I felt an uncomfortable sense of guilt as I finished the final page of Karen Russell’s new collection of short stories, “Vampires in the Lemon Grove.” Russell’s accolades are so impressive that they’re frankly intimidating; she’s been on seemingly every “Best Writers” list, she nearly won the Pulitzer Prize and she was a Guggenheim Fellow in 2011, so I had high expectations when I began reading. But amidst the critical praise being heaped onto her latest book release, I have to say: it was good. But it could have been better.
“Vampires in the Lemon Grove” covers 256 pages of magical realism. It begins with the title story, which follows an immortal married couple that sucks the juice from lemons in order to satiate their thirst for blood. Our main character Clyde was once a fiery vampire until he settled into domesticity with his wife Magreb. Clyde’s musings about mortal love, commitment and addiction introduce us to Russell’s exceptional prose, which definitely deserves its praise. Quite a few lines stood out to me, like, “They flow from cliffs that glow like pale chalk, expelled from caves in the seeming billions.” Russell is uniquely able to plant the perfect emotive image in the minds of her audience, and the story’s slightly detached narrative adds volumes to Clyde’s meditations on marriage.
Then we reach the story’s end, which feels unfinished and wrong because it doesn’t feel like an ending at all. This is one of the biggest flaws in “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” both as a standalone story and as a larger collection. Russell is clearly in control of her writing, and her descriptions (“where the sea rippled like melted aluminum” is still at the top of my mind) are fantastic, but I felt as though her poeticism overshadowed two of the most important parts of storytelling: plot and character.
With a few exceptions, Russell’s characters don’t feel like people––they feel like guides holding our hands, taking us along an ornate path toward an unclear destination. Her longer pieces suffer from the excessive use of figurative language and not enough attention to describing what the story is really about.
For this reason, her shorter stories felt like some of the collection’s strongest pieces, particularly “The Barn at the End of Our Term,” which is as hilarious as it is unexpected. On a fenced-in farm, eleven United States presidents have been reincarnated as horses. We follow Rutherford B. Hayes, a “skewbald pinto with a golden cowlick and a cross-eyed stare,” as he attempts to make sense of his rebirth alongside Eisenhower and James Garfield. Notably, this story also ends on an unfinished note, but since it’s approached as a triumph, that open-endedness works.
One of the overarching elements of the collection is its starkly varied subject matter. The stories range from a sci-fi depiction of girls slowly transforming into silkworms to a massage therapist who discovers she can help cure a war veteran’s PTSD by working on his back tattoo. Even though the stories don’t exactly bleed into each other, each one functions with enough realism that its surprising subject matter is believable at face value.
With that said, there were lot of unexpected elements of Russell’s stories, like “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating,” which is set sometime in the near future and details the rules for tailgating the Food Chain Games. This is exactly what it sounds like; spectators pick their food chain teams, and our narrator is a staunch supporter of Team Krill, even though it has lost against Team Whale for eons.
Honestly, that kind of humor was what kept me entertained enough to stick through reading stories like “Proving Up,” which was so heavily ornate and lacking in character development that I felt like I was reading an extended allegory for a concept beyond my understanding. It wasn’t a fun feeling, but I kept turning pages because I got the sense that Russell is an incredible writer capable of capturing my attention and holding it tightly––but she missed the mark by weighing down her stories with lines like, “My own eyes feel like ice cubes.” What does that even mean? I want to know.
“The Graceless Doll of Eric Mutis” finishes the collection, and rightly so. The story is an impressive interpretation of high school bullying that plays with mystery and role reversal. It follows a group of boys who find a scarecrow that resembles the boy they used to torment, and the events that follow––rabbit kidnappings, scarecrow dismemberment and dwindling reality––impart a fantastic sense of surrealism by the story’s end. Plus, it showcases the blessed plot and character development that was sorely lacking from the rest of the collection’s longer pieces.
Overall, “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” is a mixed bag. Its stronger pieces are worth reading, but the collection suffers in its reliance on lyrical language to tell the story. It’s good, for sure. But it’s not Pulitzer material.
Rating: 3.5 stars