My wicked-smart friend Jenny Bean and I were talking about fantasy, and she touted fantasy as a brilliant genre for its ability to surpass the tethers non-genre fiction has to real life and make any of its metaphors a reality. Keep that in mind, because I’m about to write about Karen Russell.
I read Swamplandia way back in 2011, when its interesting cover caught my eye in a bookshop in Scottsbluff, NE. I ran out of Murakami books two days into my 2 week vacation, and was tremendously pleased to fill the gap with the alligator wrestlers of Russell’s debut novel. So, in 2013 when I saw a bright yellow cover with a fantastic illustration of a long eared bat (It’s like we were destined for each other, Karen Russell. Call me.) with Russell’s name attached I had to read it.
I am not yet finished. I’ve read the first two stories and I kind of have to write about Reeling for the Empire. Now.
Reeling for the Empire is an excellent example of metaphor made reality, with the added bonus that it is not just a damn object lesson without real people or actions. The character in this story acts, she has desires, and her story is really damn interesting. I preface my adoration of the metaphor with this note, because it is never enough to have perfect structure and brilliant metaphor. If the story does not warrant telling, then the form, as perfect as it may be, has no meaning.
Okay, past that, the metaphor. In RftE a group of women are held hostage in a silk factory, and changed into silk worm like creatures to produce silk in brilliant colors and in far larger quantity than what could be achieved with traditional, non-creepy-as-horror-show-hell methods. So these women/caterpillar hybrids were all basically sold into this factory by their brothers/fathers/husbands, all save the first person character Kitsune who forged her father’s signature and choked down the whole pot of transformative tea. She blacks out and wakes up as a monster, and for the whole story she is envious of all the girls there who were forced into this fate. The ones who have memories of their bodies growing coarse white hair and the awful knots their stomachs twisted into as they began to produce silk. This envy coupled with the shame of creating her own fate begins to dye her silk this awful muddy black color, and it grows coarse and thick; useless as a marketable fabric. She worries that the agent who commandeers their factory will kill her; a sick silk worm will poison the bunch, and the woman who acts as mother/foreman to the rest of the girls tells her to just stop thinking all those thoughts and her silk will be good again. Kitsune tells the woman that she could no more stop thinking than she could stop producing silk, and the woman takes the challenge; she stops spinning and dies for it. With the proof that both silk and thoughts cannot be contained, she changes the use of the silk. She uses all those shameful thoughts, everything she’d done wrong, and forms this ugly black silk into a cocoon.
We cannot change our past, our past informs our future, but we can always choose the direction. Kitsune chose to live. Pretty cool, yeah? It’s not like she got out easy, either. She’s still this horrid bug-monster, and she isn’t sure what she’ll look like in the future, after the cocoon, but whatever she will be is of her choosing. And that’s something.
This is the allegory made real. It extends past the idea that I will die if I don’t change, and makes it very true. These women will be exploited until death, they are already horrifically different than what they were, and they can either stay in this state or fight back. It would not work so well if the circumstances were toned down through reality. If they only felt like they would die.
There’s more to the story (lots!). Russell commands the short story form with ease. And if it isn’t with ease, she does a damn good job of making it look effortless. There’s a balance that’s always tipped slightly forward, so even the moments that look backward at life as a human keep up the momentum. She never stops to show off this brilliant prowess, either. Not only is she clever enough to pull all this off, she’s clever enough to let the reader find it for themselves. Nothing worse than a “see what I did there?” in the middle of a brilliant moment. Totally zaps the life from a story. These stories, the ones I’ve read, are lively.
Okay, now to go finish the book…
P. S.; I think I want to draw up a new map of fiction, including genres and poetry and comic books, to account for all of those authors who bleed into different categories and create whole new ones. I think I might need finger-paints for this. I wonder if I propose this to The Bookstore I work for, they’ll let me rearrange the shelves.
Maybe they’ll let me finger-paint the shelves!