In her new collection of stories, Vampires in the Lemon Grove (Knopf), Karen Russell continues her exploration into the fantastical with characters including the eponymous bloodsuckers, human silkworms, and dead U.S. presidents reanimated as farm horses. But her real subject matter here (as in an earlier book of stories and a novel, Swamplandia!, that was a finalist for last year’s Pulitzer) is storytelling—specifically the role of memory at the intersection of personal and national histories and the ways in which stories can both harm and heal.
“Reeling for the Empire,” perhaps the most compelling story in the collection, is set in Japan circa 1844. Just as “all Japan is undergoing a transformation,” so too are the women sold by their fathers into service and then brutally transformed into “reelers,” hybrid creatures that are half woman, half silkworm. Both Japan and the women industrialize: indeed, “the bells and whistles are in [their] bodies.” So pernicious and dehumanizing are these jobs that the women become the institution itself; the narrator, Kitsune, says, “I had no limbo period . . . no time at all to meditate on what I was becoming—a secret, a furred and fleshy silk factory.”
Part of the brutalization of this factory labor is the inculcation of imperial propaganda. Even after experiencing the horrors of the transformation, the narrator, when speaking of her work, finds it difficult to “weed the pride from [her] voice.”
It’s not for nothing that these girls call the factory where they are enslaved the “Nowhere Mill.” Physical geography is less important than the cartography of the mind. Though the women enter the factory with names and hometowns, they’re soon covered in a white fur, “blanking [them] all into sisters.” The narrator is the only one of these girls who signed her own contract with the recruitment agent—the only one who willingly drank the tea that effects the transformation to silkworm. Kitsune gets sick—”malfunctions”—and begins to “reel backwards,” unable to stop thinking about the agent to whom she sold herself. It is the strength of regret and the inescapable power of her memories of her actions that lead her to try to change her destiny and that of her fellow silkworm girls, and take revenge on the agent. The story takes the form of a fairy tale, or a nightmare parable. Can she—can any of us?—escape our own history, the yarns that are spun for us, and the yarns that we ourselves spin?
“The New Veterans” is also about memory, history, and storytelling. In that story, a new program has been launched to provide free sessions with a massage therapist to veterans. The narrator, Beverly, arrives in the treatment room to find her first client asleep on his stomach on the massage table. On his back is an extraordinarily vivid tattoo. She can’t tell what the tattoo is of, only that by comparison, the rest of his skin looks “blank,” and the room they’re in “miserably generic.” When the man awakes, she tells us, so does the image on his back. Beverly listens as the vet tells the story of the tattoo, which is the story of the day in Iraq that his friend was killed by an IED.
The story turns magical; in fact the name of the massage clinic is Dedos Magicos—”Magic Fingers.” Beverly is surprised to find that, by massaging the man, she can make the sun on his tattoo move around his back. At their next session he tells her its story again, but this time his memory has changed. Now he “remembers” a detail that places him at fault for his friend’s death. A scar appears; the therapist massages it away. As the soldier gets better, Beverly begins to take on the symptoms of his PTSD. By the next visit the story has changed again: now no one died that day.
Beverly worries about what seems to be her power to change memory, to change history. She says the tattoo “burns like a flare” and that deep-tissue massage is a “search-and-destroy mission,” resulting from a need to find an entry point to the extremes of experience the veteran has survived. In her personal life as well, Beverly experiences shifting memories; she and her sister clash over the events surrounding their mother’s death. She realizes that there’s no longer anyone alive who can confirm her version of events. Can history so easily be altered?
Beverly sees in the vet “the gangrenous spread of one day throughout the life span of a body.” The day of his friend’s death is “a spark drifting out of his past and catching, turning into this somatic conflagration.” As in “Reeling for the Empire,” Russell captures the anxiety of lived experience, and the simultaneous need for and fear of memory. We relive our pain and relieve ourselves of pain by forgetting and remembering.