Monday, December 15, 2014

=books recently read: St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell





The setting is a swamp. Where? Louisiana? No, Florida probably. The author is from Florida. 

The girl's name is Ava. She helps her father wrestle alligators. They live on an alligator farm. 

Her sister's name is Osceola. They're alone. Their father is away. They're unsupervised. 

Osceola weighs close to 200 pounds. She's older than Ava. She thinks she's having sex with ghost-boys. Ava thinks so, too.

Mom is dead. How did she die? Don't know.

There's a ouija board they use to communicate with her.

Osceola is possessed. She wanders off a lot at night. Ava follows her. Somewhere out in the swamp Osceola wants to elope with one of her spirit-lovers. That means she has to drown herself in the swamp. That's what she thinks it means anyway. 

Ava wants to convince her differently. She's the only one standing between her sister and a swampy consummation.

Then the scene shifts and we're with two brothers who are searching the waters and caves around their island home for their drowned sister, Olivia. She was a fanciful little girl who believed in make-believe and drew up maps of kingdoms. The brothers take it into their heads that their sister might still be found in one of her favorite make-believe places beneath the waves. Her body was never found, you see. It has to be somewhere. Why not in the world of her imagination? 

A sleep-away camp for children with sleep disorders. Elijah. Emma. Ogli. They're friends. 

The children have dreams of past nightmares. Postmonitions. Get it? Hiroshima. Black Plague. Concentration Camps. My dreams, says Elijah, as like reading the index of book on history's atrocities. The Rape of Nanking. CIA torture, etc.

Sheep are being murdered.

When you're cured, you stop dreaming. Or stop remembering your dreams.

When you're cured, you dream only about your own personal past. 

Is that really preferable? Doesn't that leave you isolated with your own bad dreams. Confined, alone, to your personal hell?

What I ask of fiction—of any text—is that it tell me something I don't already know. Are these stories really doing that? Or are they just stating what I already know in novel ways? If the latter, is that enough? Is the writing here so beautiful, so precise, so aptly executed that it justifies me going further?

I go further; so I guess the answer is "yes."

Another story about children. Children. Children. Children. An area of life that holds almost no interest to me, having never been a child, as most people generally understand the term, seeing children, as I see myself, as a mistake repeated. The generative instinct like a copy machine stuck on copy that someone stepped away from, having forgotten it was still running and somehow never running out of paper. The nostalgic retrospective view of childhood, of adolescence holds neither allure nor truth for me. Haven't enough human beings already been produced to get a good enough idea of what it means, to fulfill whatever evolutionary purpose human beings were necessary to effect? Looking at the state of the planet, at the state of "society", at history, at the news morning, noon, and night: it seems reasonable to conclude from the evidence that the human species has already run its race. We're still here, if we're still here at all, to go, as Brion Gysin said. Enough now. Enough human beings. Chapter closed. Let's move on.

But it's back to children again in a story about a boy, Ollie, and his little sister Molly, who are on a beach island summer vacation. Mom is dead again. Dad is an ex-astronaut, probably an alcoholic, but a good guy, all in all. 

Ollie hooks up with this other kid, Rafe, a bad boy from school. 

Unhatched sea turtles are involved. 

They're environmentally protected and their nest posted with a warning: "Leave the turtles alone!" Rafe has a perverse scheme to screw up the turtles dash for the ocean when they hatch. He's declared it a summer for "ironic, comical" crime. Petty theft and vandalism, mostly. Some hints of more dangerous shenanigans. 

A retarded adult albino is hanging out with them. And a younger girl, Marta, that Ollie has a crush on but Marta predictably has a crush on Rafe. 

Astronomy is involved. 

Ollie and little sister Molly have inherited a love of stargazing from their astronaut dad. But Ollie feels self-conscious and goofy about the astronomy in front of Rafe, so he throws his planisphere into the sea. Then he feels guilty. 

