BASS 2019: Karen Russell, “Black Corfu” from Zoetrope: All-Story #22.2

I wrote the original draft of “Black Corfu“ in a feverish season of hope and fear; while I was pregnant with my son and considering the unlevel landscapes that children inherit from a new vantage point…. How many people today feel trapped in their orbits, unable to ladder out of poverty, despair? Condemned to work in the shadows while they watch others enjoy health, wealth, safety? The vukodlak seemed like the right vessel for a story about a father’s “zombie” hopes – those undead dreams of freedom that stalk a world where they are as yet unfulfilled.

Karen Russell, Contributor Note

I haven’t read much horror fiction, What I have read has come to me via literary fiction – Bennett Sims’ A Questionable Shape, some of the short stories of Manuel Gonzales – where monsters may appear only very briefly, or even not at all, yet they set a stage for some remarkable human contemplation and drama. Add this story to that list. It’s much less about the supernatural monsters that form so much of the plot, than about the human monstrosity we experience every day.

Don’t let the setting of a 17th century Croatian island scare you away. If you’re aware that doctors and surgeons of that period were not exactly as we know them today, and if you’re familiar with the suspicion surrounding Shakespeare’s famous Moor, Othello, you’ll have no trouble. The monsters the plot revolves around – vukodlaks – seem to be something like zombie werewolves, the dead come back to life as a threat to the living, particularly those who loved them most.

The primary theme of the story is clearly racism, but several other ideas weave in and out quite effectively: rumors as disease, the Other Man, the commonality of perpetrator and victim. But let’s slow down a little; unlike the story, which begins in the middle, let’s start with our (takes a shot*) unnamed protagonist at the beginning.

His wife is very proud of the doctor’s accomplishments. Because he loves her, he never shares the black joke. Not once does he voice an objection to the injustice of his fate, or rail against what the island has made of his ambition. Above ground, the chirurgo practices medicine in his warm salon – performing salubrious bloodlettings, facilitating lactation for the pretty young noblewoman. Whereas this doctor must descend into the Neolithic caves, under the cold applause of stars.
His formal title is the Posthumous Surgeon of Korčula, yet all the bereaved know him by name….He operates on the dead – the only bodies an occupant of his caste is permitted to touch. Before his good reputation was gutted by his accusers, the doctor had a perfect record: during his twenty-three-year tenure on the island, not a single vukodlak had been sighted. Everyone slept more peacefully for his skill – the living and the dead. Whose relief was manifest in the verdant silence of the woods, in the solemn stillness of the cemetery air. Inside that pooling quiet he could hear, unwhispered, thank you, Doctor. Bless you, Doctor.

The Doctor’s job is to perform surgeries, involving cutting the hamstrings, on the newly dead, to prevent them from turning into undead vukodlaks. He had once hoped that his service, his skill, would be noticed and rewarded by allowing him to become a doctor to the living. But such is not to be for a Moor in a Christian land. His religion is not the issue (he seems, in fact, to be Christian), but his ethnicity is. I’m currently reading Don Quixote along with a period history of Spain, so I’ve been somewhat immersed in this prejudice for a couple of months. Sangre limpieza – clean blood, untarnished by Moorish or Jewish ancestors who converted to Christianity generations earlier – became an obsession for Spain, a requirement for government positions by the middle of the 16th century. From the story, it seems a similar restriction was in place along the Adriatic coast. The Doctor will not be allowed to rise, literally or figuratively. He makes the best of it: “We treat the living. We treat the fears of the living.”

The events of the story are set in motion by the arrival of Jure, a teenager from an elite family on a neighboring island, an island overrun with vukodlaks. They need a Doctor of the Dead, and he was chosen to fill the role. Why? The Doctor speculates that, while he is from a privileged family, he is too dull to fill any other role. Jure, however, is ill-suited to this role, as becomes evident: he doesn’t study, doesn’t learn, and is constantly afraid of the dark, the cave, the dead bodies, the howls in the night.

The boy stiffens. “Oh God,” he says, jerking back with a shudder. “There has been some mistake. I do not belong down here with you. Please, I want to go home.”
“Home” being synonymous, for this lucky young man, with the sunlit world above.
Blessed are the living, thinks the doctor, his scalpel poised.

When rumors of a vukodlak begin, the boy sees his chance to get out of the dark: he claims the Doctor made a mistake on one of his patients, the daughter of the most elite family on the island. Later he embellishes the story to add an illicit romance. The Doctor’s years of service, his perfect record, no longer matter. All that matters is who is the Moor and who is not. There’s a twist in that the boy’s complexion hints that his family may not have clean blood, but it’s cleaner than the Moor’s.

What I really like about this story is how Russell moves beyond mere plot. The Doctor views the rumors of his incompetence as illness, a contagion; today we’d call it infection, but this was before germ theory, so such spreading illnesses are attributed to miasma, bad air.

