Karen Russell: “Reeling for the Empire”

Vampires-in-the-Lemon-Grove“Reeling for the Empire” is the second story in Karen Russell’s second short story collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove. For an overview with links to review of the others stories in this collection, please click here.

Hmmm. After a great first story, “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” (my thoughts here), I now sit scratching my head after reading “Reeling for the Empire.” I’m hopeful that of all the stories in this new collection this story will be the one I like least. “Reeling for the Empire,” to me, was straightforward and more interested in its quirky concept than in how that concept could be used to examine something beyond the story. Naturally, there is “meaning”; I just think it is superficial, something tacked on to make it seem like the quirky concept is worth writing down.

The story’s concept is this: as Japan has industrialized, it has adopted a new practice for silk production. Women are sold by their uncles, fathers, or even their husbands to a recruiter who offers the women tea. This tea begins the metamorphosis, and the women soon become part silk worm, producing more silk than the old silk worms could, and with better efficiencies.

Our narrator is Kitsune. She herself was not sold into this. Rather, she chose it, forging her father’s signature.

The story becomes more metaphysical as the silk itself begins to represent memories and pain, eventually leading to further metamorphosis and, maybe — just maybe — flight.

The tone of the story is matter-0f-fact, which is welcome, and Russell’s gift with sentence construction helped me enjoy the story more than I feel it deserved. Naturally, I could be missing something. I checked around online to see how others felt about it and (surprisingly? maybe not?) it seems to be one of the highlights of the collection for many. I’ll be interested to hear any thoughts.

5 thoughts on “Karen Russell: “Reeling for the Empire”

  1. I think in a way it does overtly reference that story (how could one not?), but it does go in a different direction I think, and certainly not as satisfying a one for me.

  2. The main premise of the story comes from a sentence in Wage Labor and Capital by Marx in which he states something like if the silk worm was forced to spin silk simply to stay a silk worm (i.e. never become a moth or a butterfly) then she would be a laborer. Note that the girls can only escape by seizing the “means of production”. Reading the story with this in mind definitely elucidates the themes.

  3. This is one of my favorites in the collection. Even though it’s set in the past, the theme resonates today. I found myself thinking of the young workers in the Bangladeshi factory who were killed in a fire last fall. I found it haunting and beautiful.

  4. I love this story! I love the pun of reeling meaning reeling the silk, but also reeling as in mood/attitude. Also, how the story starts by talking about the Agent’s shiny face, and ends the same way. This is a great contemporary short story and, as a reader, I feel so lucky to live at the same time as great writers. Every time I read this story, I’m amazed all over again.

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