Reality is sometimes seen most clearly through the lens of absurdity, a curious truth that’s brilliantly demonstrated by Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove. In each of her stories, characters scraping by in our workaday world are subjected to some bizarre twist: enslaved sweatshop laborers devolve into human silkworms, taunted schoolboys haunt their bullies in scarecrow form, memories are tattooed to one’s skin and then massaged from the mind. At a glance such surrealism may seem like the stuff of fantasy or science fiction, but Russell’s vignettes are all too down-to-earth. Her absurdities only warp our world in order to bring life’s harshness into focus.
In “The Barn at the End of Our Term,” former U.S. presidents are put out to pasture in horse-bodies, reduced to eating hay and drawing carriages. Are their new circumstances a degrading hell or a paradise of simple comforts and natural beauty? They’re too busy vying for positions of power within the farmyard to agree. Ultimately it seems they’re fenced in only by their obsession with power and legacy or, in Rutherford’s case, his longing for that which is hopelessly lost. They can only fly free in the world’s beauty if they accept at last that they’re just animals, silly animals confined within a larger system, pointlessly making up rules to which nature is indifferent—rather like humanity itself when we step back and consider our place in the cosmos.
The Nebraska homesteaders in “Proving Up” are similarly blinded by short-sighted obsessions, in their case a land deed that is symbolically important to their sense of self-worth but effectively inconsequential. Its artificial prestige has no bearing on the questions of life, death, and family that actually dominate their days. In theory the cluster of households on the frontier support each other in their shared survival, but as soon as they learn a government certificate is at stake, their lust for it drives them to steal, lie, and kill. Their only crop in that drought of comprehension is a field of bones.
I could go on—there are eight such stories in the collection. But I’ll cut myself short and just say that each one is brilliant in its own way; read them for yourself and draw your own conclusions.
One last note on Russell’s writing: I can’t help but compare Vampires to the other short story collections I’ve read recently. Tim Horvath’s Understories is pure fancy and wordplay; Ron Rash’s Something Rich and Strange is earnest dirt and suffering. Russell strikes a delicate balance between these poles and holds it throughout this collection, taking a dance step in either direction from one story to the next but always swinging back to center. The result is rich and readable and frankly delicious, but never saccharine... as disconcertingly tantalizing, perhaps, as the eponymous lemons. Again, I have to say: read them for yourself.