So the rumor has penetrated the walls of his home, the mind of his child. …
What if the miasma of the rumor is already changing? Becoming even more poisonous,contagious –
I will have to keep the girls indoors from now on, to prevent their further contamination
What will happen to him, if he cannot stop the rumor from spreading, transforming?

What better way of considering racism as a societal norm, than as bad air, an atmosphere that affects everyone though it can only be seen from outside? Jake Weber’s post looks at the story in the context of the recently released movie Parasite, which, in a darkly comic way, deals with a similar stratification by class rather than by race; I went to see the movie myself, and it’s an interesting comparison.

I’m not sure if it’s related to the racism, but there’s a great deal of color in the story. Mostly red and blue – suggestive colors in a contemporary setting, if not the 16th century – but also black, white, and a sprinkling of others. I don’t see a pattern offhand; I’m tempted to take a few days and look more closely, but prior trips down rabbit holes like these have not really been worth the time expended, so I’ll pass for now at least.

The Doctor’s wife suggests he confess and beg forgiveness, and he is devastated that she has succumbed to the contagion of the rumors. “In an act of spontaneous reformation, his wife immolates her image of him as a perfect man, resurrects him, and forgives him.” But it goes beyond that: he becomes enraged with her, because how could she be so loving, reaching out her hand, if she believed he had caused the vukodlak to emerge? It’s an interesting twisting of threads: he is shocked and ultimately disgusted by her forgiveness. In spite of efforts to find the monster, no one has reported actually seeing it, but the rumors grow. Can you say “fake news?” The townspeople dig up the girl’s casket and find her body is missing, seemingly confirming the horror. But the Doctor has a good idea how this could have happened, and though it involves a monster, it has nothing to do with any vukodlak.

The Doctor sees himself now as the Other Man in a different way: he has become a vukodlak, roaming the hills in the darkness. In a heartbreaking scene, we see him climbing up the hill to the home of the girl who has risen as a werewolf, the most elite home on the island, where the boy Jure is now staying, secure among the elite; he watches the luxurious dinner, the gentle company, through a window from the dark, cold outside:

It is suddenly all too easy to understand why the boy from Lastovo which moved the countess’s body.
We are in the same predicament, then, the doctor considers. You do not want to be a liar, anymore than I wanted to be a monster.

The final scene is ambiguous enough to require re-evaluation of both the Doctor’s story, and the story itself. I spent a long time thinking about it, and I still haven’t made up my mind.

This is one of the stories in Russell’s collection, Orange World, published this past Spring. Between BASS and Pushcart, I’ve read half of the eight stories.

* Jake and I have a little drinking game going, and unnamed protagonists are one of the triggers.

Pushcart XLIII: Karen Russell, “The Tornado Auction” from Zoetrope: All-Story, Summer 2017

The auction is a quarterly event, and until my retirement I attended every one. You’ll read in the papers that ours is a “graying community,” a defunct way of life. But on auction day, it never feels so. Scattered around the parking lot, over a hundred twitching, immature storms dimple the roofs of their trailers, like pipping chicks testing their shells. Their wailing surrounds and fills the barn, harmonizing with the hum of machinery. The viper pit of hoses, the blue convection modules stuck to every wall like big, square dewdrops—the various modern wet nurses that keep a developing storm alive. “Back in the Dark Ages, all we had to work with was liquid propane and the real wind,” my old man liked to remind me.
On my way in, I’d passed a quintet of freshly weaned storms, all sired by the same cumuliform supercell out of Dalhart. Beautiful orphans, thriving independently. I’d known this line of clouds my whole life; that Dalhart stud cell was famous when I was a kid. Its signature thunder went rolling through many a turbulent generation, and I smiled to hear it once more. In the refracted glow of such a shimmering lineage, you get the child-joy, the child-fever. I’ll turn seventy-four this March, and it doesn’t matter: that joy regresses you.

It’s a story that may lose some readers along the way. It kind of lost me, though I kept reading. And when, eventually, it turned, it hit me with the force of, yes, a tornado. I may have even gasped. I certainly ended up in tears when I realized what was really going on.

But back to the beginning: Bob Wurman, retired tornado farmer, goes to the storm auction and, spending his life savings, buys himself a baby tornado. Karen Russell has a talent for painting fantasy scenarios in real colors, and this is no exception. The auction, the purchase, Bob’s demeanor is very much like you’d expect from a farmer buying a colt or a calf or even a puppy to raise to champion status in some domain. The reaction of friends and family – they think he’s lost his mind – is likewise well-tuned to the aging-crackpot-goes-rogue trope.

Many literary science fiction stories gloss over the technical details, painting in broad strokes so as to avoid going afoul of real science. But Russell plows right into the thick of things. I was pretty skeptical; but I’ve been fooled before, so I googled around, and sure enough, artificial tornadoes do exist. The biggest one lives in a chamber in the Mercedes Benz Museum in Germany; the technology was developed to quickly eliminate smoke. Science nerds can even make their own tornado-in-a-box.

Russell takes this into fictional territory: in her world, storms somehow can be released from their containers, and have, in the past, been used for demolition work (aiming them is precision art) and for something called tornado rides. Both uses are now outlawed, so most of Bob’s fellow tornado ranchers have downgraded to wind farming – literally generating wind, not building windmills in areas that are naturally windy – with a few dirt devils sold to rodeos and the like. Bob misses the big stuff.

It’s interesting for those who might enjoy a glimpse of science, or the creation of alternate reality, but it goes on for a very long time before we get the first hint there’s something else at work here.

Raising a tornado, you are always dreaming of its dying day. That’s the breeders ultimate vision – to build a storm until its can unwind spectacularly, releasing all of its cultivated fury, evanescing before your eyes. Whereas with my daughters, I have to pretend they’ll live forever. The alternative is too terrible to contemplate. If there is a life after this one, I’ll be dead myself and still pretending.
My oldest daughter was four pounds at birth, and her appearance flooded the earth with an infinite number of horrors and perils, a demonic surge of catastrophic possibilities out of all proportion to the tiny mass in my arms. Love unlids a Pandora’s box. …. They were born at the same moment, twins: our baby daughter and the dangers.

That’s the line that did me in – “love unlids a Pandora’s box.” This is the story’s point of connection with the Pam Houston essay that preceded it – to love is to risk, to know that it’s likely one’s heart will one day be broken. Yet we love anyway. And in this case, although it may be loving that breaks Bob Wurman, it is also, ultimately, loving that saves him.

I seem to have regained the spoiler-shyness I lost during the last BASS; the story is not available online, but I think the impact is much greater the less you know. The problem is that I fear too many readers will give up, will think it’s just a fancy sci-fi story about an old man getting his last chance at glory, and they won’t bother to wade through the weather talk to get to the heart of the matter. So I’ve tried to compromise with a strong hint.

For those who want a more writerly look at the story, I recommend Jake Weber’s analysis at Workshop Heretic. He goes into more detail about plot, the symbolism of the storms, and, most importantly, points out where the story itself teaches the reader how to read it. Because it isn’t about tornadoes, after all.

BASS 2016: Karen Russell, “The Prospectors” from TNY 6/8/15

Those first weeks alone were an education. The West was very poor at that moment, owing to the Depression. But it was still home to many aspiring and expiring millionaires, and we made it our job to make their acquaintance. One aging oil speculator paid for our meals and our transit and required only that we absorb his memories; Clara nicknamed him the “allegedly legendary wit.” He had three genres of tale: business victories; sporting adventures that ended in the death of mammals; and eulogies for his former virility.
We met mining captains and fishing captains, whose whiskers quivered like those of orphaned seals. The freckled heirs to timber fortunes. Glazy baronial types, with portentous and misguided names: Romulus and Creon, who were pleased to invite us to gala dinners, and to use us as their gloating mirrors. In exchange for this service, Clara and I helped ourselves to many fine items from their houses. Clara had a magic satchel that seemed to expand with our greed, and we stole everything it could swallow. Dessert spoons, candlesticks, a poodle’s jewelled collar. We strode out of parties wearing our hostess’s two-toned heels, woozy with adrenaline. Crutched along by Clara’s sturdy charm, I was swung through doors that led to marmoreal courtyards and curtained salons and, in many cases, master bedrooms, where my skin glowed under the warm reefs of artificial lighting.

~ Complete story available online at TNY

Somehow, Russell has managed to combine the realism-into-fantasy of Erdrich’s “The Flower” and Bynum’s “The Bears”, the humor-over-tragedy and momentum of Smith Henderson’s “Treasure State”, historical fiction, mystery, and religious allegory into one very readable story. It’s one of the longer stories in the anthology, but it zips right by.

The Timberline Lodge in Oregon serves as the historical basis for the primary setting of the story. It was indeed built during the Depression as a WPA project, and is maintained as an Historic Site even as it currently operates as a high-end ski lodge. The project provided work for those who desperately needed it, and left a permanent reminder of its purpose. And now it serves a purpose as the model for the Evergreen Lodge, the destination of Aubergine and Clara, two girls from opposite sides of the tracks who ran away together, from very different things.

But winter hit, and our mining prospects dimmed considerably. The Oregon coastline was laced with ghost towns; two paper mills had closed, and whole counties had gone bankrupt. Men were flocking inland to the mountains, where the rumor was that the W.P.A. had work for construction teams. I told Clara that we needed to follow them. So we thumbed a ride with a group of work-starved Astoria teen-agers who had heard about the Evergreen Lodge. Gold dust had drawn the first prospectors to these mountains; those boys were after the weekly three-dollar salary. But if government money was snowing onto Mt. Joy, it had yet to reach the town below. I’d made a bad miscalculation, suggesting Lucerne….Day after day, I told Clara not to worry: “We just need one good night.” We kept lying to each other, pretending that our hunger was part of the game. Social graces get you meagre results in a shuttered town.

Prospecting for gold and the more pejorative “gold digger” are thus linked. And all they need is a decent strike. Enter the shadowy Eugene, who suggests the grand opening party at the Evergreen Lodge. But nothing’s ever that simple, and the story takes a turn from real to surreal when Aubby says, “I think we may have taken the wrong lift.” The prospecting goes awry, though they eventually encounter gold of a sort: they never call it a canary but the yellow bird bursting with song is clearly the canary in the coal mine, the warning.

I found it to be an exciting story, keeping my curiosity high and the pages turning. At first, it was, I wonder what’s going to happen. Then, almost without realizing it, that changed to I wonder if, how they’re going to get out of it. Although I didn’t feel a lot of strong emotion, I did feel protective of these girls. Yes, they’re playing a dangerous game, they’re walking on the wild side, but between Clara’s bruises and Aubby’s background (Aubergine is the French word for eggplant, but it’s also a color: the deep purple of a bruise) and the Depression, can we really blame them? Aubby isn’t without insight, however belated it may be:

She flicked her eyes up at me, her gaze limpid and accusatory. And I felt I’d become fluent in the language of eyes; now I saw what she’d known all along. What she’d been swallowing back on our prospecting trips, what she’d never once screamed at me, in the freezing boarding house: You use me. Every party, you bait the hook, and I dangle. I let them, I am eaten, and what do I get? Some scrap metal?
“I’m sorry, Clara . . . ”
My apology opened outward, a blossoming horror. I’d used her bruises to justify leaving Florida. I’d used her face to open doors. Greed had convinced me I could take care of her up here, and then I’d disappeared on her. How long had Clara known what I was doing? I’d barely known myself.

As with most stories, I wouldn’t call it perfect. The “wrong lift” feels a little manipulative, sprung on the reader as there’s no indication of more than one lift until it’s needed. The symbolism is a little on-the-nose. But it’s an engrossing read, kind of a whirlwind you can’t stop watching. And the girls tugged at my heart despite, or maybe because of, their foolish choices; I was cheering for them. And, most importantly, it says something: you may have to go through hell, but if you keep yourself honest and heed warnings, you might come out of it with something better than gold. Clichéd? Sure, but I take comfort where I can these days. Any story that does all that, isn’t half bad.

Pushcart 2015/BASS 2014: Karen Russell, “Madame Bovary’s Greyhound” from Zoetrope, #17:2

Art by Ruma Hari: “Emma and Djali”

A dog’s love is forever. We expect infidelity from one another; we marvel at this one’s ability to hold that one’s interest for fifty, sixty years; perhaps some of us feel a secret contempt for monogamy even as we extol it, wishing parole for its weary participants. But dogs do not receive our sympathy or our suspicion – from dogs we presume an eternal adoration.
In the strange case of Mme. Bovary’s greyhound, however, “forever” was a tensed muscle that began to shake.

In her BASS Contributor Note (highly detailed and informative, well worth reading) Russell described a moment during her writing of this story: “blinking into the light of a hard truth: OK, I thought, I am writing Flaubert fan fiction.” So what: Homer, Ovid, Dante, Milton, Shaw, Joyce, revered members of the literary historical canon, all wrote fan fiction, not to mention more contemporary writers like Smiley, Oates, Brooks, and Chabon, and no doubt a host of others. Some themes bear additional exploration, and if an author depends on an existing work to lend background, to cover ancillary ground, well, when was the last time writing didn’t evoke something previously written. Get over it.

I read Madame Bovary for a MOOC just last year, but I didn’t remember the greyhound. That’s a shame, because the whole question of why Flaubert included the dog in his story opens the door to speculation and, yes, fan fiction. Russell really takes the alternate-protagonist idea for a ride, managing to evoke Flaubert’s style and parallel part of Emma’s emotional journey while at the same time drawing some important distinctions between the woman and the dog. Spoiler alert: the dog comes out looking much, much better than the woman. But with Emma Bovary as a base, who wouldn’t.

The greyhound was ignorant of many things. She had no idea, for example, that she was a greyhound. She didn’t know that her breed had originated in southern Italy, an ancient pet in Pompeii, a favorite of the thin-nosed English lords and ladies, or that she was perceived to be affectionate, intelligent, and loyal. What she did know, with a whole-body thrill, was the music of her woman coming up the walk, the dizzying explosion of perfume as the door swung wide. She knew when her mistress was pleased with her, and that approval was the fulcrum of her happiness.

In Flaubert’s narrative, a gamekeeper gives the dog to Emma in gratitude for Charles having cured some ailment; Russell instead has Charles as the source of the dog. I’m not sure if this is a minor oversight (I suspect not, given the attention to detail of the original with which this story is constructed) or if there’s a point there, Perhaps it would’ve been assumed that the gamekeeper in fact gave the dog to Charles, and it naturally happened that it became in fact Emma’s dog. It’s a curious discrepancy. The name “Djali” was in Flaubert, perhaps referring to the goat from The Hunchback of Notre Dame (I wasn’t able to find any literary analysis on Flaubert’s use of the dog); whether it was the gamekeeper, or Emma, who named the dog, I don’t know, though it seems reasonable to assume Emma would have been familiar with the book, and the notion of having a sidekick to her performance might appeal to her. The pronunciation, similar to “jolly,” is a red herring, since Flaubert of course wrote in French, but it lends an interesting touch to the English.

Because the full depth of Russell’s story depends on Flaubert, I made a few side-by-side comparisons of passages that struck me as particularly parallel:

Flaubert Russell
She began by looking round her to see if nothing had changed since last she had been there. She found again in the same places the foxgloves and wallflowers, the beds of nettles growing round the big stones, and the patches of lichen along the three windows, whose shutters, always closed, were rotting away on their rusty iron bars. Her thoughts, aimless at first, wandered at random, like her greyhound, who ran round and round in the fields, yelping after the yellow butterflies, chasing the shrew-mice, or nibbling the poppies on the edge of a cornfield. Then gradually her ideas took definite shape, and, sitting on the grass that she dug up with little prods of her sunshade, Emma repeated to herself, “Good heavens! why did I marry?” They took walks to the beech grove at Banneville, near the abandoned pavilion. Foxglove and gillyflowers, beige lichen growing in one thick, crawling curtain around the socketed windows. Moths blinked wings at them, crescents of blue and red and tiger-yellow, like eyes caught in a net.
Emma sat and poked at the grass with the skeletal end of her parasol, as if she were trying to blind each blade.
“Oh, why did I ever get married?” she moaned aloud, again and again.
The greyhound whined with her, distressed by her distress. Sometimes, in a traitorous fugue, the dog forgot to be unhappy and ran off to chase purple butterflies or murder shrew mice, or to piss a joyful stream onto the topiaries. But generally, if her mistress was crying, so was the puppy.
She bought a plan of Paris, and with the tip of her finger on the map she walked about the capital. She went up the boulevards, stopping at every turning, between the lines of the streets, in front of the white squares that represented the houses. At last she would close the lids of her weary eyes, and see in the darkness the gas jets flaring in the wind and the steps of carriages lowered with much noise before the peristyles of theatres.
She took in “La Corbeille,” a lady’s journal, and the “Sylphe des Salons.” She devoured, without skipping a word, all the accounts of first nights, races, and soirées, took an interest in the début of a singer, in the opening of a new shop. She knew the latest fashions, the addresses of the best tailors, the days of the Bois and the Opera. In Eugène Sue she studied descriptions of furniture; she read Balzac and George Sand, seeking in them imaginary satisfaction for her own desires. Even at table she had her book by her, and turned over the pages while Charles ate and talked to her. The memory of the Viscount always returned as she read…Paris, more vague than the ocean, glimmered before Emma’s eyes in an atmosphere of vermilion.
Even asleep, the little greyhound trailed after her madame, through a weave of green stars and gas lamps, along the boulevards of Paris. It was a conjured city that no native would recognize – Emma Bovary’s head on the pillow, its architect. Her Paris was assembled from a guidebook with an out-of-date map, and from the novels of Balzac and Sand, and from her vividly disordered recollections of the viscount’s ball at La Vaubyessard, with its odor of dying flowers, burning flambeaux, and truffles.
Emma, on the other hand, knew how to look after her house. She sent the patients’ accounts in well-phrased letters that had no suggestion of a bill. When they had a neighbor to dinner on Sundays, she managed to have some dainty dish—piled up pyramids of green-gages on vine leaves, served up preserves turned out into plates—and even spoke of buying finger-glasses for dessert. From all this, much consideration was extended to Bovary. Dr. Charles Bovary returned home, whistling after another successful day of leeches and bloodletting in the countryside, to a house of malcontent females.
Emma was stacking a pyramid of greengage plums.
The little greyhound was licking her genitals.
She asked herself if by some other chance combination it would not have been possible to meet another man; and she tried to imagine what would have been these unrealized events, this different life, this unknown husband. All, surely, could not be like this one. He might have been handsome, witty, distinguished, attractive, such as, no doubt, her old companions of the convent had married. She wondered if there might not have been some other way, through a different set of circumstances, of meeting another woman; and she tried to imagine those events that should not happen, that shadow life.…Djali had observed a flatulent malamute trailing his old man in the park, each animal besotted with the other. Blue poodles, inbred and fat, smugly certain of their women’s adoration. She’d seen a balding Pomeranian riding high in a toy wagon, doted on by the son of a cane. Not all humans were like Emma Bovary.
An accident had delayed him. Madame Bovary’s greyhound had run across the field. They had whistled for him a quarter of an hour; Hivert had even gone back a mile and a half expecting every moment to catch sight of her; but it had been necessary to go on. Emma had wept, grown angry; she had accused Charles of this misfortune. On the way to Yonville, the greyhound wandered fifty yards from the Bovarys’ stagecoach. Then she broke into a run.
“Djaliiii!” Emma shrieked, uncorking a spray of champagne-yellow birds from the nearby poplars. “Stay!”
Weightlessly the dog entered the forest.
“Stay! Stay! Stay!” the humans called after her, their directives like bullets missing their target. Her former mistress, the screaming woman, was a stranger. And the greyhound lunged forward, riding the shoals of her own green-flecked shadow.

