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‘Orange World and Other Stories’ envelopes reader in neon sensations

| Friday, January 17, 2020

Diane Park | The Observer

Karen Russell is an outstanding force in the modern literary scene. After spending undergraduate years at Northwestern, Russell received her MFA at Columbia University. Swamplandia!, her 2011 debut novel, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. In the years after this impressive debut, she received both a MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellowship. In May of 2019, Russell released a collection of short stories titled “Orange World and Other Stories.” The eight stories inside its neon orange book covers brim with wit, with outlandish delight, with fury and with intention.

The high-brow nature of these accomplishments may induce images of a distant, elitist and exclusive version of literature for the world of academia. Russell’s work deviates from this expectation with its smashingly vivid images, its inventive narratives and poignant emotions. The works dive into the sea of magical realism, with an oxygen tank of comedy. They tell accessible stories unlike any that came before. In a world saturated with media, this ability to create something truly unique and outlandish seems rare and close to enchantment.

To describe the stories in summary is to do them injustice. In any form, they unfold like a stroll through a fever dream landscape. When I try to explain the collection to friends or passing strangers, their faces contort in confusion or a tentative chuckle possesses them. Remembering the book is to see flashing visions of a woman inhabited by the spirit of a Joshua Tree after an unfortunate prick in “The Bad Graft,” two young girls wandering unexpectedly into a haunted ski lodge while trying to find riches out West in “The Prospectors” and a young girl, compared to the birds of Chernobyl, living in a post apocalyptic, sunken “New Florida” using echolocation to navigate a new existence in “The Gondoliers.”

These wild stories capture attention with their promise of newness, but maintain it by offering insight that feels, at times, unexpectedly raw. In “The Gondoliers,” the echolocation-using sisters in the apocalyptic world rely on each other to live. They are intrinsically entangled and fatefully dependent. The story centers around a journey to a forbidden section of the ruins. In this landscape, the primary character is able to silence the ever-present noise and find true solitude, where neither she nor her sisters exist. Each journey to this “Dead Zone” is followed by crushing guilt for endangering the family and herself and for the inherent selfishness. On the night of the story, she ends up finding one of her sisters, journeying toward what she believed to be her secret pleasure, the “Dead Zone”. This embodiment of the consumptive, universal desire to simultaneously become and lose oneself sinks in immediately. Much of the captivation of this collection lies in its ability to tell about many overwhelming feelings or sensations through an equally powerful, disarming story.

In “Orange World,” the titular story, a new mother compulsively breastfeeds a capybara-like devil after making an odd deal. The story analyzes motherhood and ends the collection with a moment of warmth. From its strange start, a woman meeting a tiny devil creature at a sewer drain, a beautiful end arises, brimming with love and unassailable goodness. This twisting style fails to be contained, fails to disappoint and fails to accept the deconstruction of artistic innovation. Russell’s words are still prickling in my head like Joshua tree spindles. Sharing this possession seems like the best way to terminate the deal I made when I tumbled into that neon orange world.

Author: Karen Russel

Book: Orange World and Other Stories

If you like: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Kelly Link

Shamrocks: 5 out of 5

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