Orange World by Karen Russell
For a long time, it felt like there was no place for magic in contemporary literature. Ghosts, spirits, and devils were a thing for comics and chunky TOR paperbacks; highbrow fiction didn’t deal with the speculative, and the ones that did hid behind the mantle of “magical realism.” Naturally, this division of genres summoned a legion of challengers, hell-bent on proving that these two worlds could co-exist. (Marlon James and Kazuo Ishiguro’s most recent novels come to mind, which relentlessly attempt to present the merits of fantasy to their respective bookish audiences.) Genre-bending is too often noticeably aggressive, as if an author thinks they will be the one to finally herald the relevance of an overlooked, under-appreciated literary species.
Karen Russell, author of the 2011 Pulitzer-finalist Swamplandia! and a veteran of that space between speculative and literary fiction, is not here to fight. Her wonderfully strange stories quietly embrace themes from so many seemingly-partisan genres that they assemble with a subtle but startlingly profound resonance. These works have monsters and spirits, but their presence doesn’t overshadow her fiction’s greater themes. In the eight stories of Orange World, Russell proves that there was never any need to fight for the fantastic, for it has always been an integral part of writing. She instead frames these flights of imagination as traits inherent to storytelling and the history of fiction. Her most mature collection to date, Orange World reads like a fresh take on arcane magic, a welcome revival of dormant divinities. “…the notes you are failing to hit make their own shadow melody,” Russell writes in one story. “You unlid the spaces ordinarily hidden by your body: a new song comes fluting through them.”
The brilliant “Black Corfu” is set in 1620 on the Croatian island of Korčula, where a zombie epidemic keeps a doctor busy with the dead. Anticipating the departed’s inevitable return, the doctor performs a post-mortem surgery on the hamstrings of any local who has passed away, essentially crippling them before their interment. When the story opens, the doctor is plagued with a rumor that he didn’t take these preventative measures with one particular patient and fears that the local gossip may influence his family’s well-being. Miraculously, Russell’s story transforms into a devastating, timely piece about how truth and suspicions can ruin a person and a community. It’s dizzying to compare this doctor’s conduct with any contemporary testimony of our modern age, and see how an unfounded counterpoint can disrupt even the most oathful claims. And somehow, the transcendent “Black Corfu” is no longer a “zombie” story but one about families, fake news, intellectual conviction, and so much more.
The Depression-era story “The Prospectors” follows a pair of young women on their way to a party at a ski lodge, recently erected in WPA glory. The story takes a ghostly turn that wouldn’t be out of place in a Scooby-Doo cartoon, yet Russell maintains her historical control in a way that makes “The Prospectors” feel more about vintage storytelling than simply vintage scares. The collection’s title story boasts a similar confidence in the face of the fantastic: “Orange World” features a little demon that preys on new mothers, but is, in all, more about motherhood and its anxieties than it is about folklore and devils.
An environmentalist thread can be traced throughout the collection, most notably in “The Bad Graft,” about a Joshua Tree that synthesizes with the spirit of a wayward, eloped youth, and “The Gondoliers,” which is set in the sunken New Florida of our nearly-flooded future. “The Tornado Auction,” perhaps the finest achievement of Orange World, is an astonishingly imagined tale of rust-belt farmers who raise tornadoes like prize steers. “It’s been a bad season for seasons,” the narrator explains, before recounting signs of “the Change” and lamenting the tricky place small-scale farmers hold in a world of “West Texas cloud-seeding corporations.”
“The Tornado Auction” and “Black Corfu” are perfect Russell stories that flex her uncanny ability to revel in genre and craft stories that are both timeless and somehow urgently contemporary. The strengths of these works render others as somewhat meager in comparison, but Orange World remains Russell’s best collection to date. It is a thrill to read and a much-needed reminder that magic doesn’t need to be returned to literature, and that we simply need to remember how to recognize it.