Cillian Eddowis, the 15-year-old protagonist of Karen Russell's short story "Bog Girl: A Romance," has a crush. No surprise there: There's a certain kind of teenager who's prone to fall in love hard and fast, and sweet, sensitive Cillian — whose aunts "had paid him the modern compliment of assuming that he was gay" — is definitely that type.
There's only one problem with the object of Cillian's affection: She's 2,000 years old, and is not, in the technical sense of the word, alive. The boy has uncovered her body in the peat bog where he works as a cutter: "Here was a secret, flagging him down. A secret the world had kept for two thousand years and been unable to keep for two seconds longer. The bog had confessed her."
"Bog Girl," like all the stories in Russell's brilliant new short story collection, Orange World, is stunning, and showcases the author at her best and most bizarre. It's at once a touching love story, a deeply unsettling horror tale, and a sharp satire about men who prefer their partners silent and docile, blank slates for them to write their own desires upon.
The eight stories that make up Orange World, Russell's fifth book, are all perfectly rendered, and form a perfect introduction to the author's off-center, magic-inflected world. "The Bad Graft" starts out like a typical story of young love, following Andy and Angie, who have impulsively quit their jobs in Pennsylvania and set out for the deserts of California. Andy sees the two of them as "two moths drunk on light, darting from the flower of one red sunset to the next."
But the couple's trip takes a horrifying turn when the soul of a Joshua tree "leaps" into Angie, effectively possessing her: "The change is metaphysical: the tree's spirit is absorbed into the migrating consciousness, where it lives on, intertwined with its host." Andy doesn't understand the sudden change in his girlfriend's temperament, and their relationship begins to show signs of strain.
"The Bad Graft" provides a good example of one of Russell's most effective techniques: She writes about the supernatural with a straight face; while her imagination is boundless, she anchors her stories in realism, and it lends her stories a real emotional power.
That's the case in "Madame Bovary's Greyhound," which follows Gustave Flaubert's famous character and her companion, a dog named Djali. "The greyhound was ignorant of many things," Russell writes. "She had no idea, for example, that she was a greyhound. ... What she did know, with a whole-body thrill, was the music of her woman coming up the walk, the dizzying explosion of perfume as the door swung wide. She knew when her mistress was pleased with her, and that approval was the fulcrum of her happiness."
As Emma Bovary becomes bored with her marriage, she also loses interest in Djali, which breaks the greyhound's heart. Eventually he runs away, unable to bear not being loved by the woman to whom he was so devoted. It's a genuinely moving story, affecting but never mawkish, and a stunning portrayal of the bonds that develop between people and their pets.
It's impressive that Russell can bring tears to a reader's eye with a story about a fictional greyhound, but she's equally gifted at using humor to explore relationships. In the collection's final story, "Orange World," an expectant mother named Rae, wracked with pain, fears that her pregnancy is in danger. So desperate is she to ensure her baby's safety, she makes a deal with the devil — he'll make sure her child is unharmed if Rae agrees to breastfeed him. She accepts the offer, and instantly regrets it: "Why hadn't she thought to appeal to heaven, Rae wonders now. She took the first deal offered. She'd done a better job negotiating for the Subaru."
A woman nursing Satan isn't an obvious premise for a comic story, but Russell somehow manages to find humor in it — Rae bands together with a group of other moms to try to beat the devil, and the deadpan dialogue among the band of parents is frequently hilarious. The story is a delightful look at motherhood and friendship, and it ends with a surprising, but not cloying, sweetness.
Russell's last book, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, was far and away one of the best books of 2013, and Orange World proves that the author has only gotten better. The stories in this collection aren't like anything you've ever read before; there's no doubt at all that Russell is one of the most original American authors working today. She's also one of the best. Orange World is a thing of beauty, a stunning collection from one of the most brilliant literary minds of her generation.