book review: Vampires in the Lemon Grove

I haven’t posted my last two book reviews. In the case of Rabbit, Run, I was skittish about offering any thoughts on a classic that has already been analyzed to death by scholars smarter than me. In the case of Homeland, I wasn’t eager to express equivocal feelings about the work of an author who is professionally relevant to me. But those links work if you’re curious. Back to new stuff:

I wish I had liked this more. I love Swamplandia — Russell’s gift for language is undeniable, and when given breathing room, her characterizations amaze. The time Ava spends with the Bird Man remains among the most perfectly balanced and perfectly frightening pieces of text that I can recall.

I haven’t read her first short story collection, but I understand it to have been well-received. That leaves me puzzled by this one: it really seemed like Russell is still figuring out the form.

If you measure a story’s value by how much time the reader spends thinking about it, the first and titular story is the best. But it’s kind of a lousy piece of fiction, completely crushed by the allegory Russell wants to construct about monogamy and the inescapability of dissatisfaction. You find your Magreb, and you find some solace, and maybe it’s still not enough. That thought will stick with a guy, I admit. But Russell abandons her charms to achieve this end.

Reeling for the Empire is a fairly pat sci-fi short story, slightly sad but boring in its construction.

The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach is the collection’s fullest exercise in characterization, and it’s lovely in its own way. The relationships were a little too reminiscent of Junot Diaz for me to feel like Russell owned her own story, though, and the supernatural component felt vestigial.

Proving Up is scary but, again, recalled similar work done in a superior manner (McCarthy, in this case). It also suffered from plot holes and a horror movie coda that frightens but also injects regrettable narrative certainty.

The Barn at the End of Our Term and Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for for Antarctic Tailgating offer the most amusement. Russell is extremely funny, but this is the only span where she indulges that talent. The latter story is really just a bag of jokes, an extended funny riff from a boozy evening translated to a writer’s circle. But The Barn is very fine work, I think.

The New Veterans is a mess.

And then, finally, there is The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis. It’s about guilt: how one sinks into it like a pit of mud — with, sure, the occasional impotent struggle — but also with an outcome that’s been known and inescapable for years. Russell does this one right, but I’m not sure she can offer anything new to those who understand how this works.

So: not bad, but not great. I will reread and recommend The Barn at the End of Our Term next President’s Day. And I’ll wait and hope that the next thing Karen Russell writes once again outpaces my emotional imagination.

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