Peat Bog Girlfriends, Nebraska Tornado Farmers & Devil-Breastfeeding Mothers

Thursday, 7 May 2020



ON KAREN RUSSELL'S ORANGE WORLD & OTHER STORIES 

BY EMILY

KAREN RUSSELL IS A WRITER I COLLECT like old-fashioned beer caps. She's kitsch. She's a genre writer. Her prose is a bit purple. A paint so thick it never dries. But she writes about the present in a way that makes you nostalgic for it. From Mommy Support Groups to crocodile theme parks. She makes everyday life look like an artifact, a place where a fairy tale can still happen. See that old nonno in the lemon grove? That's a vampire.

To start off Wyrd and Wondera month-long “casual group enthusiasm” for fantasy as co-host Imyril puts it, not a challenge, I decided to check out what she had recently put out. I have only finished three books since January (three!!!) — on account of Life, reading many things in tandem, and, as I mentioned previously, not knowing what mood this unprecedented time calls for — I figured it would be comforting to read a familiar voice, and possibly introduce some of you to her work. 


Her latest collection, Orange World and Other Stories, is a mixed bag of genres: gothic, fantastique, post-apocalyptic and her trademark magical realism. As can often be the case with short story collections, my enjoyment of it was uneven. Some stories I read rapturously. Others, I spat out like black licorice.

One must get use to Russell's writing as though entering a hot bath. A mansion is “rabid”, “frothy with white marble balconies.” (Later, in “MADAME BOVARY'S DOG”, a person having a seizure is described as “chattering in the red light like a loose tooth.” Excuse me, what?) And in true Karen Russell fashion, the main character has a flower-crown name that screams I Am A Storybook Character, and whose origin gets info-dumped on the reader for no reason that serves the story. (It's Auby, short for Aubergine, parents thought it was French for “dawn”.)

And all that in the opening story!

Luckily, Russell's dialogues save her every time.  No matter how glitzy the descriptions can be and no matter how obvious she makes her heroes, Russell's characters talk like real people, and are real people, giving a sharpness to the most surreal situations she creates.

No matter how glitzy the descriptions can be and no matter how obvious she makes her heroes, Russell's characters talk like real people, and are real people, giving a sharpness to the most surreal situations she creates.


“Mr. Loatch?” Swilling a drink, I steadied my voice. “How long does the chairlift run?”

“Oh dear.” He pursed his lips. “You girls gotta be somewhere? I'm afraid you're stuck with us until morning. You're the last we let up. They shut that lift down until dawn.”

Next to me, I heard Clara in my ear: “Are you crazy? We just got here, and you're talking about leaving? Do you know how rude you sound?”

“They're dead.”

“What are you talking about? Who's dead?”

“Everyone. Everyone but us.”

—  “THE PROSPECTORS”

From that point on, I was on the edge of my seat, and by the end of it, it was one of the Best Suspense Story I'd Ever Read. But the next story brought me back to square one: a demonic Joshua tree cactus story told by an all-knowing, know-it-all narrator who told rather than showed, and over-explained the magic. 

Then, “BOG GIRL”, a clever love story, which, when I first read it online, I had immediately adored and praised for not compromising the story's form, nor Bog Girl's. This time around though, it had lost its sheen. Ah well, to quote the story itself. “First love, first love. ... It will die of natural causes.”

This was followed by “MADAME BOVARY'S DOG”, which I didn't understand a thing of what went on, I couldn't even tell you in what point of view it was written. 

“THE TORNADO RANCH” thus came, excuse the pun, as a breath of fresh air. Cool premise, complicated character, doesn't over-explain his backstory or the magic. I loved everything about it. But it was then sandwiched by a Dispossessed try-hard tale with a plot so implausible (and thus, with no real stakes) —  a world in which no doctor has never lost a patient —  I couldn't care for it.

At this point, I started to feel concerned by what kind of three-headed-monster form my review would take. So far, I had only enjoyed two stories out of six. Three, if you counted the ghost of my love for “BOG GIRL”. Which, in Russell's world, I suppose you do. 


At this point, I started to feel concerned by what kind of three-headed-monster form my review would take. So far, I had only enjoyed two stories out of six. Three, if you counted the ghost of my love for “BOG GIRL”. Which, in Russell's world, I suppose you do.


The real treat turned out being the last two stories.

“THE GONDOLIERS” is a post-apocalypse Inferno-esque voyage across a Florida now underwater. With the gondola described as a “casket” and a literal underworld beneath the acid water, you can't help seeing the reference to the ferryman of Hell. 

Atmospheric and cleverly written, the old nostalgic visitor was a great device to guide the reader into this new world without sounding like a textbook. So much so that the narrator's own history lessons ought to have been cut out. There was no need, for example, to be so precise in saying the flood occurred seven years before her birth.

The story left me wanting more, and I have a sneaky suspicion this may be the beginning of a novel, much like “AVA WRESTLES THE ALLIGATOR” in St. Lucy's became Swamplandia! 

Swamplandia! readers: do you reckon Kiwi could be the old visitor? (This is what I mean by flower-crown names, but in the case of Swamplandia!, it kinda works.)


In any event, Karen Russell seems to be at her best when describing her native Florida, or, as the next story would prove, her new home in Portland. 


Karen Russell seems to be at her best when describing her native Florida, or, as the next story would prove, her new home in Portland.


Lastly, the title story, “ORANGE WORLD”, is a true banger. A first-time Portland mother, against her better judgement, agrees to be the wet nurse of the devil.


“'Whatever you do?' Yvette says, 'Don't read anything online. Those message-board bitches are crazy. They'll tell you your baby is going to die and sign off with an angel emoji.'”

—  “ORANGE WORLD”

Funny and brooding, it's a perfectly calibrated retelling of the changeling folktale and post-partum. I wouldn't change a single word in it. See for yourself.



Have you read Karen Russell before? If you are a young reader, I'd say read all her stuff and hurry fast while you still have a high tolerance to sugar. If you are past your teens, treat yourself to a Karen Russell as though to pink lemonade after a hot day working the garden. Sweet sticky refreshing canned-candy that tastes like carefree summers. It's not for everyday, but it's for the better kind. 


Cover art: Flora. 1-45 A.D. National Archaeological Museum, Naples.

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