Regret is a pilgrimage back to the place where I was free to choose.
I really want to like Karen Russell's work, and it is even a little difficult for me to figure out why exactly it is that I don't, but I don't. After a very disappointing experience with Swamplandia!, I was still committed to reading at least one of her short story collections. One of my feelings about Swamplandia! was that maybe Russell wasn't yet ready to take on a novel, and her writing was lovely, so with those two things in mind her short stories could be absolutely perfect for me. Unfortunately, no.
I am in the absolute minority (I read review after review after review to try to figure out why, for once, I am at odds with the literary world), so I can't say that I would un-recommend them based on my own experiences, but these stories are just not for me. I like dark and twisty (see Gone Girl, Dark Places, Sharp Objects), I like magical realism (see The Color Master, Wind Up Bird Chronicle, 100 Years of Solitude), and I like clever (see every other literary darling), but...the way she puts it together doesn't work.
I categorized my Aimee Bender short story collection into: Heartbreakingly Good, Incredibly Good, and Just Good. For Russell I will do: Good, Meh, Why?
Vampires in the Lemon Grove
Reeling for the Empire
The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis
The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979
The New Veterans
Dougbert Shakleton's Rules for Antarctic Tailgating
The Goods have solid writing and ideas and their strength is taking extra-ordinary situations and giving the characters in these completely human moments that are absolutely ordinary.
The Vampires in the Lemon Grove are having marriage problems and their relationship issues manifest in a conversation that is superficially about one thing but actually about another.
"The lemons aren't working, Clyde." But the lemons have never worked. At best, they give us eight hours of peace. We aren't talking about the lemons. "The Reelers for the empire are girls who have been turned into silkworms whose silk is helping Japan become a silk exporter, but the girls all have to live together in a single room and they are driving each other crazy.
"Courage, sisters!" sings Hoshi. Hoshi is our haiku laureate. She came from a school for young noblewomen and pretends to have read every book in the world. We all agree that she is generally insufferable.When the Graveless Doll of Eric Matis appears - looking like a scarecrow - our juvenile delinquent protagonist takes a moment to realize how lame his imagination is.
All day and all night, the scarecrow had to stand over his quilty hills of wheat and flax, of rye and barley and three other brown grains that I could never remember (my picture of scarecrow country was ripped directly from the 7-Grain Quilty Hills Muffins bag - at school I cheated shamelessly, and I guess my imagination must have been a plagiarist, too, copying its homework).I did enjoy these three stories, but all three of them share a 'huh' moment when I turned the last page and realized the story was over. It's not that I need a clear resolution where all questions are answered, but endings should not be a surprise. That is what stops these really interesting premises with lovely ideas and prose from being truly excellent.
The Meh stories are different levels of creepy - maybe some of them even belong rightly in the Horror category, but the premises aren't as interesting and the endings are still unsatisfying.
The Why? stories are ones that really emphasize my overall problem with the book:
- it reads like a collection of writing exercises.
Writing Exercise: Write a story from the perspective of a non-human character.
Result: The Barn at the End of Our Term, where former presidents are reincarnated as self-aware horses
Writing Exercise: Take an ordinary event and treat it like a major sporting event.
Result: Dougbert Shakleton's Rules for Antartic Tailgating, where the super stoked fans for Team Krill are beaten by the super stoked fans of Team Whale every year.
I understand that many people really love Karen Russell, and I do see potential, but I don't think that I will be picking up any more of her books.