“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.