Normal dare not show its face in ‘Orange World’

Wednesday, May 15, 2019 - 7:00pm

John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Buy this photo
NOSELL

There’s a fine line between the creative and the unbearably weird in writing, and again Karen Russell seems to have hit the mark — at least within a margin of error — in her prose. Coming off of the wildly successful “Swamplandia!” that came within range of a Pulitzer Prize, the collection of stories in “Orange World” are normal enough for four of them to have debuted in The New Yorker. This fact alone seems to wrap “Orange World” in a protective coating of regularity, but the collection blaze with magical, visionary creativity.

The stories in “Orange World” encompass many literary genres. This diversity is, for the most part, satisfying. Russell bends reality throughout the collection, asking (sometimes outright) for readers to step back, forget mechanical physics for a page or so and take a story for its broader implications. Pieces about the lucrativeness of raising tornadoes (“The Tornado Auction”) snicker at reality and surprisingly offer readers heartfelt human touches that lie beneath all the character wand-waving. Not to mention a breath of relief for fans of magical-realism: These allegories aren’t spoon-fed to audiences. They bleed through Russell’s plots at a perfect pace, only apparent if readers really search for them.

It is not shocking, then, that the uncommon mysticism in the stories of “Orange World” are in literary demand. For traditional readers, Russell offers a foray from fiction close enough to MFA-lectured normality that it keeps less adventurous readers close — apparently, even New Yorker subscribers.

Magical-realism is all but mastered in stories like “The Bad Graft” and “Bog Girl: A Romance,” two pieces that set the collection apart from any recent compilation that comes to mind. These stories are the high points in “Orange World.” Russell refuses to allow the flashiness of her bewitchments in plot to overcome the humanity of her characters. In “The Bad Graft,” Russell uses the supernatural to enhance the depth of romance and humanity readers feel, rather than take the place of it. Sleights of hands like these make the collection endearing.

The greatest power in “Orange World” comes through Russell’s mastery of figurative language — especially the simile and metaphor. Russell’s caliber of figurative language in “Orange Story” is nearly unheard of outside of literary household names like Margaret Atwood. “He drums his knuckles on his temple, his smile softening like something boiling at the bottom of a pot,” Russell writes in “The Gondoliers.” It is a captured talent that she shows off, one that both viscerally congeals images for readers and defies feelings of I’ve heard that one before. The passages are so original and stark that they are worthy of pause and of sharing.

Russell is mature enough to realize her own greatest strength, however, and uses it so frequently in “Orange World” that it almost collapses the greatness of her stories. Lines like “Orange plants with soft drunken voices slide around the hull, drawling a beautiful lace behind my eyelids,” or “The way a lake recovers its composure after a hailstorm. Blue to the bottom again, even the stitches dissolved,” are so meticulously written that they almost become convoluted and illogical with their intricacy. This happens again and again in stories like “The Gondoliers,” where readers are left fending off descriptions for a taste of plot.

Here, Russell’s stories lose their charm. The cutting-edge, absurdist plots of these stories are buried in avalanches of verbosity. Russell fails to recognize the twofold strength of her writing — both her metaphorical acumen and demanding plots — and the former overpowers the latter. In stories like “Black Corfu,” readers are given dozens of glamorous passages to drool over, but the neglectful Russell leaves the storyline coming up for gasps between these passages, propelling readers to skip to the next story rather than plunging into the conclusion of the tale.

“Orange World” is a respite from the norms of short prose. It is also a respite from your quirky friend’s favorite “abnormal” collections that are poorly written. Russell has accomplished much in her work, but her strengths become perhaps too strong, wrestling the fun out of chunks of “Orange World.” Why, then, keep reading? Cleverly placed, the last short story is one of the collection’s best.