Tuesday, June 21, 2016
Karen Russell's wit, her neologisms, and her originality - or maybe not?
Though it's easy to dismiss Karen Russell as a gimmick writer - swamps, alligators, zombies, tropical eccentrics of every variety - the fact is - she's very good at what she does. Her current NYer story, The Bog Girl, is, I think, some new territory for her - the peat bogs on an island off the coast of Ireland or Great Britain, a setting that first seems long ago - because the primitive nature of cutting squares of peat turf for use as heating fuel probably hasn't changed much over the past 5 centuries - but as the characters in the story develop we realize it's a contemporary story, with the main character a lonely and somewhat disturbed 15-year-old high-school student, Cillian, with all of the tempests and trauma that high-school students endure: uncertainty about love and sex, pecking orders, physical awkwardness. The premise of the story is simple and unsettling: while cutting peat, Cillian comes across the completely preserved body of a beautiful teenage girl apparently killed and left to die in the freezing bog about 2000 years back. He helps unearth the body and then - here's where the story gets into the fantastic - takes her home and lives w/ her over the course of several months as his girlfriend - bringing her to school w/ him, taking her to the prom. Toward the end of the story she begins to come to life and reaches out for him and, though Russell is surprisingly discrete on this point, they have sex and that's the end of their relationship - back into the bog she goes, and this time her body breaks apart. I usually don't have a lot of tolerance for such fantasies, but Russell brings this one off better than most, thanks to her terrific sense of humor and her startling linguistic turns: to take one example I can remember, from one moment in the story, she talks about an energetic puppy "berserking" into the room; she notes the insects "millioning" around a floodlight: using nouns as verbs is generally one of my peeves (hosting a party, e.g.), but Russell turns nouns in the neological verbs - great! The story, of course, is not as original as one would hope or expect, as who can help but compare it with the sweet (and more realistic) Lars and the Real Girl or the odd and more peculiar Gogol's Wife (the secret must be revealed at last: Gogol was married to a balloon)?