On it goes until the turtles hatch. Evil is pervasive. It's present in the casual cruelty of children as it is in the state-sponsored cruelty of Nazis and CIA interrogators. The kids confuse the turtles, as planned. It's a stupid senseless sadistic thing to do. But they can't help it. 

Evil is intoxicating.

It's a good story, they're all good stories, the writing is crisp and lively, but, please, Karen, please, just one story about adults. About someone over the age of twenty. I realize that you published this book at the age of twenty-five but that hardly changes the fact that these stories might almost be considered YA reading for smarter than average fifteen year olds. I might have read them when I was fifteen if I hadn't already given up on elegiac humanistic literature and had begun reading William S. Burroughs, John Rechy, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, etc. instead. All writers who write about what it might be to go beyond the human—or what is acceptable as "human." 

My plea falls on deaf ears. Two more stories about children. Both boys. Jacob and Reggie. 

Jacob's father is Mr. Minotaur and, yes, he's actually a Minotaur—a big bull with horns. The story is set in pioneer days. 

Jacob's family is heading west with a wagon train; his dad is literally pulling the wagon. These kind of touches appear all through these stories; call them surreal, absurdist, magic realist, fantasy; it's the  best thing about the collection whatever you call it, rescuing the stories from maudlin sentimentalism. 

Reggie sneaks into the local ice-skating rink with his friend Badger on Adult Night and sees some strange things taking place among parents, teachers, minister, mayor, and other safely familiar (so they thought) adults, things they are only marginally ready for, symbolic of their own passage into adulthood. 

The story features a woman dressed up in a ragged Yeti outfit and real-life orangutans. 

I've given up expecting a story about adults at this point, two-thirds through this collection, turning next to the story The City of Shells.

This story at least co-stars an adult. An old guy named Barnaby who works cleaning up at a theme park filled with giant conch shells. 

The other star of the story is a girl named Lillith. Everyone calls her "Big Red" since she has red hair and she's pale and awkward and podgy. She's on the verge of puberty with all that entails. 

On a class trip to the theme park she lingers around and ends up getting trapped inside a conch shell. Barnaby discovers her there and while trying to get her out he falls in, too. 

It starts to rain. It's dark and cold. 

She wants some kind of erotic validation from the old man and he wants to believe he's still capable of human kindness in spite of his cynicism and disappointment in life. 

They're both confused, basically, about what they want or how to get it but one thing's certain: they aren't going to get whatever it is they want from each other down there at the bottom of the conch shell. 

This is symbolized by the story's final beautiful line: "Big Red finds only angled walls and blistered pearls, the small bumps where the shell plates have puckered and fused together, like vestigial knobs to vanished doors."

Another story about an old man and a young girl. 

In this story the old man lives on a houseboat in a senior community where all the oldsters live on permanently moored houseboats. 

The girl is part of a new program for juvenile delinquents. She's doing community service for some unspecified infraction, probably compulsive kleptomania, since she steals all kinds of useless crap from the old man's houseboat. 

The old man doesn't care though; he even encourages the theft since he thinks it keeps the girl coming back. You see, he's come to love her. 

It's a creepy, difficult, enigmatic, doomed to disappointment kind of situation…well, at least we're moving in the right direction.

A plane carrying members of a boy's choir crashes on a glacier. They were being flown to a yearly ritual at which they perform called the "Avalanche." It's a rite of spring, sort of. 

One of the boys is mute. 

Yes, he's mute and in a choir. 

The mute boy sabotages the attempt to rescue them. He's in mourning for the pet bear his stepfather killed. This is why he's mute. This is probably why he doesn't want to be rescued. He's still searching for the bear. Or its spirit. Or something. 

He's not the main character, though. The main character is trying to keep them both alive until another rescue attempt is launched. But will there be another? If so, will it be able to find them in time? 

In the title story, a boarding school staffed by nuns takes in young female wolves and turns them into proper young ladies who don't pump their backsides, run wild with the moon, spray on the furniture, or kill small animals. It's a predictable, if cleverly extended and executed metaphor for the way society hammers us all into an acceptable conformity.










     






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