VAMPIRES IN THE LEMON GROVE. By Karen Russell. Knopf. 243 pages. $24.95.
The title story of Karen Russell’s new collection, “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” began, she told a recent interviewer, with a cartoonishly evocative premise: “What if vampires used lemons like methadone, to curb their addiction to blood? What if there was only a temporary fix for a really bottomless hunger?”
Many of the stories in “Vampires” must have been born from similar daffy speculation: What if dead American presidents were reincarnated as horses and shared an afterlife in a Kentucky stable? What if Japanese women signed on to work in a silk factory and found themselves morphing into hybrid silkworm/human producers? To answer her own questions, Russell creates shadow worlds where the comic and consequential mix freely. In these new stories, her obsessions — love, loneliness, monstrosity, fraudulence — take on beautiful, deranged forms.
“Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” the opener, is a profound story of marital discontent and insufficiency. Clyde and Magreb are a couple enduring mid-marriage doldrums. She’s ready for something new. He asks why she can’t be grateful for what they have. Their backstory also has a familiar ring: he was a monster until she humanized him. The twist is that Clyde and Magreb are, not surprisingly, vampires.
When Clyde recalls his own monstrosity, he’s thinking of his years “on the blood.” Magreb has her own alternative life; when she’s ready for a change, she metamorphoses into a bat.
In our first glimpse of her, she’s falling toward Clyde from some cliffs, “headfirst and motionless, dizzying to witness.” They spend the evening hours together, then Clyde watches his wife “fly up into the watery dawn.” He’d like to follow, but he’s lost the knack of flying.
As Russell tells it, all the usual marital dilemmas become freshly exciting, without the urgency of time. Her high concept stories also shine at the sentence level. Clyde describes his marriage this way: “Sometimes I think of us as two holes cleaved together, two twin hungers.” He remembers the first time his fangs sunk into a lemon: “It was bracingly sour, with a delicate hint of ocean salt.” By the last page, Russell has left her jokey premise behind for the tang of reality, as her marital partners shift and relocate, hoping to find new ways to share a life story.
Dissonance and asymmetry also energize the more obviously realistic stories in the collection. “The New Veterans,” one of the best, is set in the present and features a veteran of the Iraq war, Derek Zeiger. He lands on Beverly McFadden’s massage table thanks to an insurance provision granting 10 sessions of deep tissue therapy to each returning vet.
On Derek’s back is “a cape of ink,” a tattoo stretching from his neck to his hipbone. The scene, Beverly learns, is from New Bagdad and commemorates his friend Arlo Mackey’s last day on Earth. At the center is a red star: the fire that incinerated Mackey. With his friend on his back 24/7, Derek lives in an agony of remembrance until Beverly decides to “work the dead boy out of his skin like a thorn.”
She manipulates the tattooed scene, rearranging some of its components and erasing others. Ultimately, she takes on its pain. As Derek sleeps soundly across town, his surrogate sufferer spends her nights flashing back to that day in Iraq.
Beverly and her magic fingers hark back in a weird way to saints and healers, but they also call into question the limits of empathy. Without his memories, is Derek Zeiger himself? Is he a newly made monster?
Russell sets “Proving Up,” another excellent story, in Willa Cather’s Nebraska, by way of Franz Kafka. Miles Zegner, her boy hero, is the only member of his family fit to take on an impossible mission, meeting with a one-eyed “Inspector.” At stake is his family’s title to the 160 acres they have claimed under the Homestead Act.
Pa’s head is “sloshing with poisons”; something is going wrong with brother Peter; and Ma (“Vera”) is a truth-teller that the others call crazy.
Initially a realistic-seeming story about the lonely rigors of braving the frontier, “Proving Up” takes on apocalyptic shading as Miles travels deeper into a wasteland of dreams. Like Kafka, his world is infinitely difficult and garbled by procedures.
Yet its final darkness has a counterpart in earlier hope. One by one, Karen Russell’s stories inspect the balance between hope and dread. No heart is so stingy that it can’t celebrate, as Ma reminds Miles, and no imagination is so innocent that it can’t make a tough conversion to truth.
Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.