Grousing about awards is never fun, but the Pulitzer committee for fiction did itself no favors by rejecting all three 2012 finalists and declaring no winner for the year. It denied David Foster Wallace posthumous recognition for his immense contribution to literature—though with a lesser, incomplete final work. Denis Johnson was a finalist for the second time in four years, but with a novella originally published in The Paris Review in 2002. Denying Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! was either a slight to its scope, which was less sweeping than that of recent winners, or the fact that it was the debut novel for an author under 30. Whatever the reason, Russell’s nearly flawless second story collection, Vampires In The Lemon Grove, makes overlooking her seem like the biggest mistake of the three.
These stories explore the surreal world outside Russell’s vision of Florida from her debut collection (St. Lucy’s Home For Girls Raised By Wolves) and Swamplandia!, widening her purview to international locations throughout history. The title story depicts two vampires settled in an Italian lemon grove as their 100-year marriage is tested when he develops a fear of flying. A Best American Short Stories selection in 2008, “Vampires In The Lemon Grove” is a perfect example of how Russell has developed her technique: She tells a story about whether love can withstand immortality, and about the quotidian difficulties of maintaining a lasting committed relationship, through two vampires who walk around in sunlight (without glittering), subsisting on lemons.
The collection’s most intriguing story is “The Barn At The End Of Our Term,” which depicts a farm whose horses happen to be reincarnations of dead American presidents, and is told from the perspective of a morose Rutherford B. Hayes. Presidents from throughout history end up in the barn, unable to communicate their past identities. They set up constituencies made up of the other animals, and John Adams conspires with the others with the aim of getting back to Washington. But Hayes pines for a sheep he thinks is his wife, and ponders the meaning of their predicament. Is the barn heaven, hell, or simply a complication before a soul is at peace enough to move onto a final resting place and jump the fence, like horse James Garfield?
“Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules For Antarctic Tailgating” pokes fun at inept sports fandom in the face of insurmountable odds. The narrator roots for “Team Krill” to finally emerge victorious against “Team Whale,” the Manchester United/New York Yankees of the Food Chain Games. Russell puts a surreal twist on faith and foolishness in sports—perhaps influenced by the perpetual misery of Chicago sports teams. (Russell graduated from Northwestern University in 2003.) “The New Veterans” is the longest story in the collection, the de-facto novella, and initially, the most realistic. A massage therapist becomes enamored of a new patient who has returned from Iraq with a memorial tattoo for a fallen comrade covering his entire back. In trying to knead out his pain, the masseuse discovers she can alter the tattoo. It’s the lightest fantastical touch of any story in the collection, and it packs a wallop when delving into how abandoned some soldiers feel when returning home.
Vampires In The Lemon Grove has its weaknesses. Though Russell expands her range with moody, spooky stories like “The Graveless Doll Of Eric Mutis” and the straight horror at the climax of the Homestead Act-era frontier tale “Proving Up,” they don’t have as much impact as her best stories. The female revenge fantasy “Reeling For The Empire” expands on Russell’s research into 19th-century Japan, with a frightening vision of a silk factory populated by peculiarly exploited female workers. But these stories function as pure entertainment. In that regard, they’re successful, but Russell’s best work manages to both create a fascinating, surreal world and coax meaning out of it.
There’s always a danger that the novelty of so much cleverness will wear thin. But over the course of three books, Russell hasn’t run out of ideas; she’s deepening her understanding of how to use clever premises to set up more nuanced depictions of cultural or even existential questions. This book covers war, gender issues, puberty, marriage, and death with such flair and delight that it’s still surprising to realize this is only Russell’s second story collection.