I really enjoyed my first attempt at writing brief discussions (well, for me they were brief) of books that had some odd element but were not good or bad enough to trigger my verbose need to discuss them in depth. I’m not sure why – maybe it was the thrill of completing an entry in a single sitting – but I’m going to keep doing it until I inevitably lose interest and go back to writing five thousand word entries for everything I read.
This particular entry is surprising because I adore short story collections. It’s really hard to disappoint me with short stories, mainly because even if there are one or two clunkers in the collection, there are bound to be a couple of stories that soar, and you can focus on those stories rather than focus on what didn’t really work. It’s strange that I found two separate short story collections completely lacking in merit, and, worse, these two collections came from authors whose other works appear in my long list of favorite books.
And this isn’t really a Middle of the Road entry because I am panning both books. I like both of the authors so much I don’t want to devote an entry to both books and give excruciating detail to prove my case as to why these are not so great.
First book for this sort-of Middle of the Road entry is I Like Being Killed by Tibor Fischer. My good friend Arafat Kazi turned me onto Fischer when he sent me a copy of The Thought Gang. Fischer is a demented writer and I thought this collection of short stories would tickle my weird bone but that didn’t happen.
(This book also has a really dumb story behind it. It turns out I already owned this book, as I evidently purchased a UK edition years ago. It was entitled Don’t Read This Book If You’re Stupid and I attempted to read it in the early oughts, likely 2003. I think it was 2003 because that was when I still went to a specific dentist and in that dental waiting room I caught some shade from a very unhappy woman who felt the title was rude and made a big deal about it. Like I guess if I was to be polite, I would have needed to have brought copies for everyone I encountered as I read in public, and offered those copies to passersby in order to show I did not think them stupid because they were not reading the book. I recall putting it in my purse just to get her to shut up and then I clearly got sidetracked because even though I didn’t finish the book, I recalled enough that it triggered my memory when I started this edition. Sure enough, there the book was on the top shelf in our front room, a shelf so tall I can’t reach it on a stepladder and Mr Oddbooks has yet to produce the library ladder he has spoken of since we bought this enormous ceiling-ed house. I don’t know why I am sharing this – it’s not like I haven’t purchased multiple copies of the same book before. I seem to acquire a new copy of Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body every other year. But anyway, I have a second copy under a name that offends stupid people at dentists’ offices and that in and of itself makes this book odd.)
A couple of these short stories were good enough, and I can see Fischer’s talent and, at times, his black, cruel humor in all of them. The problem is, I think, that I read these stories during a time in my life when things could not have been more frustrating – terminally ill mother, husband with unidentified metabolic issues, new and very nervous cat added to the menagerie resulting in constant vomiting and rage-shitting from all the other beasts, and a house that seemed very focused on falling apart in an expensive and wet manner every two weeks or so. The stories in I Like Being Killed focus on human frustration, failure and despair. I was experiencing those three emotions in spades before I picked up this book.
The first story in the collection, “We Ate the Chef” actually caused me to start biting the inside of my cheeks in sympathetic response. A man who runs a failing website-creation company tries to take a cheap holiday to France before his life and company fall apart and the get-a-way is a nightmare in every regard. His friend who promised him a beach front stay in his house lives dozens of kilometers inland, there is no bedroom for the protagonist at the house, and his life is threatened by Russian gangster molls. He never gets to sleep. Ever. He arrives terribly sleep-deprived and becomes so tired he is very nearly hallucinating. He considers seducing one of the molls just to have a bed to sleep in. Oh, and he has to spend the weekend with a foe of his, being polite when he just wants to take a dump on everyone’s head. I felt his misery so acutely that even though this is a good story, it wrecked me. I bet a less fucked-up person than I was at the time I read this would dig this story. And at ninety-four pages, this story is more a novella than a short story. A novella of the sort of frustration that made me grind my jaw.
“Portrait of the Artist as a Foaming Deathmonger” is the story of an artist who wants to make his name via murder. I have little to say about this story other than that I really liked this passage:
Let’s be honest here, because honesty is the only substance that should be found in the bloodways of an artist. Bumping off the missus, your boss, your father, the newspaper boy puts you in touch with nature, but it also strongly suggests that you are only going to put up with so much shit from fellow members of the community.