Russell compares dog and woman more directly as well, in a couple of particularly fun tributes to parallelism-turning-towards-bathos, while still bringing in Flaubert:

This strain of virulent misery, this falling out of love caused different symptoms, unique disruptions, in dogs and humans.
The greyhound, for example, shat everywhere.
Whereas Emma shopped for fabrics in the town.
Emma was stacking a pyramid of greengage plums.
The little greyhound was licking her genitals.

Perhaps the stacking of the greengage plums can be viewed as Emma’s self-gratification since she gets none, sexual or otherwise, from Charles at this point. The fabrics are particularly interesting; not only is there a note of passive-aggressiveness about her overspending, but Homard, the merchant who sells the fabrics, is the ultimate agent of Emma’s doom, systematically (and quite cold-bloodedly, I might add) driving her invisibly into debt, until she is without, not money, which in itself holds little interest for her, but without the means to provide herself with entertainments and fashions that become her sole source of pleasure. It’s a nicely constructed mini-dichotomy in that passage.

The style overall follows Flaubert’s overinvolved narrator, the free indirect discourse that got him tried for indecency. She even extends it to self-referential authorial intrusion (if I understand those concepts correctly) in one passage linking Emma’s and Djali’s discontent: “It is tempting to conclude that, somehow transmitted her wanderlust to Djali; but perhaps this is the sentimental impulse, a storyteller’s desire to sink to flickering hearts.”

While there isn’t an exact one-to-one correspondence of the above passages, they convey parallel scenes, and Russell brings in details from other sections – the truffles at La Vaubyessard, Charles’ favorite medical techniques, the subtle reference to Homard – which increases the sense of cross-over. It is, after all, the story of two individuals falling out of love – and what they do about it. And what they do about it is quite different: Emma escapes via deception thus retaining security unearned with loyalty and fidelity; the dog, a more honest creature, simply flees.

If you get the impression this has been a massive spoiler – not so. This is merely the beginning of the story. Djali’s character continues to develop over several more sections (even the use of named sections brings to mind Flaubert’s named chapters) until a natural recapitulation is reached. But I’ll leave that for the reader.

The differences between how Emma and Djali deal with their disaffection play out over time. For me, that’s where this story, which I found very successful (as, I see, did the Pushcart editors, as they’ve included it in XXXIX), lives. The dog definitely comes out on top.

Pushcart 2013: Karen Russell, “A FAMILY RESTAURANT” from Conjunctions #57, Fall 2011

"Trellis" wallpaper design by William Morris, 1862

“Trellis” wallpaper design by William Morris, 1862

This morning, my father approached me waving the new menu from RAY’S ITALIAN FEATS, our rival across the street, and demanded that I type this up for you.
“Write the story. It’s a menu, Leni, it’s supposed to have the story.”
“Which one?”
“Jesus, I don’t know, the story, our story! The family story!”

This is all-in-one fiction: a tragicomic family saga/mystery. As I read, I could see Leni writing, at a small table in an out-of-the-way corner of A FAMILY RESTAURANT; I could hear her voice. It’s a terrific read. I’m left with some questions as the end, but maybe that isn’t such a bad thing.

The Bakopoulos clan meandered from Greece to an island somewhere in the vicinity of Florida a few generations back. A FAMILY RESTAURANT has been their anchor since the 70s, always in competition with Ray’s Italian Feats (Ray – “a known defroster” – meant “Feasts” but let it stand). Leni approaches her task of keeping up with the Feats dutifully, perhaps unaware of how sadly hilarious it all is. And perhaps not. Perhaps she’s telling her father something. Or maybe she’s just telling it to anyone who will read.

I’m sure there’s a folklore structure (this seems to be folk tale week) for most of the characters in this story. For instance, there’s the family matriarch, Mama; the son under her spell, Frank; and Irene, the wife he brings home from his brief stay at college when Mama’s health takes a turn for the worse and the restaurant is failing: “They were flying back in time to Frank’s childhood, the zone in which he hadn’t made her the offer, where she did not yet exist.”

Frank and Irene will become Leni’s parents, but not before Mama makes Irene miserable from Day One.

