Karen Russell: “The Bad Graft”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Karen Russell’s “The Bad Graft” was originally published in the Jun 9 & 16, 2014 issue of The New Yorker. This is the Summer Fiction edition, so you can click here to see the other stories in this issue.

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Betsy

“The Bad Graft,” by Karen Russell, functions like a myth. That is, a fantastic story is told — with transformations and metamorphoses — and the listener is spell-bound by the story’s adventure. For a myth to last, however, it must reflect some basic conflict in human life.

Odysseus, for instance, has a wife and former life that call him to return, but his adventures are so interesting to him that he is necessarily caught up in them. It is almost as if he cannot return to wife and home until he has had these adventures. This is the situation, a situation familiar to every family man, in one way, or another. The myth is not just any old story, however. It has immense size, mystery, magic, and transformations. Not only does Odysseus change from a young man to a grizzled veteran of foreign wars, he also witnesses change after change, transformation after transformation. The sailors are turned into swine; they eat the drug that causes them to forget home; they face being lured onto the rocks by sirens; Odysseus himself visits the land of the dead. The immensity of the myth seems right to us — it reflects the immensity of our own experience.

I mention Odysseus in relation to “The Bad Graft” because both stories are about commitment and marriage.

A young couple is driving cross-country on a “kind of honeymoon.” They are truly in love; they repeatedly think tenderly of each other; they several times hope to feel closer; they think of their trip as an elopement. “Each wanted the other to have the illusion that they might pause, anywhere, sat any moment, and make love.” It was love at first sight: “On their first date, they had decided to run away together.”

After several days of travel, they are in the Mojave Desert, and they have stopped at the Joshua Tree National Park. They are awed by the park’s immensity, and they are equally awed by their own daring. “Ever unfixed” is the motto the boy has proposed to the girl to be their own. And so they’ve run off — almost in secret.

But Russell’s mythic story is that a Joshua tree somehow sends its spirit into the girl and changes her, thus threatening her whole life, and threatening her “marriage” to this boy to the core.

What is so great about this story is that while Russell spins her yarn, at the same time the reader is watching how the yarn reflects real life. Some women are homebodies at heart. Some women want nothing more than to nest and make that nest homey and beautiful, and the thought of being ever on the road is unsettling at the least and frightening at the most. Some men yearn to be a rolling stone, some women yearn to have children, and all the nesting that would require.

So as the Joshua tree takes possession of the girl, she turns away from the boy’s dream that they would always be on the run. She changes and the boy feels it. They both want her to change back, but the Joshua tree will not let her: it needs to get back to its own land.

On how many honeymoons have people wakened up and thought, What have I done? This guy wants to spend his life racing sailboats! This girl wants to be a dress designer! I really enjoyed the many little twists of this story: how alien the boy and girl suddenly feel to each other, how intensely together they feel when they dance, how murderous this sweet girl can feel toward the boy who thinks of her with affection and respect.

I enjoyed “The Bad Graft” a great deal. I like myth, and although this is my first Karen Russell story, I realized right away she was writing an American myth, and I enjoyed her ambition, and I enjoyed the story itself.

Her interview with Willing Davidson is one of the most interesting author interviews that Page Turner has run. She talks about the process of imagining the story in such a way that the interview is a companion story to the real story. I loved her discussion of Ovid.

One of the interesting things that she says about writing such a story is that “Tone is everything.” What she means is this: If you are going to write a story that is magical or mythical or embodied with transformations and metamorphoses, you have to strike a tone that will lead the reader into the mix of myth and reality. So just what is the tone that she used?

The story’s first sentence opens this way: “The land looked flattened, as if by a rolling pin.” But as the boy and girl are driving into the desert via Highway 62, these words spill forth: “visions . . . castles . . . fantasies . . . mirage.” They are driving a Charger. They see “evaporated civilizations.” Russell ends the paragraph this way: there was “a flume of dream attached to real rock.” The first paragraph blends the ordinary (rolling pins and rocks) with the extraordinary (visions and fantasies). The narrator has insisted on this blend from the very beginning. The boy and girl think that their trip has “unfolded like a fairy tale,” this, despite the fact they run out of money.

She doesn’t give the couple names at first, something that gives the story a mythic tone. In addition, she calls them boy and girl, something that reminds this reader that for many people, it is marriage that transforms us into men and women. When she names them, they are Andy and Angie, so alike they are two sides of a coin.

The narrator insists on the immensity of the story: she tells of the “blue-gold Mojave,” and the “enormous sun,” and she says that the day there was a “day so huge, in fact, that its real scale would always elude them.”

Russell uses time and history to elevate the story-telling. Mormons named the trees; numerous people have been recorded losing their minds in the Mojave; and “Aeons ago, the world’s first hourglass spilled its contents here.”

