Karen Russell – Vampires in the Lemon Grove (Book Review)

Vampires in the Lemon Grove cover

Karen Russell – Vampires in the Lemon Grove

I spent most of my youth wishing that the literary world would take science fiction and fantasy seriously. Now that they do, I’m not sure what to make of it. Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove is a short story collection written in a literary style, but with a heavy reliance on fantastical tweaks. They’re occasionally fascinating, both for their investigation of human nature and their unusual ideas, but often unsatisfying.

The strange thing is that the stories don’t make the same mistakes. Some are too focused on their ideas, but the plots and characters don’t go anywhere. The title story, for example, starts with a clever twist on vampire tropes but just turns them into the sort of bland, unsatisfying ciphers that no one but book critics like. Other stories are just the opposite, with compelling people who seem lessened by the unrealistic elements that are shoe-horned in. “Proving Up” is an interesting story of frontier life, with a realistic idea that provides enough hook for a story: Settlers need a glass window to qualify for land under the Homesteader Act, so one boy makes a mad ride across the plains to ensure the one window in the area appears in every house that the inspector will visit. However, it takes a sudden supernatural turn that feels like it cheats everything that came before, by applying a sudden harsh judgment to the characters.

That judgment at the end of “Proving Up” is an example of the problem that plagues “literary” fantasy. Like magical realism before it, this genre is only accepted by the tastemakers when it has clear symbolic meaning. And while that sounds like something I should love, the application  is way too heavy-handed. The symbols in this book are a lot less subtle than I would expect from an award-winning author, but apparently people assume that a lack of realism necessitates a lack of subtlety. Nowhere is this more apparent than “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating”, a humorous story about someone who spends nine months of each year traveling to Antarctica to watch the “sporting event” of whales eating krill. Funny for a few pages, it soon gets weighed down in repeated mentions of all the people around him who die on the trip, or his bitter complaints about the ex-wife who left him for a more balanced man. If “Antarctic Tailgaiting” is meant to make fun of obsessed sports fans, it fails by being less sophisticated than the crowd it looks down on.

Russell could be a great writer if she found the right balance for her stories. “Reeling for the Empire” is a compelling story about factory workers turned into monstrous silkworms as a casualty of Japan’s Twentieth Century industrial awakening. It’s the sort of apt, unsettling metaphor that Paolo Bacigalupi would be proud of, and the regretful characters work well. However, I do wish it had a bit more plot. “The New Veterans”, though, only struggles because it has too much plot: It’s the story of a massage therapist who discovers she can manipulate a veteran’s tattoo to change his war memories and take the burden of his trauma for him. It doesn’t come to a conclusion about whether this is right or not, which is understandable, but it still goes back and forth on that decision too many times.

Vampires in the Lemon Grove is interesting and memorable, but rarely enjoyable. It’s a strange mix of elements that I like, but it doesn’t put them together in a way that I can recommend.

Grade: C

 
Advertisements
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: