JUNE 13, 2019
IT IS BOTH a truth universally acknowledged and an utterly unhelpful truism that having a child is a transformative experience. Six months after my son’s birth, my life has changed drastically, but I am no less selfish, shallow, lazy, or interested in checking Instagram than I was a year ago. Most regrettably, the expectation that I would morph into a ferociously protective matriarch — the sort of “instant, white-hot, wild, / Wakened female of the species warring as for spouse and child” Rudyard Kipling imagines in his 1911 poem “The Female of the Species” — remains unmet. Just last week, I meekly watched a stranger tickle my baby’s cheek, a tight-lipped smile stretching my lips while my heart hurled germophobic obscenities.
No, maternal mettle doesn’t come automatically with the position. If anything, being a parent means discovering a new world governed by fear. One foot is still in the world you’ve known as an adult. It’s not devoid of danger, but getting hurt, emotionally or physically, comes with the territory, and what doesn’t kill you is expected to make you stronger. The other foot falters in the new postpartum world, where objects and activities you’ve known and loved — the coffee table with metal casters, an unanchored solid wood bookshelf, air conditioning, sleep — are transmuted into the instruments of your child’s potential suffocation, dismemberment, or death. Even items purchased for the comfort of your child after long and considered research come with cautionary exhortations. An unassuming play mat with crinkly flaps and brightly colored bits and bobs comes with a five-inch-long tag warning against leaving your baby unattended. Suffocation hazard, it screams, in English, French, and Spanish. Under penalty of law this tag not to be removed except by the consumer. A donut-shaped lounger has six labels in six different languages, each featuring the word “sleep” enclosed in an orange circle that’s been slashed through. DORMIR. SLAPEN.
The ubiquity of these warnings all but guarantees that any parental reprieve, no matter how small — leaving the baby for a few minutes to roll around on the mat while you make dinner, letting her sleep on the donut because it’s the only way she’ll nap for more than 20 minutes — must be accompanied by twinges, even full-on pangs, of guilt or shame. The title story in Karen Russell’s new collection, Orange World and Other Stories, deals with this breed of guilt and shame born of the side-by-side realizations that, one, the world is a landmine of choking, falling, and suffocation hazards, and, two, it is impossible to fully protect your child from all of them. The title reflects the hierarchical color coding of the world we live in, somewhere between “Green World, a fantasy realm of soft corners and infinite attention,” and Red World, a parental nightmare starring “babies falling down stairwells and elevator chutes. Speared by metal and flung from passenger seats. Drowning in toilet bowls and choking on grapes.” Orange World, filled with scary but non-lethal threats, “is a nest of tangled electrical cords and open drawers filled with steak knives. It’s a baby’s fat hand hovering over the blushing coils of a toaster oven. It’s a crib purchased used.” The protagonist of “Orange World” is Rae, a woman with a history of miscarriages whose latest pregnancy has been diagnosed as geriatric and at high risk for genetic anomalies. One night, when her husband is away on business and she is racked with mysterious third trimester pains, Rae is approached by a gutter-dwelling devil who guarantees the unborn child’s safety in exchange for something precious. Three months and a healthy son later, Rae fulfills her end of the deal, prostrating herself in the icy gutter at 4:44 every morning to nurse the devil from her breast. Guilty and ashamed that she gave in so easily, that the monster consumes “more milk, she’s sure, than her baby ever gets,” Rae is nevertheless convinced that this is the only way to protect her son from harm. Night after night, she nurses the demon, then slips back into bed minutes before the rest of her family wakes up.
At first blush, it’s easy to identify this devil with the voice of self-doubt that torments new parents and other similarly browbeaten or sleep-deprived demographics (perfectionists, high school freshmen, PhD candidates). It’s recognizable as the inner monologue that guilts the mother who has to feed her baby formula or drop her three-month-old off at day care to return to work sooner than she’d like. On one level, it is true that the devil embodies the toxic self-flagellation that plagues the emotionally vulnerable. But what I love about Russell’s work here, and in her earlier pieces, is that her devils are never just allegorical phantasms but actual creatures with prickly tails, thorny lashes, and uneven teeth that take chunks out of people’s shins. The story’s bleakness, intensified by Rae’s isolation as she grapples alone with her demon, takes a hilarious turn when Rae tells the members of a mom group about her problem and is met with nonchalance from alpha mom Yvette:
Yvette doesn’t bat a false eyelash. Indeed, a look of naked exasperation flashes across her carefully made-up face.
“That fucking thing. It’s been coming south of Powell?”
The aisle seems to narrow, enclosing them in a daylit tunnel. Is Yvette making fun of her?”
“You … you’ve heard of it?”
“Uh-huh. Two winters ago, after my second daughter was born, it came around every night. It moved under my house and never shut up.” She shakes her head.
Rae’s cheeks are on fire. “Did you … did it promise you something, too?”
“Oh,” Yvette says, and laughs bitterly. “It certainly tried. I wasn’t interested.”