Days 2 through 182 were very much the same. In dreams Irene wiped the dishes and watched her own face shriveling, the young and vibrant layers of her life falling away like flower petals, all of the color and particularity draining out of her as she merged with the bleak, blank face of Mama.
No one lives forever. Irene gave herself this pep talk on Saturday nights, bunning sea dogs near the window with the big fan, straining to see the actual sea. Black waves tugged away from her, as if the world were on a wire, and the night would jump, retreat, jump again. Her eyes could only see so far into the twinkling mist that separated the island from the peninsula, but she had faith that it was there. Twenty minutes by boat. They could get back to it.

What gives me pause here is that this happened before Leni was born; how does she know about it? Either it’s part of the story that’s been told to her (by her father? Her mother? Unlikely, either way, as we’ll see) or she’s made it up out of her own life. These issues didn’t occur to me until after I’d read the story, by the way; it was engrossing and I didn’t get all meta about it until afterwards.

Mama does eventually die, on the same day Irene finds out she’s pregnant with Leni. But that day is remembered for another legacy: a recipe Mama discloses to Frank with her dying breath, in Greek. It’s tape-recorded and translated, then implemented complete with a secret ingredient known only to Mama and Frank. Mama’s buried in Greece, the SPECIAL OF THE DAY #6: MAMA’S DEATHBED SHERBET is added to the menu, and the restaurant business takes off as everyone – customers, celebrities, corporations – offer huge sums for the recipe. Frank keeps his secret; he makes the sherbet in a special kitchen he has built, off the main kitchen, a locked kitchen with no windows. He visits Greece once a year to obtain more of the secret ingredient, which, whatever it is, fits in his duffel bag.

Irene never tastes the sherbet during her pregnancy until the last night, at which point, overtaken by one of those pregnancy cravings, she consumes bowls of the stuff. Then Leni was born:

There was my face, which was also the puckered, miniaturized face of Mama Bakopoulos. … My first days were black ones for my mother. At times she was certain that I was an anchor, flung overboard by Mama from beyond the grave, intended to secure her permanent mooring at A FAMILY RESTAURANT.… Irene watched me like a mirror, waited for her blue eyes to open in my face, for her face to surface in my flesh. But I failed, I couldn’t repeat any part of her.… every night, to please my mother, I was praying for a different face.

As I’m pulling these quotes, I’m wondering how I could call this piece humorous. This goes beyond providing ballast; this is heavy stuff. I recall reading “The Ballad of Mushie Momzer” last year, a similar family saga/folk tale, and hating it, recognizing the voice as humor but finding the content to be depressing (as well as ridiculously bawdy in a sixth-grade way). Maybe I’ve developed the sense required to appreciate this combination of pathos and goofiness. I should read that story again.

The secret ingredient of the sherbet, Irene’s attempts to deal with what life has handed her, and the aftermath of her failure to do so, provide the structure and momentum for the rest of the story. I won’t spoil it; it’s intricate, and worth reading. Things change, of course. Irene leaves; Frank “runs out” of the Secret Ingredient, and still won’t tell Leni what it was:

“Leni,” he said, touching my cheek gingerly. “I’m sorry. Really, it won’t grow anymore. It got, ah” – he frowned, rummaging for the word he’d found in the dictionary to explain what had happened to it after Irene divorced him – “extirpated.”

For years I burned with an anger that I found easiest to direct at my father, the paterfamilias who had cursed me with this face, the secret hoarder, who wouldn’t even try to ease the beating pain in me by drawing me closer, telling me the whole recipe. For years, the ingredient remained a permanent blank in Our Story. Gradually I came to accept that Frank was telling the truth on one count: Whatever glue had held the three of us together, the bloodred epoxy that makes a family, was gone.

I wrote something a few weeks ago about parents and children being in different universes, and how that sometimes accounts for what seems like a lack of empathy as one doesn’t recognize what’s important to the other. Here, it’s more of Frank’s deliberate choice to keep himself separate from Leni, to hoard a secret beyond the ingredient for the sherbet. A fundamental secret: loneliness and heartbreak. Because, he may think, what good would it do to share it with Leni? Is it perhaps more loving, more generous, to serve as the target for her anger?

He does eventually reveal the end of the story, the secret ingredient, during a scary bout of pneumonia. And that’s how we leave this family, with him telling Leni to match the story now on the menu at Ray’s Italian Feats. Leni still wonders about the dessert, which hasn’t been served for nearly 40 years now, as she writes:

Today I have some new theories about the popularity of our dessert at A FAMILY RESTAURANT. What we gave them was only disguised as food, I think. It seemed to nourish some hidden mouth, some universally parched place. Just writing about it here, I can feel that spot in me beginning to salivate. I don’t know what to call it, but it’s what I spent my early lifetime catering to at A FAMILY RESTAURANT.

I’ve often said I like stories that let me project into the future. That isn’t quite the case with this one, but I’m left wondering about Leni. Her story includes her past, but not her dreams or any plans for the future. Has she ever been off the island? Has she ever wanted to leave? Or was her destiny sealed on the night she was born, with her mother gorging on the sherbet, assuring Leni would put down roots in the restaurant that would never weaken? Is she happy? Is she blooming? Or is she stunted and shriveled like her mother before her? Extirpated in situ?

