Friday, April 12, 2013

The Concept Story: Karen Russell's VAMPIRES IN THE LEMON GROVE

It’s a rare pleasure when, at the same time, two out of ten books on various “best-seller” lists are collections of short stories--which was indeed the case for a few weeks last month when George Saunders’ Tenth of December and Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove claimed that coveted place.  Although the two collections share some characteristics that partially explain their popularity—fantasy, satire, social criticism, whimsy, witty intelligence—in my opinion, George Saunders’ collection is more “inspired” and imaginatively unpredictable than the stories of Karen Russell.

In several of these stories, it looks like Karen Russell is up to her old tricks. Well, actually new tricks, since she was only 25 when her first book St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves came out six years ago.  Her first novel Swamplandia was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2012, unfortunately and inexplicably, the year that the judges decided not to award a prize for fiction. In my blog on the St Lucy’s collection, I suggested that it was a youthful book in many ways. My old guy reaction to the stories was that they were fun to read as childlike fantasies that illuminated some of childhood’s strangeness, but that they lacked the depth that real exploration of these experiences require.

Although I enjoyed reading Russell’s stories in both her collections, I sometimes felt it was, if you will forgive me, a cheap thrill—a kind of Ray Bradbury, T.C. Boyle, Stephen King kind of thrill  (apologies to all Bradbury/Boyle/King fans), whose stories I enjoy reading, but who cleverly stay on the surface.  In my opinion, Russell is a fine writer who knows her away around a sentence, an image, a metaphor with what one reviewer has called “pixie” charm—apologies to Tinkerbell—but I still fail to see any depth in her work.  Yeah, yeah, I know—everything doesn’t have to have depth!

The basic problem I have with Russell is that she writes concept stories—stories that start with an idea and stick with it—e.g. the idea of kicking a habit vis-à-vis vampires and lemon juice; the idea of feminist liberation, vis-à-vis Japanese girls rebelling against producing silk from their own bodies.

Ron Rash (whose new collection Nothing Gold Can Stay I will talk about in a week or two) expressed my reservations about the “concept” story quite well in a short piece in The Wall Street Journal, 3/8/13.  Rash said that like most fiction writers, he is often asked where he gets his ideas, to which he answers, “I have no idea,” adding that if ideas were gettable, like in a secluded cave somewhere, he would not go get them, for “an "idea," especially one adhered to from start to finish, can be disastrous for a compelling piece of fiction.”

Rash says the best example is the difference between Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and A Fable.  Faulkner once said that The Sound and the Fury began as a single image—“a child in a tree watching adults at a wake.” The Fable, however, began and ended with an idea—if Christ returned to earth he would be crucified again—an idea that Faulkner outlined chapter by chapter and followed scrupulously.  Whereas The Sound and the Fury is a dynamic, living book one of Faulkner’s best, a Fable is “tedious, lifeless, imprisoned within its idea.”
The fact that Russell’s stories are concept stories springing from some “idea” is suggested by Fiona Wilson’s review in The Times of London, who says she wishes she could have been there at the moment when a story like the title story was conceived.  In fact, Karen Russell has talked a bit about when this story was conceived.  She says she was in a lemon grove with her siblings and saw a very tan, elderly man sucking on a lemon and said something like, “Wouldn’t it be funny if lemons were just like vampire methadone and that man is a vampire with a tan.” 

Even though none of her siblings thought the “what if” idea was funny, Russell says there was something about the premise: “The ‘what if’ was set up in such a way that it felt like: here was the place where I could explore some questions.  A diorama where I could explore the question that seems almost too huge to confront in realist fiction.”  Well, I am not sure what “huge” question Russell had in mind, unless it was addiction as a social problem.  If so, it seems to me that the cleverness of the story undercuts any serious such intention.  And furthermore I am not sure I would be interested in a story that existed solely for such a serious intention.

Joy Williams, one of my favorite short story writers, also suggests the concept nature of Russell’s stories by opening her New York Times review with the notion that if you gave Karen Russell an assignment to write a story about an ex-president who is reincarnated as a horse and put her in a room with a couple of pencils and one arm tired behind her back, she would come up with “The Barn at the End of Our Term.”  The result is a comic romp, but little else, about Rutherford B. Hayes, the 19th president of the United States who exists in a sort of limbo state after death as a horse longing for his wife Lucy, who maybe has been transmuted into a winsome sheep. Other ex-presidents are featured, such as Woodrow Wilson, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and James Garfield.

In my discussion of Russell’s St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves, I suggested that Russell raises the suspicion that many of her early stories were written as class assignments. Nothing wrong with that, of course, except writing to an assignment is sort of like teaching to the test, isn’t it?  It could lead to a narrow sort of focus aimed to please. Now, I am not sure it is MFA-assignment-fulfillment that drives Russell’s stories, but something more linked to her creative procedure of conceiving a concept and following it relentlessly.

A less funny, even somewhat tedious, concept story is “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Tailgating in the Antarctic,” about--in big sports fan fashion--the Food Chain Games that pits the Team Krill against the Team Whale. As you might guess, in spite of devoted tailgating fans, the Krills have never won a game, always being sucked up into the maw of devouring whales, each year the whole franchise of 60,000,000,000 being eaten.  It is a simple, conceptually comic, trope meant to be a satire on big time sports, but it is just a self-indulgently romp.