Yvette’s startlingly matter-of-fact reaction literalizes the devil in a way that validates Rae’s desperation — even while it trivializes her helplessness — and offers the hope of exorcism. Rather than tease the ambiguity of the devil’s tangibility and leave us wondering if Rae is experiencing some sort of postpartum, sleep-deprived insanity (the way the dark romanticism of Hawthorne or du Maurier might), Russell — who is often classified as a fabulist alongside writers like Angela Carter, Kelly Link, Carmen Maria Machado, and Helen Oyeyemi — grounds the supernatural in a firmly real, at times even mundane, world. In Orange World and Other Stories, actual demons and ghosts externalize, yet do not replace, the inner ones we know so well.
A cousin of magical realism, fabulism is described by Amber Sparks in Electric Literature this way:
Strange things happen and characters react by shrugging: animals talk, people fly, the dead get up and walk around. Time operates sideways, nature behaves mysteriously; fabulism feels like the kind of dream in which you look down and realize reality has forgotten its pants.
The ease with which the other moms accept Rae’s story gives paranormal eeriness its full due in a way that never happens in the real world. For once, a young mother’s fears are treated not as maternal hysteria or a symptom of exhaustion but as actual problems that deserve collective resolution. Just as Russell’s and other fabulist writers’ deployment of the supernatural blurs the snobbish line that has been drawn between literature and genre fiction — especially sci-fi or fantasy — it also makes real the concerns and problems often dismissed as trivial because they are experienced by demographics — women, people of color, the poor, the uneducated — that mainstream culture treats as overly delicate, querulous, or stupid.
Parenthood is an effective subject for discovering inner landscapes of fear because of all the emotional baggage that comes with childcare. Orange World and Other Stories, though, extends its fabulist gaze beyond breast milk and mom groups. At its core, the collection is about the bargains we try to make with ourselves when our desires fail to align with reality. After all, what is cognitive dissonance if not the use of fantasy to bridge an unbridgeable gap between parallel worlds?
This is palpable in “The Prospectors,” the collection’s opening story, which features two young grifters who crash the gala opening of a luxurious mountaintop lodge built by Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration workers during the Great Depression. Too late, they realize they’ve taken the wrong lift and that they’re actually in the spectral mirage of a lodge that perished years ago in an avalanche, along with 26 men who built it. The only way Clara and Aubergine can make it out alive is to play along with the ghosts of the workers: “[W]e had to persuade our dead hosts that we believed they were alive.” At first this seems simple since, as Aubergine explains, it is something they’ve always done to appease and charm the men they plan to swindle; all they have to do is “be very cautious, very amenable,” and laugh to perform “nerves or weakness, or the hysterical looning of desire.” But Aubergine, who is the narrator and homely wing-woman to Clara’s beauty, quickly finds herself attracted to the ghost of Lee, a young man who “was so funny that I did not have to theatricalize my laughter.” By the time they retire to one of the lodge’s rooms, Aubergine admits: “I felt my will to know the truth ebbing into a happy, warm insanity. We could all be dead — why not? We could be in love, me and a dead boy.” She’s deluded not by the boy who treats her like a princess, but by her own desperation to be found attractive.
All of the stories in Orange World open with a crisp swiftness that feels like in medias res on steroids. This will lull you into believing you’re reading about ordinary worlds. Only then will Russell deliver, sometimes building gradually and sometimes via an abrupt slap, the often hilarious and always absurd truth. “Bog Girl: A Romance” opens economically with “[t]he young turf cutter fell hard for his first girlfriend while operating heavy machinery in the peatlands.” A couple pages later, the girlfriend turns out to be the 2,000-year-old body of a murdered girl trapped and perfectly mummified in peat. This farcical premise is outdone only by the local authorities’ reaction to the body: “Once it had been determined that the girl was not a recent murder victim, the police relaxed. The chief asked Cillian a single question: ‘You’re going to keep her, then?’” And keep her he does; Cillian and his silent, ancient girlfriend become the hottest item in their tiny island community. That is, until the creepily poignant ending where Cillian gets exactly what he bargained for. The narrator of “The Tornado Auction” rambles on about barns, corn, and aging until you mistake him for a retired farmer. Only then is it revealed that it’s not livestock for sale at the auction he’s attending, but manmade meteorological phenomena — from immature storms to twisters bred specifically for the purpose of demolishing condemned structures.
Russell’s writing is at times overly lush, like the rich landscapes she describes. But even at its most profligate, her ability to give weird and creepy shape to what might otherwise remain dark corners of the human psyche is refreshing. Orange World and Other Stories is a collection hovering on the threshold between horror and comedy, between the phantasmagoric and the fleshly. Its duplicity echoes the duplicity with which society often treats mothers. On the one hand, we’re supposed to be these fierce mother-[bears/wolves/insert-predator-of-choice-here]. On the other, I’ve been subtly told that I might be too susceptible to watch The Handmaid’s Tale or Leaving Neverland, “especially now.” Russell isn’t afraid to go there. To read Orange World and Other Stories feels like witnessing someone capture what a lot of us are afraid to contemplate in the dark, so we only look at it head-on as it fades into nonsense with the light of day.