Karen Russell’s latest work, “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” is built from puzzle pieces. Each component—one of eight short stories—is simple, shaped by simple plots, colored in by simple characters. Each tells a separate tale, of age-old vampires, tattoos with the ability to alter the past, women who produce silk like worms. Each suffers a similar flaw: underdeveloped characters and heavy-handed messages. Fit together, however, the simple pieces transform into a complex picture of fate, human agency, overcoming the past, and the power of story. While intriguing as a whole, the flaws marking individual parts ultimately detract from the collection’s merit.
“Vampires in the Lemon Grove” is never uninteresting, not for its plot twists or artistry, but simply for Russell’s creativity in coming up with storylines. The author alternates between magical realism, realistic fiction, and fantasy in her eight stories. The premise of each is original: for example, a vampire couple who feast on lemons, a boy trying to take control of his fate from seagulls, another boy who must carry a window through a snowstorm on the frontier, a barn that holds ex-presidents in horses’ bodies, and a man explaining rules for tailgating in the Antarctic. While promising, the stories mostly fail to deliver and instead remain underdeveloped and offer little more than the originality of their plots.
Exemplary of this trend is the collection’s seventh story, “The New Veteran.” The protagonist is a massage therapist named Bev who has been assigned to treat a veteran suffering from PTSD and back pain after his friend was killed in Iraq. As she treats him, his tattoo becomes animate, a moving manifestation of his pain. The more she massages it, the better he feels, but she begins to realize the cost: her own sanity. While the premise is fascinating, the delivery is lackluster. In key moments of tension, the protagonist and soldier’s responses are unexpected or even inexplicable because Russell doesn’t devote time to develop or explore the characters’ emotions except in small revelatory moments. For example, when Bev treats the soldier for the first time, he begins to tell her the story of his tattoo, playfully shifting his hips to make it move. When she starts massaging him, however, he instantly turns sour, snapping at her without reason when she asks whether the massage is helping. Moments like this never build and are never explained, and so the characters remain unsympathetic and unrealistic, nothing more than vessels for the story.
The collection is as flawed in language as it is in character development. Russell does occasionally succeed in being poetic; in the first story, “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” she writes, “Only one or two lemons tumble from the branches each hour, but I’ve been sitting here so long their falls seem contiguous, close as raindrops.” Just as often, however, her attempts at poetry leave the language overwrought and ineffective, landing in phrases like “We bump our fangs and feel like we’re coming up against the same hard truth.” When the language is neither poetic nor overworked, it remains uninteresting, offering no more than the ideas it conveys.
While the individual stories suffer, Russell does well in treating the collection as a whole. Each story is connected to the rest, often referencing its predecessors in some way—for example, Bev’s friend tells her to stop acting like a whale, a remark recalling another story that concerns a fight between krill and whales. While the messages are simple when taken alone—how we cannot overcome fate, how stories can be extremely dangerous—when combined in this way, they contradict and build upon one another. Eventually, then, what Russell presents is a complex treatment of these themes that is far more interesting than what she could accomplish in any one story.
In the second story, “Reeling for the Empire,” Russell makes her most successful foray into magical realism: an agent recruits young women to work in a factory, serves them tea that turns them partially into silkworms, and leaves them with the ability to create silk from within. Toward the end of the story, the protagonist realizes that if she focuses within, she can create silk that can be used to make a cocoon that perhaps can help her free herself from her misery. Were Russell to follow her own advice and focus more on the internal workings of her stories, perhaps her collection would have surpassed its basic success and become something truly beautiful.
—Staff writer Keerthi Reddy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.