Karen Russell’s New Story Collection Is a Wondrous, Wild Imagining
"It lays its triangular head on her collarbone, using its thin-fingered paws to squeeze milk from her left breast into its hairy snout.”
A mother is breastfeeding the devil in the title story of Karen Russell’s dark and magical new book, Orange World. The story closes a collection that begins in the mountains of Oregon, traces paths through western California, Florida, and an island off the coast of northern Europe, and ends in a very contemporary Portland, recognizable in all but the presence of a suckling demon.
“For a long time I felt like my imagination actually was co-opted by a devil,” says the Portland-based author, as she describes life after the birth of her first child in 2017. “My imagination had become virally possessed by fear.” That fear gets its literal personification in a demonic night visitor in a story otherwise built on a realist Stumptown scaffolding, the kind of strangely cogent tilt that characterizes Russell’s work. From 2007’s St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves to the Pulitzer-nominated novel Swamplandia!, Russell has always used a phantasmagorical road map to chart her way through emotional terrain.
“That was the only way I really knew how to be honest,” she says of Orange World’s unexpected protagonist and the other leaps of imagination that ground these stories. “Like, OK, now I can imagine this world and I’ll be the single arbiter of this place. And I can do that more confidently because there’s an enchanted bog person or a little devil running around the gutter.”
Russell, who grew up in the Florida so vividly conveyed in Swamplandia!, is a master of landscapes exterior and interior, with Orange World moving as deftly through a future Florida underwater as through “that topography of the early weeks and months right after childbirth.”
The stories, she says, were born of a real-life anxiety, emerging in the aftermath of Trump’s election (which makes the title weirdly apropos). “I don’t know that it’s always obvious in each of the stories,” she says, “but I feel like I can source a lot in the fears and the hopes that I must have been breathing in and out from 2016 onwards.”
Though her stories draw from her emotional experience, they are not, she makes clear, directly lifted from her life, a point that might seem superfluous considering she writes of a man buying a new storm at a tornado auction, a young boy falling in love with a girl he pulls from a swamp, and a tree that tries to graft itself onto a passing woman. But the 37-year-old MacArthur “genius grant” winner says there are some who have taken her fictional magic literally. “[People] feel like they’ve been hoodwinked!” she laughs. “‘Your aunt isn’t a starfish! She’s a human woman, you liar!’”
For fans of Swamplandia!, Russell has good and bad news. There is another novel in progress, which she’s been working on, she says, “for what feels like all the years of my life.” Yet having put it aside for the past two years, during which time she began a family and settled in Southeast Portland, she’s having trouble relating to the person who began it. “I just read this thing about [Brazilian writer] Clarice Lispector, how she had an assistant, an amanuensis who came and took her 900-page behemoth draft and carved some beautiful icicle of a novella out of it,” she says. “Where is that woman?”
Russell may have absorbed the anxiety of our times, but she hasn’t lost her humor. “Maybe the solution is just to pretend that I inherited some dead woman’s manuscript and now I’m the assistant. Maybe I’ll just be like, ‘Chapter three, what was this lunatic writing about?’”
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