Tag: karen russell

Karen Russell, “The Bad Graft” (2014)

joshua trees karen russell bad graft

(Dan Eckert)

Karen Russell can so convince you that the soul of a Joshua tree can jump into a human being, body-snatcher-like, and become a thinking, acting part of her that she can have you on the verge of Googling the possibilities. Angie is “three years sober and still struggling to find her mooring on dry land.” Andy is a “reader” with the words ever unfixed, from Melville, tattooed on his arm. They’ve eloped but aren’t married. “They’re in the Mojave desert. The Mojave “was a good place to launch into exile together.” Near Warren Peak, where the Joshua trees are, “the bad graft occurs.” The tree invades Angie. “For the rest of her life, she will be driven to return to the park, searching for the origin of the feeling that chooses this day to invade her and make its home under her skin,” a “ghostly leap” from the “pulsating” joshua. “The change is metaphysical: the tree’s spirit is absorbed into the migrating consciousness, where it lives on, intertwined with its host.” Kind of like this:

It’s neo-magical realism, a style The New Yorker seems to be fond of (Lennon’s “Loop” is too similar), that Russell excels at, but that has the same sort of limitations, the same convenience, as faith-based narratives: once you cross that threshold anything goes after all. It’s too facile. It depends a great deal on the writer’s imaginative capabilities. Russell’s are endless. You read Russell for those leaps, the luminousness of her prose, the tendrils of insights it allows: “This insoluble spirit, this refugee from the Joshua tree, understands itself to have leapt into Hell. The wrong place, the wrong vessel. It pulses outward in a fuzzy frenzy of investigation, flares greener, sends out feelers. Compared with the warm and expansive desert soil, the human body is a cul-de-sac.”

A lot of threads are left dangling: the girl’s previous addiction, the boy’s poorly realized character, their ability to live month after month in that desert no land. The end is purposefully ambiguous. We never know whether she actually emerges from the last encounter with the trees, though that earlier line suggests the unspoken future: “For the rest of her life, she will be driven to return to the park…”

Karen Russell, “The Prospectors” (2015)

orange world karen russell

There’s a delicious élan vital in Karen Russell’s style that rarely lets you down, along with an awareness that whatever you’re about to read will be original and limpid: “At the sound of my real name, I felt electrified–hadn’t I introduced myself by a pseudonym? Clara and I had a telephone book of false names. It was how we dressed for parties. We chose alter egos for each other, like jewelry.” This from the character called Aubergine, a name given her by her father who thought he was calling her something a lot more elevated. Aubergine and Clara’s ages are never given, but they’re young women in Depression Florida who leave the state after Clara keeps showing up blue from bruises. We never find out what those bruises were about (a weakness in the story, I think, a loose thread: was it that in consequential aside from being a device to propel the characters to Oregon?), only that Aubergine makes a deal with Clara: she;d never ask, but Clara would have to agree to leave the state with her and be the happily promiscuous Thelma and Louise types they like to be: “On our prospecting expeditions, whatever doors we closed stayed shut.” Invited by a suave-seeming, French-seeming aristocrat, they end up taking a ski lift to a mountain top resort, what they believed to be a mountaintop resort atop Mount Joy in Oregon, built by WPA workers. They end up at the wrong resort, one demolished in a construction accident that killed 26 workers. But the workers are there, alive and not alive, when the girls show up. That sixth sense set-up is the story, taking after the Isaac Singer notion that the dead are never really dead. If Hitler can appear at a Broadway cafeteria with his homies, why shouldn’t the dead of Company 609 of the Oregon Civilian Conservation Corps haunt the construction site that’s their tomb? It allows for imaginative explorations of the tongue, metaphorical and not so much: “Lee may not have known that he was dead, but my body did; it seemed to be having some kind of stupefied reaction to the kiss. I felt myself sinking fast, sinking far below thought. The two boys swept us toward the stairs with a courtly synchronicity, their uniformed bodies tugging us into the shadows, where our hair and our skin and our purple and emerald party dresses turned suddenly blue, like two candles blown out.” The illusion becomes a sinister vise when the dead start taking pictures. The girls decide that if they were caught by the lens, they’d be dead too. The try to escape. The structure begins to crumble. There’s a bit of Lucas-Spielbergian theatricality a-la-Indiana Jones here as they rush out to the ski lift, but they make it out. In the end I’m not so sure the story leaves us with more than a very delightful pot-au-Poe trip to a mountaintop snowy with crystalline prose. But not every story needs to be The Metamorphosis.

The New Yorker, June 1, 2015, “Orange World,” 2019