Is there a colorist in American fiction with the same vivid talents as Karen Russell? In her latest collection, “Orange World: And Other Stories,” she describes the “Popsicle-red” smiles of eloping lovers, the “celery-green” eyes of a boy besotted with a corpse he finds in a bog, the “[c]rocus-blue” mists of a midwestern sky, the “gray, evolving film of dawn.”
And of course, there’s the color of the book’s title, which echoes a code-system of alarm a young mother faces. “Orange World,” a new parents educator tells the narrator of Russell’s title story, “is a nest of tangled electrical cords and open drawers filled with steak knives.”
Situation orange, in other words, is fear, dread, anxiety. Russell doesn’t call out by name the cantaloupe-colored occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., but her stories read like a moon-lit fantasia of these wrenching days when up is down and nature is in full revolt. These eight fabulous yarns span the globe, from the Dalmatian coast to Florida in the near future, when Miami is a watery grave.
Something is, however, not right in each of these worlds. Usually two things — one private, the other bigger, in one way or another environmental. Russell’s gift is how she braids these together, letting the private un-right-ness bob to the surface like a beacon.
In “Black Corfu,” a doctor who performs an after-death surgery to prevent the departed from turning into a zombie is destroyed by a vicious rumor. What is worse, the story points out, is the way rumor “moved into the tower of fact. Of history. It does not want to be evicted.” Then there is the doctor’s skin color — he is a Moor — which made him particularly vulnerable to ostracism.
With each story Russell pitches a pup tent in each new universe so rapidly you almost don’t feel its assumptions getting to their dark work. In “Bog Girl,” that “celery-green” eyed boy finds a 2,000-year-old girl in the peat moss his family is draining and farming. He begins taking her lifeless body to school as his girlfriend.
“I’m proud of my nephew for going after an older woman,” the boy’s uncle crows, “a mature woman . . . a cougar!”
In one joke, Russell draws the bizarre right up close to our own world, where women’s dead bodies appear nightly in TV entertainment. Would it be that much a leap, the story silently asks, for a boy to date one?
These tales are not short, but they feel even roomier owing to the way Russell cracks open narrative space with humor. Her descriptions are 21st century Dickensian genius. A man listens to the doctor’s accuser in “Black Corfu” with “trapeze-thin brows.”
In “The Tornado Auction,” an aging man in a future America buys a twister he takes home and hopes to grow into a full-fledged wild tornado. When the baby weather system tackles him in its container, the man visits the doctor, proud of its strength, how it broke his ribs. The doc, meanwhile, regards him with “his expression of Ivy League constipation.”
Russell is also the greatest user of verbs in American fiction since Annie Dillard. Dogs “dervish” around kitchens. A man is “turtled” into his hoody in a rain storm; a ringing phone goes “fireworking” through a troubled house. So many verbs Russell deploys have metaphors sitting right inside them like Trojan horses. They deepen pity for a character or make a scene vibrate with an electrocuted sense of alarm.
The precision of Russell’s writing makes it that much easier to accept how she is tilting reality. Sometimes (alarmingly) it’s not even all that tilted. In “The Gondoliers,” for example, three sisters pilot boats around the watery remains of Miami, a world in which toxic red algae makes the water unswimmable. Pause as you read this; google Miami underwater; and you’ll find climatologists who believe the lower third of Florida could be entirely covered in less than a lifetime. And toxic algae? That’s already there.
What are we doing? What are we waiting for? What’s keeping us afloat in this terroir of terror? Why are we so lamp lit with apathy or frozen in the headlights? Is it really just fear? In the title story, fear is what causes its narrator to agree to a pact with the devil: Every night she allows something dark and furry that comes to her window to nurse at her breast. Just so long as her baby remains OK.
In “The Gondoliers,” though, Russell shows us another element keeping us frozen as the apocalypse bores down on the globe: a sense that we are too far gone, and younger generations — who know what’s coming — are waiting for those who have failed them, to get out of the way. “Older passengers often seem dismayed that they have to cede the Earth to creatures like us,” the narrator says. “They are aghast that we know so little about their world and bewildered by our happiness in this one.”
Over and again, by tilting the universe this way and that, “Orange World and Other Stories” makes clear if there’s one thing we share now it’s a feeling of having been betrayed. It shoots off of Russell’s characters like radiated worry. It draws them together, pulls them apart, sometimes, sadly, between beloved family members in one yarn, where silence, as Russell puts it, “reveals its tiny serrated fangs.” In these stories, though, Russell reveals we don’t have to be silent. We can shout as does this book. Look for it, with its color, it won’t be hard to find. It’s a beacon.
By Karen Russell
Knopf, 271 pp., $25.95
John Freeman is the editor of Freeman’s. His books include “Tales of Two Americas’’ and “Maps.’’