There's a popular misconception that literary fiction is supposed to be staid, boring, realistic to a fault. Like all stereotypes, it's deeply unfair, but it endures, perhaps because readers keep having traumatic flashbacks to novels, like Sister Carrie, that they were forced to read in high school.
But in her new short story collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, it takes Karen Russell only a few pages to put the lie to that idea. The book opens with the title story, the tale of an aging vampire couple falling out of love with each other. She follows that with "Reeling for the Empire," a yarn about women who have been turned into silkworms. Not long after, there's "The Barn at the End of Our Term," an account of former President Rutherford B. Hayes, who has been reincarnated as a "skewbald pinto with a golden cowlick and a cross-eyed stare" and forced to share a stable with several other commanders in chief, including James Garfield ("a tranquil gray Percheron") and Warren G. Harding ("a flatulent roan pony").
So much for dry realism. Russell's creativity won't come as a surprise to anyone who has read her critically acclaimed 2011 novel, Swamplandia!, but it should convert the skeptical readers who hold on to the idea that literary fiction can't be creative and entertaining. It should also delight the same readers who loved George Saunders' Tenth of December. Like Saunders, Russell is a true original, and Vampires in the Lemon Grove is one of the most innovative, inspired short-story collections in the past decade.
The premises of Russell's stories are astonishingly imaginative, but her prose is so beautiful and assured, it's easy for the reader to suspend his disbelief. In the horror tale "Proving Up," a young boy in 19th-century Nebraska is sent on an errand that quickly turns terrifying. His mother seems to be the only family member who senses what's in store, and she unsuccessfully tries to dissuade him from making the journey: "Ma seeps out of the dugout in her blue dress. She sees us gathered and runs down the powdery furrow like a tear — I think she would turn to water if she could."
Even the most conventional story in Vampires in the Lemon Grove is deeply bizarre. "The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis" is a coming-of-age tale that centers on a mysterious scarecrow of a disappeared bullying victim. Told from the point of view of one of the boy's tormentors, it's indisputably horrifying but also deeply felt, and it occasionally approaches something like sweetness. Reflecting on a school employee who unsuccessfully tries to stop the gang of bullies, the protagonist sounds almost wistful: "I think we needed that librarian to follow us around ... reading us her story of our lives, her fine script of who we were and our activities — but of course she couldn't do this, and we did get lost."
It's a testament to Russell's emotional maturity and originality — there are no obvious antecedents to her work besides, perhaps, Flannery O'Connor — that she's able not only to pull these stories off, but to do so with such seemingly effortless beauty. While the plot of "The Barn at the End of Our Term" is almost insane, it doesn't take long for Russell to turn the story into something achingly exquisite — President Hayes pines for his wife, Lucy, who he's convinced has been reincarnated as a sheep. If that sounds ludicrous, it's because it is, but it's no less wistful and tragic because of it.
There's no shortage of American authors who have mastered both the short story and the novel, but not many writers are brave or talented enough to attempt the kind of fiction that Russell has made her stock in trade. Let the skeptics of literary fiction remain doubtful if they insist. Vampires in the Lemon Grove is flawless and magnificent, and there's absolutely no living author quite like Karen Russell.