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Dealing with the Devil: A Story Collection for the Age of Anxiety

Karen Russell’s latest book gets weird and tackles an array of villains.
October 29, 2019
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Gondoliers stand on their gondola as they navigate on a canal (TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images)

The perfect book for October came out early this past summer. While not quite Goosebumps-for-Adults, Karen Russell’s latest collection, Orange World and Other Stories, offers something of a cathartic-fright reading experience for our politically exhausting times. Russell’s oeuvre could be fairly described as magical realism—a genre that is often overlooked by the adult commercial market—but she keeps her stories grounded with just enough restraint that they can’t be considered wholly “fantasy.” Her mode of writing offers an antidote to growing public concern and fear regarding climate change, social isolation, and the way certain figures have been made out to be all-powerful bogeymen.

With Orange World, Russell scratches that thematic itch yet again, producing eight stories dipped in a sheen of Brothers Grimm gory luster. Her allegorical narratives follow the primary directive of fairytales: to show how danger and villains can be overcome. The title story, “Orange World,” is about the lengths a woman will go to protect her unborn baby. In many ways this story is a departure from the others in the book, with its straightforward and simple primary conflict: Would you make a deal with the devil to ensure the safety of your child? Russell offers the most literal execution of such a premise—with a single shape-shifting demi-wendigo (maybe not the devil but at least a devil—“like, one of the little ones”) serving as an avatar for maternal paranoia.

The seven other stories in the collection have many more flourishes and surreal accoutrements, and are set in far-reaching locales: a gold-rush-era, ghost-ridden mansion; Neolithic caves with their own wandering dead; and the dark future of an American Southeast overgrown and underwater. But “Orange World” is set in suburbia. The initial adversaries in the story are of the everyday type new parents contend with: knives and stovetops and faulty cribs. The plot’s escalation depends upon an appeal to the supernatural—although, again, in a relatively tame way compared to the rest of the collection’s myriad antagonists and menacing circumstances. Russell has admitted in interviews that “Orange World” is likely the result of her move from Florida, with its lush imaginative landscape, to Portland, where she now makes a home for her family.

In “Tornado Auction,” Russell gives us a world in which the weather is kept and bred like racehorses or livestock: In a “barn’s howling interior,” says the narrator, “baby southerlies whinnied around, shrieking their inhuman sounds. Violet funnels chased one another beneath the shivering ducts. Crocus-blue mists, soft as exhalations, fogged their incubator walls.” The story teases out the anxieties of fatherhood and care-taking—and the limits of control.

Two other stories, “The Bad Graft” and “Madame Bovary’s Greyhound,” both deal with agency and how souls inhabit their given environments whether that be a body or household. In these stories, animal and ancient spirits alike vie for sole proprietorship or the attention of certain hosts. “The Bad Graft” is by far the more successful of the two exercises, exploring what it would be like for the spirit of a Joshua Tree to jump into the body of a tourist:

Gradually, the plant learns to “think” blue, to “smell” rain through a nose. Unfurling its languorous intelligence, it looks out through her eyes, hunting for meaning the way it used to seek out deep sun, jade dew, hunting now for the means of imagining its own life, comprehending what it has become inside the girl.

“The Gondoliers” visits the alternate—but maybe closer than we think—universe of “New Florida,” where the water is toxic and previous generations failed to build enough coastal defense to protect the land. The story is concerned with boundaries—secrets and their consequences. The anxiety of climate change looms large—“What must have once been solid, unbroken coastline, in our mother’s youth, was now a pointillist landscape of small tree islands.” The story has some similarities to Kurt Vonnegut’s 1985 book Galápagos, with its concern for the way human folly has evolutionary consequences. Russell swaps Vonnegut’s mutation of human sea lions for water-dwelling bat-women gifted with semi-clairvoyant echolocation.

Meanwhile, “Bog Girl” has the impossible self-imposed task of being in conversation with and paying homage to Seamus Heaney’s bog poems about Ireland’s “feminine goddess-ridden ground.” Russell interweaves comedic lightness with the story of a 15-year-old boy falling in love with a 2,000-year-old undead girl he pulls out of a bog.

All of the stories are self-contained successes, buoyant with humor and lines that gleam with observations. The collection is a testament to Russell’s powers as a storyteller. Her ability to show how various forms of spirits can inhabit bodies and deal with their altered realities is ingenious. Her style when taking the utterly absurd and making it seem not only plausible but completely real, inevitable, or simply mundane, is revelatory. Concerned both with conceptual and with ordinary and immediate challenges, Russell deftly moves among worlds and realms of imagination—all anchored on points of primal fear, and all offering triumph over daunting odds.

Russell may not be Angela Carter, as Dwight Garner points out in the New York Times, but she shares in the rich tradition of pulling fairytales into modernity. She presents readers with the opportunity to expand not just their imaginative horizons, but to increase their capacity for tolerance even in times of trials and pain. As G.K. Chesterton put it: “Fairy tales do not give a child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.” And Karen Russell’s scuffles with demons do just that.

Hannah Yoest

Hannah Yoest is an editor and the art director of The Bulwark.