A Guide to the Fascinating Fiction of Karen Russell

Karen Russell isn’t exactly an unsung author.

Quite the opposite, actually. Though a teller of deeply weird tales, Russell was almost instantly embraced by the literary mainstream. Arriving on the short story scene in the mid-aughts, she quickly scored publications in The New Yorker, Zoetrope: All Story, and various other esteemed markets. Books followed, along with bestseller status and numerous accolades, including a Pulitzer Prize nomination for her debut novel. In short, she’s an acclaimed, popular writer.

But this I submit: she’s not as popular as she should be. Karen Russell is a writer with a big readership who deserves a huge one. Her imagination is that versatile, that soaring, that vast.

Whatever you value in fiction, Russell is doing it. Her work encompasses fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Her protagonists, all richly drawn, include females and males of varying ages and ethnicities. Do you like sentence craft? Russell’s sentences are sharp, jolting, dazzling. Do you like humor? It’s here, big time. Do you like surprises? Russell’s work is crammed to bursting with sudden tangents and screeching left turns. “Bursting,” in fact, is a good way to describe her work as a whole. It bursts, it spills, it overflows. Her stories are like those songs you can’t stop listening to, the ones that are at once both melodic and jarring, that are structured and propulsive but also filled with stealthy, non-repeating elements that always catch you happily off guard.

Consider, for instance, her sci-fi novella Sleep Donation. Originally published in 2014 as an e-book, newly available this fall as a paperback, the book is about a national insomnia epidemic, narrated by a young woman who lost her sister to the sickness. At moments it reads like a panoramic dystopia, at others a grief-soaked personal diary. It’s like 1984 crossed with The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. It’s filled with science, illustrations, breaking news. There’s even an appendix.

Russell’s bursting, multi-faceted storytelling often powers stark themes. One recurring thread is a distrust of authority, often depicted as male forces co-opting female agency. Separate but related is a theme of home and place as life-shaping, in ways both positive and detrimental. And her places! By now it’s a cliché to say about a story, “Place is like a character.” Russell redeems that cliché with a vengeance. I mean, I don’t even like place-themed fiction. But Russell’s places, sometimes magical, sometimes just magical-seeming, are legit power sources, fueling the drama, the conflict, the action. They’re also intensely, profoundly textured. You’re immersed in sight and sound; you’re there. And these swampy terrains, snowy landscapes, are rich with wonder, sorrow, joy.

But before you go thinking that Karen Russell isn’t dark or dangerous enough for you, I’ll mention that she’s written what might be the single best horror short story of the century.

First, though, let’s discuss her longer works.

 

The Novel

Swamplandia! is Russell’s only novel to date and the work which earned her the Pulitzer nomination. The story, set in the Florida Everglades, a key setting in her early work, centers on the Bigtree family and their floundering alligator-wrestling theme park. After Mom dies and Dad goes AWOL, the three Bigtree siblings scatter in different directions. The novel is often summarized as the story of thirteen-year-old Ava, who leaves her beloved gators, here called “Seths,” to travel by boat with the mysterious Bird Man on a quest to a magical underworld to find her missing sister Ossie. But Ava’s story, told in first person, is regularly alternated with third-person accounts of her older brother Kiwi’s adventures in The World of Darkness, a competing theme park.

It’s a weird, funny, heartbreaking novel. Russell’s characteristic bursting is on full display. There are letters, theories, excerpts from an occult book, factoids about alligators. “While a Seth can close its jaws with 2,125 pounds per square inch of force, the force of a guillotine,” Ava tells us, “the musculature that opens those same jaws is extremely weak.” Most awesomely, there’s a dread-filled tangent about buzzards viciously attacking workers on a dredging barge. But for all the details and side tracks, Russell never loses sight of the main storylines; Ava and Kiwi remain paramount. As lively and endearing as Ava’s voice is, the inclusion of Kiwi’s storyline proves to be an essential rounding-out of the story. His adventures, though not without peril, are rowdier and less worrisome than Ava’s. The book would be immeasurably sadder without them.

It’s still pretty sad. In a cruel mirroring, Kiwi is sexually initiated in the course of his adventures, while Ava is sexually violated in hers. Russell’s work, even at its most fantastic, usually has a real-world component, but in this case the real world eventually becomes the whole show. Some world. The Bigtree island home, as rife with wonders as it is (at least to Ava’s young eyes), is finally more of a prison than a playground. The world of the novel, though magic on its fringes, is just as harsh and unfair as our own. The novel itself, however, is as terrific as anyone could hope for. It’s Russell’s fullest articulation so far of abusive authority and bittersweet home.

