In interviews, Karen Russell has expressed some frustration with “genre.” Fair enough! I’m fed up too! Genre’s a really easy way to dismiss gorgeous, imaginative writing without thinking too much.
Genre’s also an easy way to put a book in cheap paperback, stick in a different aisle, and let the genre itself do all the marketing for you.
Genre’s a tool in the gender politics of publishing. For every thoughtful, original science fiction story by a dude, there’s an at least equally thoughtful vampire story, memoir, or a romance novel to trash. (Ahem.)
For every Oulipo dude (yeah, they’re mostly dudes,) there’s a woman writing a li’l story about “feelings” and “families.”
So let me say this first about Vampires in the Lemon Grove, before I get to the genre thing: I frickin’ loved it. I love love love loved it.
I read a story, and then put the book down before starting the next story.
To think about it more.
Let me put this into context: I’m a compulsive reader. When I was a kid, I read books at night, in the car, by the intermittent streetlights. On a five minute drive.
When I read Alice Munro, or whoever else with the short stories, I pretty much barrel straight ahead to the next story. No time to lose! Read now, think later!
But these? I’d wait a whole day before moving on.
I tweeted a sentence. Specifically this one, from the last story, about the universe conspiring to wrench a little remorse from some bullies: “Much higher up, in the real sky, snakes of clouds wound ball-round and came loose.“
The whole book is like that, you guys. The whole book. Nearly every sentence.
Like this bit from the title story:
Human marriages amuse me: the brevity of the commitment and all the ceremony that surrounds it, the calla lilies, the veiled mother-in-laws like lilac spiders, the tears and earnest toasts. Till death do us part! Easy. These mortal couples need only keep each other in sight for fifty, sixty years.
Did you catch that? The quick slippage from genre to profundity?
The whole book’s like that.
Which brings me to genre: the closest label I’d be barely almost maybe comfy putting on Vampires is magical realism. Because of the shifts between quotidian struggle and inexplicable plot wrenches.
Like this couple are vampires. Those factory workers are literally turning in silkworms. That bullied kid who disappeared last year turns up as a scarecrow with a wax head and hands, tied to the bullies’ favorite tree, and later mysteriously destroyed by unknown agents. This family trying to homestead some land did not expect to meet an evil spirit in the form of their apparently successful neighbor.
The thing about magical realism, at least the thing that we associate with the genre, is political critique. Most famously, the Latin American school used the genre to offer genuinely subversive critiques of the history of colonialism and economic imperialism that has benighted these nations. You get the same from British Angela Carter, Pakistani-British Salman Rushdie, and the like. It’s pretty clear: magical realism links folk traditions with contemporary politics to subvert convention.
And realism is the literary form most associated with convention.
So here are these stories, which I fully loved. But I found myself wondering at their historical settings.
That silkworm story, which stunned me, takes place in Meiji-era Japan. A few stories take place in scenes of U.S. urban blight. A story about a tattoo with superpowers is obliquely about the Iraq war.
But to what extent are these stories about their settings?
Russell can’t—because no one writing now can—ignore the politics of these literary choices. This review suggests that her Japan story emerged from extensive research into that era of Japanese history, when the country turned away from isolation and embraced international trade and influence.
But the story felt more about the exploitation of women workers in general, not about women in 19th century Japan, despite the copious signals of period fealty.
The Iraq vet tattoo story felt like it was more about the ambivalent power of human connection—about the ways that women, especially, take on the emotional burdens of others at the cost of their own well-being. Its comment about the war was like, well, war sucks. Um, yeah, it does.
These stories were so powerful, except for the one I’d have tossed, about tailgating evolutionary processes. I’m just not sure if the setting added anything. Although the silkworm/Meiji Japan story would not have worked without a particular historical setting of transitional industrial economy. Of folk practices converted into industrial systems.
I love magical realism. As genres go, it’s really my triple chocolate bomb. It’s the one I tried to write in high school, which was roughly the last time I thought of myself as a potential fiction writer. It’s the genre I most associate with innovation and possibility.
And these stories, nearly all of them, blew me away.
But my academic training taught me to be suspicious of stories that use exotic settings for flavor. I don’t think that Russell was doing that, necessarily. The big jumble—Meiji Japan, Homestead Act US, 1970s Jew Jersey, contemporary US anywhere—felt inconsistent. But upon examination, there’s nothing wrong with such a spread, per se.
In another interview, Russell expressed delight in stretching herself out, after two books that took place in her home zone Florida.
And while I wish that the stories were as broad in scope as their setting suggested, they really are lovely just the way they are.
And so are you!