By Jody DiPerna
Pittsburgh Current Senior Contributor
Karen Russell is one of the most inventive, immersive writers of our time. In her eight short-story collection, “Orange World,” she excavates layers upon layers of life articulated in the universe, but just out of our reach. And she takes her reader to extraordinary places as she inspects what it means to be alive in this time, and what it means to be human at all times. She plays with the intersection of the natural world and human foibles in wholly original tales that feel both sacred and fleshy.
Karen Russell is doing a virtual reading and talk through Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures on February 22. Tickets are $15 and student passes are available for $10.
“The thing I love about a story is the whole cosmos goes as fast as your eye across the paper. You really have time, you can live a lifetime in half an hour, but you can also loiter a little bit. You have the opportunity to think and feel outside the tiny kingdom of your own concern, your own consciousness,” Russell said of her own ability to dawdle on the edges and in the margins to create little worlds.
“Orange World” (Vintage Contemporaries, 2019) is Russell’s third story collection. Her debut novel, “Swamplandia!” (2011) was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and in 2013 she received a MacArthur Foundation ‘Genius Grant.’
The anthropocene and the clash of humans and nature runs underneath all of this collection. Of course, humans are part of the natural world, but the stories pick at all the ways that we stand in contradiction and resistance to nature, and all the unforeseen consequences thereof.
“We are nature, but we can wall ourselves off, induce a kind of amnesia about that with heating and air conditioning. I love the innovations — I want to marry my space heater,” Russell said via telephone from her home in Oregon. Despite her love of her space heater and all of the creature comforts, it is clear to her that we’ve not been the best stewards of the planet and that bill is coming due.
In the story, ‘”The Tornado Auction,” Russell writes of a man who loves to raise tornadoes. The concerns of a nice home life and quotidian amenities are nothing compared to the compulsion he has to cultivate tornadoes. He can’t sleep or feel at peace without the shriek of the tornado filling him up.
“I think I’m sometimes a bit of a kid in my approach. These stories that literalize these things that are kind of invisible to us — or we shove it to the periphery. We’re talking about climate change and we’re all aware that we’re making this incredibly destructive weather,” Russell said. She was also drawn to the real world wail of the tornado itself.
“I was just thinking about people have storms — storms inside of them. You see what happens when they affect that bad weather into the external universe and community. It was almost like inhabiting a big metaphor — making it the world of the story, really treating it very specifically and literally to see what that might yield — what that would show you that you could experience in this new register.”
She creates worlds where a Joshua Tree longs for love and connection, a warthogish devil roaming the suburbs craving mother’s milk, and elegies for a future underwater Miami. Several stories deal with the liminal space of death. In ”Bog Girl: A Romance,” a high school boy falls head over heels in love with 2,000 year old corpse; in “The Prospectors,”two women meet up with a lodgeful of dead men at WPA project in the mountains; and the undead roam a Croatian Island, circa 1620 in “Black Corfu.”
“We have all kinds of binaries that we try to impose. Life and death, growth and decay, and the process is a lot muddier than we make it out to be,” Russell explained. “Even the distinction between realism and fantasy — I get asked a lot about what draws me to these fantastical scenarios. And I want to say, you know, you lay flat on your bed for eight hours and you lived in a phantasmagoria. And then you woke up and had a waffle.”
Reimagining the world around us is one of most well-worn tools in Russell’s toolbox as she follows the gleam of her own mind, as she put it. But no matter how imaginative or fantastical the set up, there is always real emotional honesty and truth. In “The Bad Graft,” she writes, “They could still see the children they had been: their own Popsicle-red smiles haunting them,” and the reader has a feel for these two young people piled into their car together, off to make their way in the world.
“Hopefully the emotional world of the story rings true to the people. I try to remember that in even the more goofy or wild setting. If that’s all it is, I don’t think readers are going to care very much,” she said.
“We’re having this conversation across time zones and as we’re talking, we’re both accessing in this whirling simultaneity, the imaginary future, pieces of our past. It is just wild. It is so wild that I don’t even know sometimes if these premises do it justice.”