In Reeling for The Emperor, one of the eight short stories in Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove, a group of young women are gathered “tall and thin, noblewomen from Yamaguchi, graceful as calligraphy; shirt and poor, Hida girls with bloody feet, crow-voiced and vulgar”. All have been “sold” to the Nowhere Mill, payment for their five years servitude saving their families from destitution. After only a few days the drink the Recruitment Agent, a representative from the new Ministry for the Promotion of Industry, gives them begins to take effect. They begin to evolve until each looks like the other covered with the “polar fur” that blanks them into sisters hungry for their daily ration of Mulberry leaves and, in return, spinning out the most exquisite silk. They appear resigned to their fate. But appearances are deceptive.
For the horses in The Barn at the End of Our Term life is not what they are used to. “There are twenty-two stalls in the Barn. Eleven of the stabled horses are, as far as Rutherford can ascertain, former presidents of the United States of America. The other stalls are occupied by regular horses, who give the presidents suspicious, sidelong looks. The horses/presidents respond to their new circumstances from which there is no mistake. Except “one horse running in an empty field: none of his speed, none of his grandeur, no droplets of sweat streaming off his hide like wings, and he runs. And nobody is watching when he clears the fence.”
Russell, who is a long time contributor to The New Yorker, is an engaging writer with an insanely vivid imagination. Her elegant prose allows her imagination to run wild until even the reader isn’t sure where reality and imagination merge. Some, like Doughbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgaiting are essentially a very long joke. Others are more complex and darker. Overall though, the collection is a delight.
Her debut novel Swamplandia was a finalist in the 2012 Pulitzer prize. In September 2013 she was made a MacArthur Foundation Fellow, acknowledging that “ this vote of confidence is going to pay some real psychological dividends. To me, it feels like the MacArthur Foundation stamped my passport book so that I can make these Twilight zone sojourns.” Her new novella, Sleep Donation, which chronicles an epidemic of insomnia, will be released as digital-only later this year. .