 

The Novella

Sleep Donation is about the hell of not sleeping. Set in an America where sleep deprivation has become a deathly epidemic, the novella follows a crew of Slumber Corps workers who recruit healthy sleepers, including an infant universal donor, into donating their sleep to insomniacs. It’s a classic Karen Russell strategy: taking a familiar notion—in this case blood donation—and replacing one of its key elements with something wholly unexpected. The crisis worsens when insomniacs are mistakenly given a batch of nightmare-infected sleep donations; suddenly the prospect of sleeping becomes even scarier than not sleeping. Our narrator heroine is Trish, a donation recruiter whose sister Dori was an early victim of terminal sleep deprivation. The epidemic weighs heavily on Trish, as does her tortured ambivalence over constantly using her sister’s tragic story to win over prospective sleep donors, causing her to relive her grief over and over.

“Sometimes I think the right doctor could open my chest and find her there, my sister, frozen inside me, like a face in a locket,” Trish confesses to us.

There are some seriously freaky sights here. A plane filled with screaming sleepers, a ward of terrified insomniacs. The story takes on added layers during our current pandemic, but it’d be creepy even without those echoes. A lengthy excursion to an insomnia fairground, though vividly rendered, stalls the brisk pace and might be more effective at half the length. Otherwise, Russell is in perfect form here. Her distrust of authority is in full view: the Slumber Corps might be exploiting Trish’s grief for the greater good, but they’re still exploiting it. Don’t miss the appendix! It further builds the world, and contains copious dark artwork from Ale + Ale, who also provide illustrations throughout the book. Virtually all of Russell’s work is cinematic, but Sleep Donation is practically a movie already. Factor in the appendix, which lists dozens of nightmare strains, many of which beg to be fleshed out, and you’ve got a whole limited series.

 

The Story Collections

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, Russell’s stellar debut collection, and her first published book overall, contains ten stories, most of which immediately drop us into a vastly strange setting. “Ava Wrestles the Alligator,” the basis for Swamplandia!, is set at the same island park as the novel.  “ZZ’s Sleep-Away Camp for Disordered Dreamers,” whose title identifies the setting, seems like an early precursor to Sleep Donation’s story of a national insomnia epidemic.

The title story is one for the ages. “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” a stunner of premise, structure, and tone, is about a group of wolf-like girls living in a nun-run reformatory. The story is divided into sections, each opening with an official, straight-faced definition of a  stage of acclimation. Stage 3, for instance, states that “It is common that students who start living in a new and different culture come to a point where they reject the host culture and withdraw into themselves.” This is immediately and hilariously followed by Mirabella, the least adaptive girl, rebelling in wolf-like ways including tussling with a raccoon. When I first read the story, in the Best American Short Stories anthology, I instantly flipped for it, texting each stage to my then-girlfriend. She and I eventually parted ways. The story, however, lives in my heart forever.

***

 

Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Russell’s second collection, is even better than her first. St. Lucy’s Home, as strong as it is, feels at times like a series of orientations; virtually every story is a plunge into an unfamiliar scenario and has a steep learning curve. In the more inviting Vampires, at least a few of the tales start on a relatively ordinary note, such as “The New Veterans,” about a female massage therapist treating a male army veteran, and “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis,” about teen boys killing time in a city park. The book also includes a few outlandish larks, like “The Barn at the End of Our Term,” about deceased US presidents reborn as barn cows, that are so funny that they seem fully substantial. All eight stories are memorable. Several are classic.

“Reeling for the Empire,” a Shirley Jackson Award-winner, is maybe the most classic. This is it, y’all—the scorcher of a horror story I alluded to. It’s about female factory workers in Empire-era Japan who are tricked by a male recruiter into becoming human silk worms. “Ceaselessly, even while we dream, we are generating thread,” Kitsune, our heroine, tells us. “Every droplet of our energy, every moment of our time flows into the silk.” The body horror on display is gruesome and hypnotic. One of several Russell stories set in a far distant time and place, “Reeling” features her typical bursting detail and represents another portrait of female agency controlled by male forces. But in this story, at least, control will be reclaimed in spectacularly sinister fashion.

***

 

Orange World, Russell’s most recent collection, contains eight stories just as her previous one did. Eight might not sound like a lot, but Orange World is an eight-story collection in the way that Led Zeppelin IV is an eight-song album. These stories are friggin’ epic. In “The Prospectors,” the  spooky opener, two female friends stumble into a snowbound lodge party filled with ghostly construction workers. In “Orange World,” the sinister closer, a new mother is regularly visited by a greedy demon. In between, there are stories about a young woman possessed by a desert plant, an old rancher who keeps tornados instead of horses, and a most unusual undertaker.