As you might expect, the two stories for which reviews have the most respect are the stories that seem to carry the most significant social satire/social message weight:

“The New Veterans,” which focuses on a massage therapist who treats a veteran of the Iraq War suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder.  She discovers that if she massages a tattoo on his back that depicts a roadside bomb that killed one of his friends, the tattoo becomes animated and that she can manipulate images on it, for example moving the sun from one spot to another, indeed, even managing to change history seemingly frozen on the veteran’s back.

“Proving Up,” whose concept is that the Homestead Act of the 1870s in Nebraska had one perverse requirement so typical of politicians out of touch with everyday human reality—in order to be granted claim to a homestead, every house had to have at least one glass window, even though the “houses” were more like animal burrows underground.  Since the poor farmers cannot all afford glass windows, they pass around one single window before the arrival of the Inspector who determines if they are allowed to keep their farm. In the story, the task is given to an 11-year old boy, and the result is a nightmarish journey that comes to a horrific ending

Other concept stories include:

“Reeling for the Empire,” It’s one thing to work in a silk factory, but quite another to do so as a magically transformed silkworm, your body spinning out the silk in a nineteenth-century Japanese extreme version of a sweatshop.

“The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis,” the subject of which is school bullying, here embodied in a boy who feels guilt for his participation in the tormenting of a kid with epilepsy who disappears and comes back as a scarecrow.

In “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979” an Australian boy finds a hollow tree in which seagulls have deposited lost objects, some of them from the future.

An interesting critical difference of opinion about which Russell stories are most successful and thus whether Russell’s success as a short story writer depends on a poetic fantastical style or on concept-driven socially significant plots can be seen in the contrasting comments made by brilliant short story writer Joy Williams and influential critic/reviewer Michiko Kakutani in bookended New York Times reviews.

Williams says, “A grim, stupendous, unfavorable magic is at work in these stories.  They are not chicly ironic or satiric and certainly not existentially or ethically curious.”  She says, however, that “The New Veterans”(a social/realist/critical favorite) is sentimental, that its fundamental situation is so familiar that its “intention becomes obvious and must be laboriously realized.”   Williams argues that the story is not energized by the” unerringly knowing and mischievous planchette that unequivocally belongs” to Karen Russell.

Michiko Kakutani, the star reviewer for The New York Times, on the other hand, says that “The New Veterans” is the “emotional centerpiece” of the collection, a story that perhaps begins as a takeoff of Ray Bradbury’s famous “Illustrated Man” and “quickly evolves into a complex, deeply affecting exploration of the ways memories can crystallize or redeem the past, and the ways the process of storytelling itself can remake history.”

Perhaps the best mediation between these two perspectives is provided by M. John Harrison in The Guardian, who says that as long as Russell’s stories are “fragile tissues of word, image, and emotions,” they have unbelievable strength, but when she pushes these images into a narrative, they get weak: “The two styles of communication interfere with one another, then the plot prances off with the bit between its teeth, shedding subtleties as it goes.” 

And perhaps here we have the basic critical question about the stories of Karen Russell:  Is she the protégé of Italo Calvino and Donald Barthelme, or is she a child of The Twilight Zone and Stephen King? 


Trevor said...

Thanks for this write-up. I have been reading these stories, planning to review them one by one, but I've stalled because I'm simply not enjoying them very much. When I finished the seagull story I thought it was not only weak but truly awful, one of the worst short stories I'd read (I was pretty upset at the time and may have been exaggerating--I haven't gone back to check. I have high hopes for Russell as at times she really does seem to dig deeply and certainly has a gift for language when she reels it in, so I hope her lineage goes back to Calvino and Barthelme.

Jeff said...

I have to thank you too. Reading this was somewhat cathartic- I thought I must've been missing something with some of Russell's short stories. I appreciate whimsy as much as the next Frenchman, but these stories always seemed to have an greater intent that they never quite delivered on.

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There is something for everybody in this collection. Each story reads like a rare and polished gem, and if you are a fan of the stories of Edgar Allen Poe, Willa Cather, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Stephen King (I know this list has some strange bedfellows), you can't help but love Russell's work. I actually bought the book after having read it first on my Kindle. I needed to have a print copy to hang on to and re-read. This is definitely a book to add to your library.

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Karen Russell is a brilliant author. I have not yet read any of her prior works but I fully intend to. Her ideas are creative, unique, and provide insight into the human condition on many different levels. From stories which make you care about vampires, a nearly impossible task at the moment to tales of the frontier and the harsh living conditions people experienced every story is a page turner making the reader thirst for more.

Michael Student said...

What is wrong with the Twilight Zone? Are we referring to the conceptual "what-if" angle of the stories and the twist endings? Some of those stories, conceptual or not, are surprisingly satisfying on some levels. In a typical episode, you felt lured into worlds of fantasy and science fiction, but it was the moral center of each story that you remembered afterward.

Serling used the Twilight Zone as a pulpit for exposing the moral weakness of society, probing societal shortcomings such as temptation, greed, vanity, and pride. He believed in the potential of humanity as a whole but was unafraid to thrust a mirror in the faces of those that marred his deeper vision. This is TV, of course, but I don't think his work should be dismissed so readily. Many aspects of the human condition were explored.

As for Russell, her originality and talent for the language cannot be ignored.

Charles May said...

Michael, I always enjoyed Twilight Zone. I don't think anything was "wrong" about it. I just see it in the category of very fine "popular" short fiction.