Over the years, Magreb and I have tried everything – fangs in apples, fangs in rubber balls. We have lived everywhere: Tunis, Laos, Cincinnati, Salamanca. We spent our honeymoon hopping continents, hunting liquid chimeras: mint tea in Fez, coconut slurries in Oahu, jet-black coffee in Bogotá, jackal’s milk in Dakar, Cherry Coke floats in rural Alabama, a thousand beverages purported to have magical quenching properties. We went thirsty in every region of the globe before finding our oasis here, in the blue boot of Italy, at this dead nun’s lemonade stand. It’s only these lemons that give us any relief. (p. 12 e-book)
A vampire couple fighting their centuries-long addiction to blood. Japanese women trapped in a silk factory begin to morph into a human-silkworm hybrid. American Presidents in a pastoral afterlife. Mysterious seagulls and a vulnerable young boy. These are some of the stories that appear in Karen Russell’s just-released second short story collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Within them, reality and fantasy blend together to create fictions that sometimes are surreal but always deeply personal in scope. It perhaps is her strongest work to date, as the uniform quality of the stories make it difficult to select a single “strongest” story, while maybe only one or two are even slightly lesser in quality.
The titular story opens the collection with a sobering yet touching account of an aging vampire who desperately seeks to be free of the constraints that he himself has placed on him. He reflects on his travels, both alone and then when he discovered the only other vampire he has ever met, Magreb, a century before. Here love clashes with lust, desire for freedom with the sense of inevitable decline. Russell imbues this aging vampire, Clyde, with a sense of fatalism that is more poignant because he is a nearly-immortal creature. Passages such as the one quoted above reveal the quests of his and his wife for relief from their addiction, but there is something even deeper going on:
Often I wonder to what extent a mortal’s love grows from the bedrock of his or her foreknowledge of death, love coiling like a green stem out of that blankness in a way I’ll never quite understand. And lately I’ve been having a terrible thought: Our love affair will end before the world does. (pp. 19-20 e-book)
Too easily this seemingly elderly vampire’s reminisces could have been played for a brooding, melancholic commentary, but she relieves this by punctuating such passages with his interaction with a young girl, Fila. Her enthusiasm serves as a sharp contrast to Clyde’s worried thoughts about his incremental loss in power and when combined with Magreb’s increasingly distant relationship to Clyde, this makes for a more subtle and nuanced narrative than a simple mid-vampire life crisis. The story’s conclusion, which references and then develops the character fault lines established early in the tale, is poignant without being maudlin.
The second story, “Reeling for the Empire,” is perhaps the most pointedly “political” statement that Russell has made in any of her fiction. Set in early Meiji Japan, it begins as a tale of industrial exploitation of young Japanese silk weavers and it transforms, similar to the women themselves, into a revolutionary tale. There is a slight sense of horror (more from the perspective of the industrialists’ representative than from the women themselves) at the end, but much stronger is the echo of older revolutionary fictions:
Before we can begin to weave our cocoons, however, we first agree to work night and day to reel the ordinary silk, doubling our production, stockpiling the surplus skeins. Then we seize control of the machinery of Nowhere Mill. We spend the next six days dismantling and reassembling the Machine, using its gears and reels to speed the production of our own shimmering cocoons. Each dusk, we continue to deliver the regular number of skeins to the zookeeper, to avoid arousing the Agent’s suspicions. When we are ready for the next stage of our revolution, only then will we invite him to tour our factory floor. (p. 62 e-book)
There are several symbols embedded within this story: the oppression of Japanese women mirrored in industrial exploitation of workers; the connection between silkworms and transforming social/working conditions; outer and inner perspectives of gender roles; and the desire for personal freedom from old social constraints. Although the social commentary is explicit, it is integrated into the narrative so deftly that it does not stick out like a sore thumb, but rather informs and deepens the narrative.
The third story, “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979,” was actually my first exposure to Russell’s fiction (I read it in early 2010 in Tin House 41 when I was developing a longlist for the later-aborted Best American Fantasy 4). Unlike the first two stories, it does not as readily reveal its core elements, as it is more personal, more wrapped up in the experiences of a troubled male teenager, Nal. The seagulls represent different elements as Nal’s narrative evolves. At times, they represent his past, while at other times they are a sort of “cosmic scavengers” that steal parts of local people’s lives to feather their “weird nest.”
The other stories in Vampires in the Lemon Grove explore other facets of human questing, sometimes through symbolic metaphors such as the manipulable tattoos of an Iraqi War veteran in “The New Veterans” or the reincarnation of dead, ambitious Presidents as horses in “The Barn at the End of Our Term.” In these stories, Russell plumbs the depths of human emotions, showing in some of the most surreal images our hopes, dreams, desires, and fears. The writing in these stories is clear, incisive, and yet full of hidden layers of meaning. In reading them, I was reminded favorably of another early 2013 release, George Saunders’ Tenth of December, in how both writers would develop their characters in the midst of sometimes grim or surreal settings in such a fashion that their trials and tribulations were accentuated rather than obscured. Russell’s characters here have a greater depth than in her previous fiction and the prose is stronger for her greater attention to both character/situation detail and plot structure. Vampires in the Lemon Grove‘s stories are different in theme and often in presentation, but very similar in the quality of the narratives. It is, along with Saunders’ collection, one of the best 2013 collections that I have read to date. Highly recommended.