Ever since her first collection of stories, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, came out in 2006, Karen Russell, who was 25 at the time, has been hailed as a "rising star" among the next generation of "great writers." The New Yorker named her one of the twenty best writers under the age of forty; Granta named her one of the Best American Novelists, and the National Book Foundation put her in their list of the five best writers under the age of thirty-five.
Her novel Swamplandia was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. (They did not name a winner that year.) Then, in 2013, she received one of the MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grants" (which comes with a five-year stipend of $125,000 per year.) Her most recent book is a novella entitled Sleep Donation, an e-book published by Atavist Press. (which, just to be fair, I read this week and found to be typical "what if" generic stuff) She has said she is now working on a novel.
My old guy reaction to the stories in Karen Russell's first collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (2006) was that whereas they are fun to read as childlike fantasies and illuminate some of childhood’s strangeness, they lack the depth that real exploration of these experiences require. When it comes to magical realism or philosophically significant fantasies, Karen Russell just needed more intellectual background, it seemed to me. For profound explorations of the issues she explores superficially here, I prefer the mature vision of Borges, Garcia Marquez, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, George Saunders, and Steven Millhauser. But then, that’s just the way we old guys are. We prefer fiction that makes us think, not just makes us smile.
Six years later in my blog on Russell's Vampires in the Lemon Grove, I said that although I enjoyed reading Russell’s stories, I sometimes felt they were, if you will forgive me, a cheap thrill—a 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 failed to see any depth in her work.
The basic problem I have with Russell is that she writes simple concept stories—stories that start with a "what if" 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. The basic critical question about the stories of Karen Russell may well be: Is she the protégé of Italo Calvino and Donald Barthelme, or is she a child of The Twilight Zone and Stephen King?
Her most recent story "The Bog Girl," which appears in the June 20 issue of The New Yorker, reaffirms my view that she is the latter--a lightweight, not, as she has been called, a "rising star among the next generation of great writers"—at least not yet.
Her interview in The New Yorker's "This Week in Fiction" website makes the "what if" intention of "The Bog Girl" quite clear. She says she had been reading some reports about eight-thousand-year-old human remains being found in a Florida bog. So she said she started to wonder: "What if one of these bog bodies could blast us with the fullness of her life? Turn the fire hose of her interior life onto those seeking to define her from without? I pictured an ancient young woman rearing off the table, taking on dimension, shredding our assumptions, challenging our ventriloquy of her mute body." She said she wrote the story to explore how often we "project our fantasies onto the mask of another person's face, then feel betrayed when they turn out to have needs and depths of their own?"
Sounds like serious stuff. But I have read the story several times and keep coming up with the usual "what if" Karen Russell jokes and tricks and gimmicks, and none of the heavy weight stuff she promises in the "This Week in Fiction" feature.
What if a fifteen-year-old boy living on a small island in a Northern European archipelago found the body of a two thousand year old girl while cutting turf and fell in love with her?
That's the story. The rest is Karen Russell playing with the idea. The boy, whose name is Cillian, lives with his mother, whose name is Gillian, and has had no experience with girls, for he is working to save enough money to buy a car, which he hopes will make it possible for him to sleep with a girl or woman. The girl he finds is well preserved and has thick red hair—probably patterned after the famous Yde Girl, found in 1897 in the Netherlands, and more famously facially reconstructed in 1992 as a conventionally attractive young woman. (Both the bog girl and the reconstruction can be viewed in a Dutch museum, and of course online.) She has a noose running down her back— patterned after the famous Tollund Man, who was discovered with such a noose in Denmark in 1950. Again, you can also find lots of pictures of him online.
Since this all takes place on a remote island, there are no hordes of scientists arriving to take the body for examination. And to make it possible for Cillian to cuddle with her, thanks to a Karen Russell miracle: she does not deteriorate as such bodies, once exposed to the open air, inevitably do.
As a result, Cillian and the bog girl can watch sitcoms together on the telly and his uncle can make jokes about his nephew going after a mature woman, a cougar, as it were, and advise him that women lie about their age, warning him she might be three thousand years old rather than just two thousand. (Ha ha). The mother is concerned, but knowing her son is in love "commanded her respect" and is unwilling to "turn an orphan from the Iron Age out on the street" (chuckle, chuckle). Although she allows Cillian to take the girl into his room and close the door, she says "Everyone has to wear clothes."
More jokes follow. Cillian goes to visit a travelling exhibit of bog bodies, for it is only fair that he get to meet her family, takes her to school with him, propping her up like a broomstick against the lockers. All this is accepted by teachers and school administrators because they do not want to anger a visitor from the past. When the vice-principle calls Cillian into his office to give the bog girl a visiting student badge, she slumps over into his aloe planter (chortle, chortle)
Whatever real-life implications all this has is suggested by Cillian's accusing his mother of not wanting him to grow up when she reminds him of her devotion to him as a child, by girls at the school being envious when Cillian tells them he has dedicated himself to learning everything about her, and by his mother's warning him that he should not throw his life away on some Bog Girl (snort, snort).
Of course, Cillian has to take the Bog Girl to the annual school dance, and when a friend asks, "Do you guys----, Cillian preempts the questions with: "A gentleman never tells." (snicker, snicker). Russell justifies all these jokes by the presumed intellectual observation in her interview: "Howls of laughter and howls of terror aren't so far removed from one another, I don't think."
Then, finally, Russell has to get to her stated intention in the story—to "turn the fire hose of her interior life onto those seeking to define her from without." She has to make it the Bog Girl's story. So , inevitably, she brings her to life. "The Bog Girl sat up and says Cillian's name. Ponderously, Russell says: "His mind was too young and too narrow to withstand the onrush of her life…Some mental earthquake inside the Bog Girl was casting up a world, green and unknown to him, or to anyone living: her homeland."
Cillian is terrified as the Bog Girl reaches out to him, and his mother tells him to take the girl home and to "let her down gently." When he takes her to the bog, Russell cannot resist: "This was a bad breakup," and Cillian and the Bog Girl roll in the mud, with his crying "It's over, it's over." As she falls back into the Bog, she begins to break apart. But, of course, she haunts his memory, even as he cries, "Who was that?' or "What was that?"
It's all pretty predictable and silly, but Russell seems determined to insist that it is serious stuff in the "This Week in Fiction" interview, finally taking a cue from the interviewer that the story is about aging, responding that the Bog Girl reminds Cillian and Gillian that they are basically children on this planet, part of an extended family "barnacles on the hull of a ship, riding through time together." Russell opines that by the end of the story the Bog Girl's stare has altered both mother and son and "allowed each to see hidden parts of the other."
Russell's conclusion about her story goes this way:
"I would just add that I believe that people who survive a trauma or have a powerfully disruptive experience (so, all living people, let's assume) can often feel that a part of themselves is trapped in amber at that age, even as clock time moves relentlessly onward. The Bog Girl somehow became a way for me to think through the haunted experience of growing old in a body while simultaneously carrying the past forward with you. And certain things—bewilderment and jealously and fear and pair and love—we humans don't seem to age out of them. I think Cillian gets this by the story's end."
Oh my, oh my! We can only nod sagely at such wisdom and thank The New Yorker for once again giving us the stuff of genius.
I don't know about you, but I prefer Lars and the Real Girl. In that treatment of the old Pygmalion story, there is something quite real and moving about an entire town rallying behind the innocent delusion of a young man's love for an unreal girl. Russell may think she is exploring serious human reality, but she is really just going for laughs.