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Thursday, April 11, 2013

Vampires in the Lemon Grove: A Menagerie of WTFery

Karen Russell seems to inspire quite her fair share of WTFery. Much of this started when her novel Swamplandia! — about which readers, me included, had very different opinions — was nominated for a Pulitzer. And the WTFery continues with her latest collection of short stories titled Vampires in the Lemon Grove. When she's good, man, is she good. But when she's off, she's almost maddening.

Indeed, for exactly half of the eight stories in this collection, I put down my Nook upon finishing, looked at the wall, and went "WTF?!" Russell's common strategy in this collection is to use really creative (even the stories I didn't like, I'll admit are immensely original) plot/characters to explore more "mundane" aspects of humanness — like memory, regret, overcoming notions of normal, and just being nice (or not) to your fellow humans (or human-like creatures). Here are some examples of Russellalia: The title story includes, well, vampires, who hang out in a lemon grove in Italy. Another story, "Dougbert Shackleton's Rules for Antarctic Tailgating," is a strange, kind of dull, satire about rooting for lost causes. It's kind of a jab at obsessive sports fans, too. "The Barn At The End of Our Term" is about a bunch of ex-presidents — Rutherford B. Hayes is the narrator — who are reincarnated as horses. And "Proving Up" is about preteen who has to ride his horse through a snowstorm to show an Inspector a window (yes, literally a window — because if your family has a window, it means they're anchored to the land?) to prove his family's claim on their prairie property under the Homestead Act. All weird, right?

But, as I said, when Russell is on, her stories worm their ways into you skull and don't leave. My favorite two stories in the collection are "Reeling for the Empire" and "The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach 1979." The former — about indentured servants in 19th century Japan who drink a soup and become silk worms — is about breaking conventions and being yourself. The former, about a nerdy poetry-writing kid, is, well, really about the same thing. These are the two stories from this collection I'll most remember.

The longest story in the collection "The New Veterans" is about a massage therapist who works with an Iraq war veteran who lost a buddy to an explosion. Could he have prevented it? Did it actually even happen? And why does the therapist suddenly have the same PTSD symptoms he did?

Finally, the last story, "The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis," is good, not great — but it's haunting; a fitting story on which to end the collection. It's about cruelty — about a group of four bullies who terrorize a new kid at school, who suddenly disappears. Did they cause him to disappear? And what's the deal with the mysterious scarecrow that appears in the park that looks like the kid?

My recommendation for these stories, if they sound remotely interesting, is to definitely give them a try. As Kit says in this terrific Book Riot post about this collection, there are wildly varying opinions about each of these stories, so you never know which may resonate with you. (Kit gave "The Seagull Army" a C, but I'd give it an A. She gave "Proving Up" an A+++, but I'd give it a C- with added exclamation of WTF?!)

11 comments:

  1. Well, I haven't read anything lately that involved WTFery and it probably is time to shake things up. I'll have to check this one out.

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  2. Thanks for the review! I usually love WTFery and was thinking this looked like an interesting read. Bring it on.

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    1. I usually love WTFery too - and sometimes I did here, too. But sometimes, I don't think I spent enough time carefully considering what Russell was trying to do to escape a pure exasperated WTF moment. You know?

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  3. WTFery can be the best ;) I loved Swamplandia and I'm sure I'll get around to this collection sooner or later

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    1. Go for it! I did not love Swamplandia, however. :)

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  4. Absolutely adore Karen Russell! She scratches that magical realist, surrealism itch I often get. I guess you're calling that the WTF effect. ;) Love the phrasing. And she does it so uniquely. I recently reviewed this book on my blog too and I love getting to read other opinions. I agree that Swamplandi! was not my favorite but her first collection of short stories was just as good as this one.

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  5. I love the term "WTFery." I tried to read "Swamplandia" and was underwhelmed. I love some good WTFery myself, but sometimes authors think it can replace straight up good writing.

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  6. I've been on the fence about this one after all the mixed reviews (and the mixed reviews of Swamplandia). I love the term (and idea) of "WTFery", though, so maybe it's worth giving it a go after all. You know, because my to-be-read pile was looking dangerously short of late...

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  7. This book is a collection of short stories. Not what i wanted or expected. Stopped reading after half-way through chapter 3.

    Irene (Barney's Ranch)

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