Monday, March 24, 2014

Mondays on the Margins: Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

I raved about Vampires in the Lemon Grove in my year-end book round-up, but I haven't done a review that I felt really gave it justice. THEN I read St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves in January, mostly on my ipad while walking on the treadmill, and it was JUST AS MIND-BLOWINGLY GOOD (well actually St. Lucy's came first, so I guess I should say that Vampires in the Lemon Grove is just as good, retroactively, or something).  And I've been meaning to write this review for weeks, but I was sick, and then I was other sick, and then I was sad, and then it got to be this big huge insurmountable endlessly-deferred task, even though I'm not getting marked on it OR paid for it, and now I'm wondering if I should just chuck the whole thing.

*goes and eats oatmeal cookie*

Okay, fine, I'll give it a shot, and I'll try not to just use gushy superlatives. I felt pierced by these stories - each one was like dreaming a beautiful, strange, frightening dream that sent me back to the waking world with some new insight about, or love for, the rest of humanity. The characters are wonderfully queer and outlandish, and yet achingly familiar in their flawed floundering for love, or understanding, or attention of any sort. The titular (hee) vampire is an old man who has lost the trick of flight and fears that he is losing his wife, who has retreated to the caves high above the lemon grove. The description of lemon soothing his aching fangs is visceral. Reading this story always makes me want lemonade.

In Proving Up, a bizarre law in the Homestead Act requires that dwellings have a window in order for the family to be given title to the land - this despite the fact that "our house is a dugout in a grassy hill". The families share a window from homestead to homestead at Inspection time, so one family's young son is tasked with carrying the window, like the most precious of jewels, to another family. The pitiless ravages of nature, the mysterious figure of the "Inspector", the "crystal risk of riding at a gallop" turn the story into a sort of nightmare road trip. And it becomes this sort of multi-faceted origami structure of 'she's taken senseless bureaucratic rules and treated them as sacred. Which makes them seem even more ludicrous. No wait, does it? People are actually DYING here..." So I felt like I'd discovered something vitally important, but I wasn't sure exactly what.


Photo from Flickr. By Travis.
I think maybe my favourite story, if not the title one, is Dougbert Shackleton's Rules for Antarctic Tailgating. It's one of those stories that walks a fine line - a little to one side, it would be farcical, a little to the other, it would be lugubrious. It seemed note-perfect to me. From "Perhaps it is odd to have rules for tailgating when the Food Chain Games themselves are a lawless bloodbath" to "So: how to get ready for the big game? Say farewell to your loved ones. Notarize your will. Transfer what money you’ve got into a trust for the kids. You’ll probably want to put on some weight for the ride down to the ice caves; a beer gut has made the difference between life and death at the blue bottom of the world.” It's humorous, and yet there is an undercurrent that is deadly earnest. And then, one almost throwaway line - Rule Five-A: If your wife leaves you for a millionaire motel-chain-owning douchebag fan of Team Whale, make sure you get your beloved mock-bioluminescent Team Krill eyestalks out of the trunk of her Civic before she takes off" -  puts a whole new melancholy, bereft spin on things. 

And now I'm exhausted and if I try to keep at this I'm going to end up demolishing that bag of snack mix (I probably shouldn't write at the kitchen table), so I'll do St. Lucy's tomorrow. 

5 comments:

Lynn said...

OMG, I READ THIS BOOK. It's quite major for me to be discovering I have read something, in the recent past, that other people are actually reading too! I AM RELEVANT.

That said...I did not love it. I really, really WANTED to love it. This is exactly my kind of author and my kind of writing. And I agree, the Antarctic story was divine.

But I think I have some sort of personal failing when it comes to short stories. I just always feel like I'm left wanting more. Like there was some deep and mysterious point I was supposed to get, but did not. I always feel left at loose ends, like there was no conclusion and then I wonder if I missed something, and then I feel dumb.

I especially did not like the last story, the one with the scarecrow. It was just so, so horrifying to me, the way they treated that boy and then were only punished in the vaguest of ways, and even then, only the one boy seemed to care. I just can't enjoy tales of callousness like that.

I am going to give Swamplandia a try (next year, when I get around to reading my Book Of The Year) because I am sure I will like that much better. In the meantime, I think short story collections are just not for me.

Sasha said...

1) Cookies make everything better
2) Lindt 70% chocolate also makes everything better
3) Lindt Intense Mint makes things even better, but must be used in moderation.
4) I will write more later.

Sasha said...

"I felt like I'd discovered something vitally important, but I wasn't sure exactly what." Yes. YES. This is how I felt about one of the HellGoing stories. Or maybe like I was on the verge of discovering... but I need to go back and read again and figure it out. I'll also have to go read again to figure out which story it was. (In other news, I have started taking notes while I read books).

And I totally identify with what Lynn wrote about short stories. (OMG, does that mean I'm relevant too???? No, wait, I haven't read Lemon Grove. Damn). I have the same experience with poetry - like I'm missing something - and then end up feeling either inadequate or resentful. Or convinced that the author is being purposefully obtuse and laughing as people pretend to understand it.

Sasha said...

PS. Finally went and looked up lugubrious. One of those words I'd developed an internal definition of from context, but never actually looked it up.

Kim said...

So, I actually stayed in bed this morning to finish reading this because I was sucked in, and I did really enjoy it. We had that discussion on Twitter about what we wanted/expected out of short stories and I was thinking about how they are often about showing what the writer is capable of instead of giving the reader a resolved, completed feeling when you finish reading them the way a novel should (but sometimes doesn't because postmodernism). So, for this reason, I liked the scarecrow story a lot, and "Proving Up" as well, because those were truly chilling--and since I started reading Clive Barker in seventh grade, it takes a lot to chill me.

What you said about being pierced by the stories, and then returning to the waking world... this is the way it felt for me, too. And so for me the book did what I wanted it to, so I have queued up St. Lucy's next and this is all your doing. YAY YOU!