Any review of Karen Russell’s new story collection, Orange World, has to begin with its wildly imaginative premises. Two runaway friends take a ski lift to a lodge populated by gold-eyed ghosts. A woman is infected by a Joshua tree. An island surgeon who operates on the dead is accused of malfeasance by his upper-class apprentice. A farmer breeds and sells tornadoes. A boy falls in love with a mummy unearthed from boggy peat. A family of sisters paddle through post-apocalyptic New Florida in gondolas. Creatures are everywhere: Madame Bovary’s greyhound; a demon in a gutter, suckling a young mother’s milk in exchange for the protection of her infant. But maybe by now we shouldn’t be surprised. Russell’s 2011 novel Swamplandia, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, follows a family of alligator wrestlers. Her debut collection contains the story of St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (2006); another collection puts Vampires in the Lemon Grove (2013).
What also distinguishes the tales in Orange World is their refreshingly slow pace. Each of these rather long short stories—only eight in almost three-hundred pages—takes its time, allowing those strange ideas to unfold and assume a discernible logic. We learn in “The Tornado Auction” that tornadoes are sold as demolition tools or amusement park rides. They are housed in “incubators”; a detailed explanation of tornado breeding includes “condensation,” “two vortices,” a “mesocyclone.” In “The Gondoliers,” the girls navigate via echolocation because “satellites have been down for half a century.” Algae blooms around “bald mangroves” and “two-headed manatee calves.” In “Bog Girl: A Romance,” we discover that “sphagnum mosses wrap around fur, wood, skin, casting their spell of chemical protection.” “The Bad Graft” is set in a “season of wild ferment,” with blossoms that “detonate” and “syringe-thin leaves” and pollen that “heaves.” Russell’s precise observation makes the implausible plausible: the Joshua tree’s “spirit is absorbed into the migrating consciousness” of animals or hikers who walk on a “fushia ledge of limestone,” while tarantulas and lizards watch with “gluey eyes.” Even the strangest stories work; they aren’t weird just for the sake of being weird. In “Black Corfu,” the surgeon-to-the-dead makes sure to sever each cadaver’s hamstring, “the umbilicus that tethers a corpse to our spinning world”—this crucial step keeps a body from becoming a wandering zombie. We sense an eager author who’s diligent about finding and marshalling just the right details, who’s actually interested in medicine, history, and botany. Her research authenticates her voice and the worlds she conjures.