The ending of “The New Veterans” in Karen Russell’s story collection “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” leaves one with a sense of the limits of fantasy — strange for a writer so deeply dedicated to the imaginative. On its face, the story’s plot is fantastic enough: a masseuse treating an Iraq War veteran named Derek Zeiger finds that she’s able to alter his traumatic memories by manipulating the tattoo on his back, moving pictures and erasing parts with her hands.
After a while, it seems she’s erased his memories too, changing Zeiger’s horrific story into one of triumph. But the masseuse ends uncertain: “Most days, she doubts she helped the sergeant at all. She thinks it’s far more likely that she aggravated his condition, or postponed a breakdown.” Only in her “wildest imaginings” can Zeiger’s story be both true and beneficial, and she doesn’t know which version to chose.
The collection’s title story, which is, as advertised, about vampires in a lemon grove, contains a similar moral. A vampire named (in a characteristic gesture for Russell, who treasures such sparks of postmodernist humor) Clive recalls his years “on the blood,” before he learned from his wife — “the first and only other vampire I’d ever met” — that the old stories about them were lies: “I listened to the village gossips and believed every rumor, internalized every report of corrupted bodies and boiled blood . . . I slept in coffins, in black cedar boxes, and woke every night with a fierce headache.” As in “The New Veterans,” the story’s ending both confirms and belies its myths. For the purposes of narrative the vampires must have a nature to struggle against (“We lift the lemons and swing them to our faces. We plunge our fangs, piercing the skin, and emit a long, united hiss: ‘Aaah!’”) if this is to be more than a comic exercise and lead us to its central truth: that love, like vampiric hunger, is defined by its inability to be satisfied. But the ending again casts doubt.
It should come as no surprise to those familiar with Russell’s work to find “Vampires’’ awash in the strange. She has become known, and is widely praised, for her combination of psychological realism and fantasy. People use the word “inventive” liberally in her case — reviews are strewn with adjectives like “vivid,” “antic,” “quirky.” And she does have an almost vampiric — which is to say, occasionally destructive — hunger for unusual imagery.
This can be a problem — hard to picture, as “[w]hite octaves of snow,” impossible to believe, as an “ammonia-blue sky” (ammonia is colorless), or carelessly derivative of itself, as someone cleaning a window “like a watercolorist” while the window is “the size of a hanging painting.” (Would a painting be smaller lying down?) It occurs less frequently than in Russell’s previous work — similes in her novel “Swamplandia!’’ were as invasive as melaleuca trees — but is enough to shake you out of the text when it does.
The stories in “Vampires’’ have a gothic flair, and all deal with one or another kind of monster — a vampire, Japanese girls transformed into silkworms, a teenage boy — but vary wildly in context. “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating” and “The Barn at the End of Our Term” excepted, it’s clear that Russell is aiming for a darker register than she’s played in before. Each story follows a similar arc, building slowly to a climax and quick oblique end. And each story turns around a single supernatural element: the magic tattoo; a Dust Bowl demon; a scarecrow resembling a bullied boy. On paper, Russell’s ideas are indeed compelling; her titles are one-line postmodern novels on their own.
But as Kafka said, “[T]he terror of art is that the dream reveals the reality,” and the value of the fantastic lies in its ability to clearly express something beyond the possibility of expression. Unless it leads toward understanding, style is nothing but a parlor trick, and the roses that fall out of the magician’s sleeve nothing but colored paper all along. Russell’s stories can seem too willing to laugh at their own jokes, and as the doubt in their endings shows, she seems uncertain whether the supernatural in them is intended as a window on understanding or as window dressing. Which is not to say it can’t be both.
At times, it is flash and dazzle (the eponymous, future-predicting birds in “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979”) or a way to telegraph a point little more than surface deep (the scarecrow in “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis”). The exoticism of setting does not so much bump heads against the straightforwardness of plot, as it did at times in “Swamplandia!,’’ but it rarely feels necessary without a doubt.
The exception may be “Reeling for the Empire,” which presents a more complete, draft-proof world where both horror and redemption occur within the fantastic, rather than about and around it. That the girls are monsters is a fait accompli, and the plot proceeds naturally from there. Where there is confusion, and there is, it takes place within this clarity of purpose. Elsewhere, as in the case of Clive and Zeiger, doubt and belief prove themselves equally destructive.
Jenny Hendrix is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. She can be reached at jghendrix @gmail.com.