The other stories in the collection are mildly humorous and solid, yeoman-level writing, except for “I Like Being Killed”, which more or less killed any goodwill I had for this collection. The story is seventy-eight pages long and I really just didn’t get it. The protagonist was weird, untalented, difficult to like and completely deserving of everything bad that happened to her, and frankly she deserved worse, but I sense I was supposed to find her quirky and interesting and sort of rebellious. Feh. Had this story been in the middle of the collection I suspect I would have written a lukewarm but epic length review because there are dozens of small paragraphs and one-liners that are worth the price of admission, as long as the price of admission is remaindered-bin low. You can do better with Fischer. Go get a copy of The Thought Gang or Under the Frog, both of which I need to reread and discuss here.
The other short story collection I want to discuss is Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell. Gah, this collection is a big smelly fish head in the refrigerator of my library. This is a discussion I am forcibly curbing because I hate this book so much that I could easily write ten thousand words describing in detail that loathing, but because I otherwise really like Karen Russell’s body of work, I don’t want to go down that road.
I find it hard to divest myself of books, even books I hate. I feel sort of like reading a book is a tiny little relationship, even if it was sort of abusive and pointless, and I am sentimental enough to want to hang onto those remnants of a specific moment in time wherein I submerged myself in someone else’s vision for a while. Also I am a bibliomaniac. It can be a problem. However, I am not sure I will keep my copy of Vampires in the Lemon Grove because this time spent in Russell’s vision irritated me. I absolutely adored Swamplandia! and St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. The latter ranks up with short story collections I love from Caitlin R Kiernan and Neil Gamain, two of the best living writers of speculative short fiction.
How did it go so wrong for this collection? It feels very much like something somewhere stripped Russell of the whimsy and joy and mild creepiness that made her earlier works so special, and polished it to a writers’ workshop sheen, a glossy and soulless postmodern version of whimsy that forces the genuinely strange or zany into a framework that does not support it. The jubilant prose in St Lucy’s was followed up in this collection with the sort of dead, muffled writing that so many seem to love but I’ve never understood the point of because such a style eliminates the chance for a reader to connect with the text in any manner other than being a lurking observer. That can work in the worst excesses of alt lit but it cannot work in a collection that features stories wherein girls transform into silk worms and vampires tired of the human hunt decide to quell their thirsts using lemons.
I’d discuss more but the writing was so flat and tiresome that I do not recall large chunks of the book, which says a lot. I am sitting here, right now, remembering a story from St. Lucy’s that involved a family traveling in a covered wagon into the Old West and the father is the Minotaur and he pulls their wagon into their new destiny. I can’t recall the exact title but I remember the story vividly. I can’t recall a detail from this book without flipping through the pages and forcing myself to reread large chunks. This book reads like Raymond Carver’s style channeled Neil Gaiman’s subject matter.
I try very hard to embrace authors’ evolutions as they hone their craft. Writers change as they write and all too often fans can feel terribly betrayed when a favorite writer expands their repertoire into something unfamiliar to the devoted reader. But this was not evolution – it was devolution, a marriage of style and theme that cannot be bonded without ending up with something that reads flat and feels unfinished and uninspiring. I pray the next book of Russell’s that I read is not this bad.
So no recommendations this time, not even tepid ones.
2 thoughts on “Middle of the Road: I Like Being Killed and Vampires in the Lemon Grove”
I had a similar response to Vampires in the Lemon Grove — the stories did come off as weirdly flat and forced. Unfortunately this was my first book by Karen Russell — I’ll definitely check out St. Lucy’s, though.
Every story in St. Lucy’s was great for me with the exception of the story about the kids breaking into the skating rink. If you read it, let me know what you think. I wonder if Russell is one of those writers who had some great stories and once those are finished, there isn’t much left, which isn’t an outright condemnation because a few great stories sure beats what I’ve brought to the literary table. I hope that isn’t the case, though.