latest collection spools and blends genres in an illusion of never-ending fabric, weaving realism, gothic horror, science fiction, the supernatural, fantasy and more to the point that her audience can’t tell where red silk ends and yellow cotton begins.
Magic must power her infinite imagination. Lemon-eating vampires in periwinkle button-ups and loose suspenders soak up some sun and weigh the pros and cons of immortal marriage. Duty-bound and beholden young girls transform into human silkworms and feed Japan’s famished silk industry while secretly weaving a revolution. Past presidents reincarnate into common farm horses and search for purpose; a massage therapist physically and spiritually heals a young war-veteran by miraculously manipulating his back tattoo – these and many more stirringly evocative stories make up Russell’s “Vampires in the Lemon Grove.”
Russell’s title story features Clyde a vampire hooked “on the blood.” Before his wife came along he relied on mortal folklore to build his self-image. Clyde abided by the rules of traditional vampiric conceits: he lived in a coffin, recoiled from garlic, terrorized old ladies in cemeteries and drank their blood, until he met another of his kind - his Magreb. She uproots Clyde’s deeply molded self-image.
We are not monsters, she tells him. The humans fear what they do not understand. Magreb delivers the world-spinning news that acidic lemon juice can quench their blood-thirst. The fanged pair travel, visit museums, picnic, frequent the cinema and critique renditions of themselves on the big screen. Their story is human in every way but one: they are immortal. Russell sketches out an often funny and somewhat terrible idea of eternal matrimony. “Till death do us part!” Clyde says about the limits of mortal love, “easy.”
In Russell’s deeply moving “Reeling for the Empire,” there are no silkworms left in Japan, yet industry will not allow the slightest pause in production of the country’s top export. A “Recruitment Agent” floats from house to house under a bright red parasol and contracts young girls for the silk factories. The Agent feeds the families sweet words about their contribution to the Empire, the honorable sacrifice of their daughters. The girls will have a leg up on the economic ladder and a dowry, if they sign the contract.
Russell brings her readers to the “Nowhere Mill.” The girls there are force-fed a tainted tea and slowly evolve into silkworm-human hybrids. Aura-colored thread soon spools from their fingertips into the ever-hungry “Machine.” Their bodies transform and if they wait too long to reel, their bellies descend with a heavy ball of ever-growing thread. They need the machine to survive. Imprisoned in this silk sweatshop-like alternate reality, a troubled young girl named Kitsune will transform the docile community of silkworm-girls into revolutionaries. Russell dabbles in dark magic in this story, conjuring up a stirringly evocative struggle between age-old tradition and revolution.
Russell handles post-traumatic stress disorder with a gentleness becoming of her quietly blossoming prose in “The New Veterans.” War doesn’t end when soldiers reach home. Beverly, a lonely middle-aged massage therapist turns into a martyr after experiencing a miracle in the salon parlor. By manipulating the mural-like tattoo on the back of a young Iraq war veteran, she can heal his physical and mental pain. The tattoo is an intricately detailed tribute to his friend, a fallen comrade. Beverly can see “freckles, sweat beads, bootlaces” in the artwork and the veins of a cow’s ear also are visible in the thin lines of ink. This is no ordinary tattoo.
Beverly’s new ability to heal Derek comes at a price; the more tension she pulls from his nerve-knotted back, the more his flashbacks invade her own psyche. As he heals, she declines. Russell deftly juxtaposes two worlds: the one painted as advertised on the surface of our lives and the truer, darker one of economic downfalls, governmental mismanagement, and healthcare malfunctions that create broken individuals, these citizens.
In “The New Veterans,” Russell’s writing feels full, the words perfectly rounded and tuned to hit every melancholy note with striking beauty. Like her lemon-sucking vampires and her silkworm girls, Beverly and Derek exemplify a bleedingly-real human experience.
Her latest collection proves it: Russell is a new master of the craft. She is on her game in the lemon grove and beyond. Come to the lemon grove and watch the magic show.