Karen Russell's Orange World is So-So

Orange World and Other Stories (2019)
By Karen Russell
Alfred A. Knopf, 271 pages
★★ ½  

Karen Russell’s creepy collection of short stories comes to us in time for Halloween. Or maybe not. I loved her 2011 novel Swamplandia, but I’m stuck in neutral on Orange World.

In the Depression era yarn “The Prospectors,” two spirited young women take the wrong chairlift to the mountaintop in search of a party at a posh lounge. Instead they find themselves among a group of male workers who are dead, but aren’t aware of it. Can the two escape before they too are trapped in limbo?

For those who think the 2007 movie Lars and the Real Girl wasn’t icky enough, Russell offers “Bog Girl: A Romance.” Its main character is a not-so-good-around-women young man who unearths a peatbog corpse and treats her as his girlfriend. His family and community enable him. Call it a macabre coming of age tale.

“The Tornado Auction” asks us to imagine that big storms can be purchased at auction and reared as one might a stallion. When does one set it run? And what if the owner is a person who no longer cares about his fate or that of others?

“Black Corfu” takes us to the namesake Greek isle as Venetian rule was challenged by the Turks. It’s not for certain when our action takes place–probably the 16th century–but this story centers on a dark-skinned man who dreamed of being a surgeon. Instead, his skin color confines him to the strange practice of posthumous surgery in which the hamstrings of the deceased are severed to prevent them from becoming vampires. He is highly skilled, but his world crumbles when rumors circulate that he botched an operation and one of the dead is loose on Corfu.

“The Gondoliers” is set in a near-future post-flood Florida wherein vast parts of it are underwater. Three sisters dwell in the polluted and flooded canal region known as New Florida. They eke out a living as gondoliers who use singing as echolocation to prevent underwater obstacles. The youngest, Blister, picks up a passenger with the strange request to be taken to Bahia Rosa, the failed seawall and levy system that swamped the region. Blister learns he wishes to go there to die. Should she refuse or take the money and run?

The title tale is about a woman who has miscarried before and worries that the child she is carrying will meet the same fate. She cuts a deal with a demon; in exchange for her baby’s health, she will breastfeed the hairy clawed imp nightly. How can she stop what she’s started?

Each of these is a perfectly fine story that one could freight with deeper significance if so desired. Are those in a rut functionally dead? Who can define love? Is “Black Corfu” a meditation on race, or “The Gondoliers” on climate change? The title story, of course, is one of many about the foolishness of making deals with powers of darkness. Most of Russell’s stories link to classifications in Stith Thompson’s famed index of universal tales. (If you’re keeping score, go to M211 of the Folk-Motif Index to find more information about why it’s not a good idea to bargain with the Devil.) 

If I had to pick an adjective to describe Orange World it would be “competent.” If that sounds as if I’m damning it with faint praise, you’re right. Although there is a repellent quality to the set ups, the tales tend to be more strange than hair-raising. The good news is that it’s a breezy read, but mine is not among the starstruck voices who find this a work of genius. It’s more than meh, but considerably less than wow.

Rob Weir

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