Vampires In The Lemon Grove: Stories, by Karen Russell

by Orual

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Oh dear. I think I’m done with Karen Russell. In fact, I am struggling to not give this a blistering one-star rating because, even though it’s not so bad to truly deserve it, I did find it insulting at times. And there was only one story that I could claim to like at all.

Is Russell getting worse with each book she publishes? I fear so. What was weird and wonderful and fresh in St. Lucy’s Home For Girls Raised By Wolves (a book I loved and just recently bought new even though I’ve read it twice already) becomes downright formulaic and irritating in this collection. Russell’s stories are growing predictable, and for a writer like her — who so depends on a sort of unique wonderment — this is a death knell.

There are only eight stories in this collection. Most of them are at least 30 pages. One is 40 pages. One story, “The New Veterans”, is over 50 freakin’ pages long. I wonder how long they were before revisions; I can’t imagine she cut out much. And, in my opinion, they are absolutely the weaker for it. The book doesn’t show any improvement over the over-long, under-plotted Swamplandia! in this regard. Am I alone here? Just because her prose is beautiful doesn’t mean there isn’t usually too much of it.

The title story, which opens the collection, was decent, although I found it sort of removed and bloodless (har har). I liked the second story, “Reeling For The Empire”, though I found the main character unsympathetic. But each following story seemed worse than the last. Two of them — one in which U.S. presidents are reincarnated as horses and another which consists totally of “rules for Antarctic tailgating” and is not a story at all — were just…er, stupid. The longest story, “The New Veterans”, is repetitive and almost offensive in its treatment of Iraqi war veterans (I would be shocked if Russell has ever actually known well such a person). As if that weren’t bad enough, it’s sort of obvious that Russell herself felt the story dragging on and on because it ends so abruptly, with a serious inexplicable plot development that comes out of nowhere.

Finally, the peculiar voice of Karen Russell’s narrators is getting tiresome, as it is always, always the same. I felt it in Swamplandia!, too: it is impossible to immerse myself in her characters because they only ever speak with her vocabulary and quirky similes and turns of phrase. The final story is supposed to be told from the perspective of a 14-year-old boy, but I could barely finish it because it didn’t sound remotely like a male narrator or such a young one.

Anyway, I said at the end of my Swamplandia! review that, even though I didn’t like the book, I would read anything Karen Russell wrote in the future. Sadly, after this, that’s no longer the case. I only hope I am still able to enjoy St Lucy’s.

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