It’s a toss-up which story is the best, but “Bog Girl: A Romance” is definitely the funniest. When teenage Cillian falls in love with a 2,000-year-old girl, well-preserved if not actually sentient or mobile, his family freaks. The situation keeps escalating, hilariously. Cillian eventually brings the Bog Girl to his high school, where the popular girls instantly glom onto her: “How had Cill not foreseen this turn of events? The Bog Girl was diminutive, wounded, mysterious, a redhead. Best of all, she could never contradict any rumor the living girls distributed about her.” The story’s tone is layered and evolving. At times, there’s a sense that Cillian loves the Bog Girl because she’s essentially a pliant plaything, which tracks with Russell’s theme of male control. Then again, the teen treats her with respect and devotion, so who can say? Maybe this is true selfless love, an affection that just gives and gives and never expects anything in return.

***

 

Just so it’s clear: of the many, many things Karen Russell’s fiction is, the very first thing is fun. To read her work is to experience all the things you originally got into reading for: scares, laughs, lovable characters. She’s like all your favorite childhood YA authors rolled into one, but with the skill of the writing, the vividness, the philosophical insight, amped up to the heavens and beyond.

But which writers is she specifically like?

Stephen King frequently comes up as a comparison, but it’s apt mostly insofar as they’re both genre writers with a vast and diverse talent. For one thing, as vivid and masterful a writer as he is, King isn’t really a sentence virtuoso; in contrast, Russell’s sentences are often so acrobatic and metaphor-rich that her stories would feel magical even if the plots were straight realism.

George Saunders, another frequent comparison, shares Russell’s affinity for humor and strange communities, and in fact “Bog Girl” is reminiscent of his story “Sea Oak,” about a family coping with a newly zombified aunt. But Saunders tends to be emotionally detached, whereas Russell’s stories, no matter how dark or bizarre or comic, often have a warm, breaking heart at the center.

For my money, Kelly Link is probably the closest comparison. Like Russell, Link is preoccupied with animals, teenagers, and far-flung history. There are a few Link stories that could almost be mistaken for Russell stories. Almost. One telltale difference is that Link’s stories often have some strange unknowable element at their core. In a Kelly Link story, we’re not always sure who’s telling the tale, or if it’s true, or where in time or space it takes place. Russell, in contrast, loves context. In this regard, David Foster Wallace, lord of the maximalists, feels like a useful comparison. His work is bursting, too, big time, and is similarly invested with razor-sharp sentence craft. Wallace’s aesthetic, however, has different aims and effects than Russell’s. He was a chaos agent, out to challenge or even break the storytelling form itself, whereas Russell is a mischief-maker, embracing the form but innovating within it and filling it to the very limit.

Swamplandia!, incidentally, competed for the Pulitzer with Wallace’s posthumous novel The Pale King, in a year when for dumb and tangled reasons no final winner was actually named. No matter. Swamplandia! will be read and remembered forever. It’d make a great staple in high school lit classes, featuring as it does the adventures, now rollicking, now sorrowful, of highly relatable teen sibling protagonists. Students would get their minds blown, their hearts trampled. Though maybe Ava’s sexual violation is too tricky for that level? If so, a college staple, then.

In any case, and as you’ve probably guessed, I’m all in for anything Karen Russell does next, but I’m especially all in if she goes even further in a horror direction. She’s on record as being a huge fan of Pet Semetary, Stephen King’s legendary tale of parental love gone horrendously amiss. It’s a novel that, even decades later, still has a gloriously contraband wrongness to it. In the Swamplandia! buzzard attack sequence, as well as in “Reeling for the Empire” and parts of Sleep Donation, Russell has shown that she’s fully capable of channeling this kind of thing. But I’d love to see her do it at novel-length—to write a book too sinister and taboo-smashing to be taught in high school or college. It’s the sort of horror novel that we hardly ever get, at least not in the fully imagined, character-rich version that Karen Russell would almost certainly deliver.

That said, it’s been a brilliant career already. Her body of work is at once highly varied and all of a piece, as is the case with most great writers. Even if she quits tomorrow, Russell will leave a legacy that, like wild flora in sun-drenched swamps, will grow and glow forever.

Mark Benedict is a graduate of the MFA Writing program at Sarah Lawrence College. When not reading Karen Russell, he’s rewatching Close Encounters or Rosemary’s Baby.

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