Eloping lovers Andy and Angie arrive as a pair at Joshua Tree National Park but become a threesome when Angie pricks her finger on a blooming Joshua. The tree’s spirit leaps into Angie and tries to put down roots. “Compared with the warm and expansive desert soil, the human body is a cul-de-sac.”
Karen Russell titles her darkly funny fairy tale “The Bad Graft” because what follows is a doomed romance, with the tree forever tugging at Angie to return to the desert. Angie’s eyes glint green, her head hurts and she is anchored to the past. Until …
Such strange magic animates “Orange World,” Russell’s collection of eight new stories pulsing with imagination. As in her 2011 first novel “Swamplandia!” and her 2013 book of stories, “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” she bends reality with verbal dexterity, grafting the extraordinary to the mundane. In “Bog Girl,” a teen falls in love with the perfectly preserved 2,000-year-old girl he discovers in a peat bog. Refusing to give her to a museum, he carries her to school, dismayed when the popular girls ask her to lunch, organize a clothing drive and restyle her hair.
This juxtaposition of the fantastical with the everyday can result in the whimsy of “The Tornado Auction,” where a Nebraska farmer raises cyclones like broncos for a rodeo. Or it can turn bizarre as in the title story, in which a new mother bargains with the devil to ensure the health of her newborn. Desperate to escape the demands of a grotesque creature at her breast, she finds help in a support group.
Still, Russell is after more than shock value as she explores transformations and transitions. Two young con women encounter ghosts when they show up at the wrong winter party in “The Prospectors.” Rumors, superstition and nightwalkers haunt “Black Corfu,” and a small dog’s heart breaks in “Madam Bovary’s Greyhound.”
Russell displays her impressive world building in “The Gondoliers,” as narrator Janelle and her sisters pole through the polluted waters of post-apocalyptic New Florida. Old Florida drowned when the sea wall failed, and now the gondolas take tourists to the ruins and ferry children to school, “weaving around the shadows of the wrecked cruise liners.” It is dangerous work even for an echo-locator such as Janelle, who sings to her sisters and listens to the currents of air and water. A late fare begs her to take him to the abandoned sea wall in the silent bay, and their journey resembles a new dream and an old nightmare. It’s much like a Karen Russell short story: risky, wondrous and weird.
Writer and reviewer Nancy Pate lives in Orange County, Fla.
Orange World and Other Stories
By: Karen Russell.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 271 pages, $25.95.