And the setting sets the tone: the Joshua tree desert is strange and magnificent, and it is in the middle of a “tremendous blossoming.” The setting is made all the more grand by the fact that the Joshua Trees cannot survive without the Yucca moth, nor can the moth survive without this specific tree, something that echoes the story’s concern with both commitment and what it calls the “obligate relationship”; i.e., a relationship in which the neither can survive without the other. The grandeur is heightened all the more with a reference to Charles Darwin and how he had considered the relationship between the tree and the moth “the most remarkable pollination system in nature.”

The immensity of the setting is intensified by a phrase that the ranger uses to describe what is happening. The ranger calls the blossoming of the Joshua trees a “pulse event.” The Mojave Desert was once the site of atom bomb testing. In nuclear bomb language, a “pulse event” is when a very strong electromagnetic pulse occurs shortly after the explosion, although an EMP can also be triggered by a car ignition or by lightning. The pulse can cause sparks and explosions. Thus the ranger’s language lays the ground for the spark that causes the spirit of the Joshua tree to Leap into Angie. Thus the ranger’s language intensifies the meaning of the situation — the boy’s and the girl’s situation — their marriage.

And a pulse event is also an event of the heart.

The story is unique, rich, coherent, spell-binding and true. I am amazed at it. Time for me to read everything Karen Russell has written. The reason is: I loved the gentleness with which she treated her people. They are caught up in ordinary life, and they are not bad people. It is not hard to see yourself in them. I found myself thinking of my good, sweet, ambitious husband as I read. What a footloose academic he was for so long (we must have moved ten times). I found myself thinking of myself as I read this story: how I said, yes! I want to go with you to Japan and England and back to Cambridge and then to Amherst and Washington (twice) and California . . . and yet the very last time, I said no, I can’t go to New York with you, just for the year. I can’t do it. I just can’t do it. Kids and all. Reading Russell’s “The Bad Graft,” I feel the yearning and intensity and danger that lay just beneath my own story.

I liked the way the boy really liked the girl, and I liked the way she really wanted to please him, but was overwhelmed. So like life. And I liked the immense scope Russell used to talk about marriage. Or commitment. The scope feels right. For each of us, our worlds are immense and mythic. So it feels like she has it right. The tone.

These are the Russell titles I have added to my list:

  • St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves
  • Swamplandia!
  • Vampires in the Lemon Grove
  • And the prize-winning short story, “The Hox River Window”

And Russell is a great recommendation for reading Ovid.

I know many of you are way ahead of me. Time for me to catch up.

Trevor

I’ll pop my head in here even though I have yet to read the story. I hope it brings back my faith in Karen Russell! I disliked Swamplandia! (my review here) and despised Vampires in the Lemon Grove (as a whole, though I liked pieces) (my reviews here). I loved St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, though, and for some time looked forward to anything Russell put out there. I admit that her inclusion here made me wince a bit (my time in Vampires in the Lemon Grove was just bad, so much so that I never wrote about the last couple of stories). At the same time, I was excited. I still remember how much I loved her debut, and I thought “The Dredgeman’s Revelation” (my thoughts here), a piece in Swamplandia!, was fantastic. Here’s hoping I feel the same way Betsy did! (Though, if not, we might have some fun debates below!)

11 thoughts on “Karen Russell: “The Bad Graft””

  1. paolo says:

    Yep Betsy: it’s time to catch up. However, in my opinion, KR is much more a sprinter than a marathoner, and she’s way more finest in the short story format than in the novel.
    (And you forget the short story “Sleep Donation”)

  2. Betsy says:

    Well, Trevor! I am always at the mercy of my enthusiasms! But I did like the foray into American myth-making.

    And thanks, Paolo, for your thoughts.

  3. Ken says:

    I think Betsy perfectly captures the mythic, grandiose tone of the story and grants it significance as a metaphor for the waywardness of men and nesting instinct of women. Yet…the tone was what irritated me about this story. I felt it a forced stab at grandeur that tried to will itself into being epic and magnificent. Instead, I must say I found the central idea silly–a tree spirit entering a human body. Her storytelling skills kept me interested and I did find myself liking these two plus I’ve been to this area many times (not the greatest reason to like something but still it doesn’t hurt) and have even been to Pappy and Harriet’s and the communities of Highway 62. I don’t think nuclear testing was ever done in the Mojave but it has been done in Nevada, Utah and (of course) New Mexico.

  4. Roger says:

    I’m with Ken on this. If one doesn’t enjoy the fantastical premise of a Joshua tree’s spirit invading a woman’s consciousness — and I didn’t — then it’s hard to like a story like this. It reminded me too much of a very basic work of sci-fi/fantasy (think “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”) wrapped in too-gorgeous prose.