Late addition: The Millions just today (I’ve added this just before this is scheduled for posting) published an essay, “On The Stories Recipes Remember.” Cooking shows have long talked about the stories our food tells about us. So I suppose I do have a projection to make from this story. The capitalization of A FAMILY RESTAURANT – of Ray’s restaurant, for that matter – manifests what seems clear: the restaurant shouts the loudest. And I’m betting someone over at Ray’s went through a similar family saga before coming up with 800 words suitable for the back of a menu. Frank will look at Leni’s version of the Bakopoulos family story and perhaps learn something about his daughter before he shrinks it down to acceptable proportions, acceptable content, and insert it into the menu – which carries in secret this family’s story.

BASS 2010: Karen Russell, “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach”

Faust's Homunculus

Faust's Homunculus, 19th century engraving, unknown artist

I’m not sure where the seagulls came from. In retrospect, it seems a little bonkers to have ever thought, “Of course, what this story needs more of are time-traveling seagulls!” Maybe for me the horror of the gulls has something to do with the fizzy sensation that many unseen forces must be altering our lives in the future. And the unsettling fact that things are going to happen to us and to our loved ones without any regard for our beliefs about what’s “meant to be.”

That isn’t from the story itself; it’s from the Contributor’s Notes, but it adds a flavor to the story that I sort of missed on first read. I have trouble seeing humor sometimes, when grimness is presented as humorous. In this story, there’s plenty of grimness, and, yes, humor as well. And seagulls. But you must’ve guessed that.

Nal is a very smart young teen whose life is unraveling bit by bit. His mother was fired from her job. This means Nal can’t go to the summer school program he’d qualified for, one that came with a promise of a college scholarship if all four summers are completed. His cousin Steve, as part of taking a mail order course (the story is set in 1979, pre-internet) from a beauty school, does awful things to his hair for practice, resulting in something like blue tentacles over his forehead. His brother Samson starts dating Vanessa, the girl Nal has adored from afar for a while now. Nal’s having a rough time. And then the seagulls arrive, lots of them, and they turn out to be scavengers who gather things, including a coin dated a couple of years in the future, and… a screw. This serves as a platform to dive into “fate” and how it gets meddled with and leads Nal to take matters more firmly into his own hands and get the girl for himself.

I was disoriented most of the way through the story because the aforementioned barber course was from Nevada, America, which meant to me the story didn’t take place in the US, but I didn’t pick up exactly where it did take place. Names like Nal (unusual but no discernable ethnicity for me), Samson and Steve were no help. Finally Whitsunday Island was mentioned which made me think Australia or New Zealand (it turns out to be the former). But for half the story, I didn’t know if “Nevada, America” was an ironic comment on how far out of touch they were, or if this was set in some strange imaginary world where Nevada seceded (it does dance the magical realism waltz), or something else, and it mattered to me. I should’ve looked up Atherton, which is in the first sentence of the story. But it isn’t like Atherton naturally leads one to think, “Oh, sure, that’s in Australia!” I am disappointed in my inability to shrug off the uncertain setting and proceed; I think I would’ve enjoyed the first read much more had I been able to do so. But I’m also disappointed that the writer didn’t think it important enough to work into the beginning of the story.

There was a lot about this I liked very much. In the opening scene, a seagull swipes Nal’s burger from between its bun while he’s occupied obtaining mustard, and he doesn’t realize it until he bites into the meatless bread. Then he’s at the beach at night writing poetry: “White gobs of gull shit kept falling from the sky, a cascade that Nal found inimical to his writing process.” Yes, I would think so. There are days I wish I could blame my lack of progress on seagull shit. The whole seagull trope – there’s a nest in the hollow of a tree where he finds all manner of things, some from the future – is wonderful, as is the entwined theme of fate and future. The circumstances surrounding the mother losing her job, particularly the media coverage, are well-played and both realistic and outrageous. Vanessa is just strange enough – her parents freaked out when she started to develop breasts, so to get them off her back she binds her chest with an Ace bandage, having learned of such a technique from Shakespeare’s Rosalind.

And then there’s Nal’s internal homunculus:

He felt incapable of spontaneous action: before he could do anything, a tiny homunculus had to generate a flowchart in his brain. If p, then q; If z, then back to a. This homunculus could gnaw a pencil down to a nub, deliberating. All day, he could hear the homunculus clacking in his brain like a secretary from a 1940s movie; Nal shouldn’t! Nal can’t! Nal won’t! and then hitting the bell of the return key. He pictured the homunculus as a tiny, blankly handsome man in a green sweater, very agreeably going about his task of wringing the life from Nal’s life.

I think I have one of those myself.

Overall, though, the story didn’t quite hang together for me. The parts were greater than the sum. But the parts were damn good, anyway.