    Too-gorgeous, or, put otherwise, overwritten. What I mean by that is that the pyrotechnics of the prose called attention to itself rather than to the characters or plot and seemed incongruous with the absurd premise. There are some amazing fragments throughout, but I wish Russell had channeled them into a long, beautiful poem about the Joshua instead of this story.

    It simply was an unpleasant reading experience. For most of the story I was miserably dwelling inside Angie’s consciousness wishing that tree would exit and leave the poor woman, and Andy, alone. For that reason, I took some satisfaction in the ending, even though the park ranger’s comment suggested Angie may not be out of the woods (sorry) for good.

    The interview was fascinating and made me appreciate Russell’s brilliance in a way that reading her work has not.

  5. Roger says:

    Just posting again as the notification boxes didn’t show up ….

  6. Betsy says:

    I hear the dissatisfaction with this story from Ken and Roger. It reads very unpleasant to both; it yields little pleasure to either. Moby Dick is not for everyone, either.

    I want to defend Russell, though, as I think our discussion mirrors something Russell is getting at. Women and men experience life very differently, something that has a vast set of implications. Russell takes the one thing – settling down – or not settling down – and from it she spins her tale. That the woman becomes almost alien as she refuses to move and as she withdraws from her partner is unpleasant. That she has murderous feelings is scary. But there is a certain reality to this.

    We Americans idolize our frontier past. And we can idolize those women who survived the life on the road. But that is a rather romantic view of what was a harsh life. After all, one of the women waiting just offshore on the Mayflower appears to have thrown herself overboard. Of the eighteen adult Mayflower women, thirteen died. Only five survived the first winter. The men fared better.

    Assigning to Russell the task of writing a long, lyric tribute to the joshua tree is not an assignment I feel comfortable with. The story may use the alien beauty of the tree – but the story is actually about unwieldy reality, especially the unwieldy reality of being a woman. The tree is the means of the story, not its end. So suggesting that Russell should have instead written a lyric paean to the tree is demeaning. Saying you would prefer to read a lyric to the tree to a myth about women’s disatisfactions is defensible; asking Russell to write that paean is not.

    I grant you that the story may not have a universal audience. For one thing, the young woman is not a particularly admirable person to begin with. She is uncertain and undeveloped. She has set out on what some may call a fool’s errand. Regardless, I applaud the writer’s exploration of what it is to be a woman – how strange it may feel to some women – how dangerous – how frightening – to not be able to settle down, as if the commitment between men and women must also include, for women, a commitment to place.

  7. Ken says:

    A brief reply to Roger and Betsy. Roger, I’d say that Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the 1956 film at least) is a far far better work of art than this story because, even if “basic” sci-fi and a “B” movie, it has and continues to have some profound resonances and metaphorical qualities (hence three remakes). Betsy, your appreciation of the story makes me want to be more charitable. You found something interesting here. I find it via your comments, but didn’t find enough of this theme in the actual reading of the story to make the experience pleasurable. I read this column for opinions that can often be more pleasurable than the actual stories, so thanks.

  8. Madwomaninthe attic says:

    Whuh! I hadn’t realized that Karen Russell was the author of Lemon Grove, or I would probably not have continued reading the minute Angie got transmogrified. I am wondering what sociological or historical impetus is causing the current focus on the zombiesque undead. Nearing the inevitable myself, I am definitely not enchanted. I agree with Betsy about the mythic qualities of the story (but gosh, isn’t pricking her finger a bit obvious?) and about the lush language, but it’s not the Odyssey that comes to mind; rather, it is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, clever cult stuff for young people who think death is livelier than I expect it to be.

  9. Betsy Pelz says:

    Very well put, Madwoman, as always. Linking Russell to the “clever cult stuff” (that I clearly don’t read or watch much of!) really provides a frame. I’ve watched a little “True Blood” and definitely see the myth making link.

  10. This is a brilliant comment, Madwoman: “but it’s not the Odyssey that comes to mind; rather, it is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, clever cult stuff for young people who think death is livelier than I expect it to be.”

    I think you’ve articulated why I have such a problem with Russell these days (and others of her ilk). They pay lip-service to deeper themes, but the focus is truly on just how clever they can be. At least, that’s been my impression lately. Also, I did avoid this story precisely because I found Lemon Grove was so unbearable.

  11. Madwomaninthe attic says:

    I did not mean in any way to denigrate Betsy’s astute analysis, especially her appreciative statement: “Regardless, I applaud the writer’s exploration of what it is to be a woman – how strange it may feel to some women – how dangerous – how frightening – to not be able to settle down, as if the commitment between men and women must also include, for women, a commitment to place.” I am afraid that my prejudice against zombie-lit kept me from even considering the work as carefully and thoughtfully as she does, and as I wish I did.

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