"The Bog Girl"
by Karen Russell
Originally published in the June 20, 2016 issue of The New Yorker.

06_20_16-400I loved Karen Russell’s debut story collection, and I’ve looked forward to every thing she’s published since. Sadly, I’ve always been disappointed. I just haven’t felt the magic. In fact, I’ve really disliked most of her work since.

Still, I can’t help but look forward to this new story. I hope that either it has the old strength or that I’m better equipped to appreciate it.

I look forward to your comments below!

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By |2016-06-13T14:19:56+00:00June 13th, 2016|Categories: Karen Russell, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |20 Comments

20 Comments

  1. David June 13, 2016 at 10:29 pm

    The story just didn’t work for me. If the goal was for the story to be humourous, it was not really clear what the joke was other than the obvious absurdity of having a 2000 year old corpse for a girlfriend. If there was some satirical or symbolic message here I just didn’t see it. I am sure I won;t be the only person reading this story who is reminded of the film “Lars And The Real Girl”. I liked the Real Girl, but am at a loss about what to make of “The Bog Girl”.

  2. Trevor Berrett June 14, 2016 at 11:05 am

    Ah, how frustrating! Once again Russell has shown that she is a wonderful writer, setting up an intriguing story with verve and texture and humor, only to have it all fall apart when she tried to wrap it up with some kind of “meaning.”

    I really did love the set up of this one: a fifteen-year-old boy named Cillian uncovers and then falls in love with a bog girl. She was around fifteen, it looks, when she was taken by the bog. It looks like she was murdered as there’s a noose around her neck. The story’s humor comes from the strange situation in which everyone treats Cillian’s infatuation as if it were a real, albeit misguided, relationship.

    “We were all sixteen once,” Cathy growled. “We all survived it.”

    “Cillian is fifteen,” Gillian [that’s right, the mother’s name rhymes with her son’s] corrected. “And the girlfriend is two thousand.”

    Abby, who had seen a picture of the Bog Girl in the local newspaper, suggested that somebody was rounding down.

    And there’s the awkward dinner with Cillian’s family.

    Once again, his embarrassment was soothed by her infinite calm. His eyes lowered from her smile to the noose. Of course, she’s seen far worse that us, he thought.

    This is funny and clever, and Russell, as is her gift, is able to add depth to the humor by adding some nice silence and pathos. But it doesn’t last.

    For me, the story does not have to have any meaning to be a fun, well written story, having fun with a ridiculous concept. But that’s not the mode, right now, with clever, humorous writers like Russsell and Saunders twisting these strange ideas into insightful looks at modern life. Only, for me, they don’t work any more. There’s a formula, it seems, to all of this “meaning.” Here I can already see people defending this story by saying it is an incredibly insightful tale on the inception and short duration of young love, with all of its naivety and hope. On the unknowability of one’s chosen companion. On the clash of time and cultures and ideas that can hamper any relationship. For me, it feels tacked on. Frankly, I’d rather Russell have gone full horror here. As an existential tale, on time, on gods, on folly that isn’t bogged down by “meaning.” Real meaning often arises from such meaningless tales.

  3. Russell Gardner June 16, 2016 at 7:52 pm

    One of the best short stories I’ve ever read. Read it aloud to my wife tonight and we both enjoyed it thoroughly. We both felt there, appreciating the absurd fictional reality and the coming of age for both adolescent boy and his mom.

  4. Myrna Gottlieb June 20, 2016 at 9:35 pm

    Never a good sign to be reading a short story and turning the pages to determine how much longer before it ended. However, before “The Bog Girl” I had been unaware of the existence of human bodies that had been recovered from bogs, mummified in peat- some of which were in lifelike condition., Check out the Nova website and Yde Girl from the Iron Age. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/bog/iron-nf.html.

  5. Ken June 21, 2016 at 5:19 am

    I had not liked Russell’s last story here–“The Bad Graft”–and I started this rather suspicious and impatient, but it grew on me. I don’t think it suddenly lurches into “meaning” as it reaches the point it must—she girl comes alive. Suddenly, I thought it took on a moving, tragic cast as the fantasy projection can no longer be sustained in the face of the terrifying (Lacanian?) “real.”

  6. joe June 22, 2016 at 12:28 am

    One of my favorites of the year. Perhaps a tad heavyhanded at the end, but all in all a major success for the short form. This provides the perfect example of an idea that could only have been a short story, with a novel-length piece about a bog girl easily becoming schticky.

    Wonderful both macro and micro — this woman can write a fine sentence, perhaps my favorite in the story being the following because of the simultaneous economy and encylopedic nature of characterizing someone in the story — “Egg-bald and cheerfully unemployed, a third-helpings kind of guy.” — Now that is what I call just the right amount of drawing a character.

  7. Trevor Berrett June 22, 2016 at 1:52 pm

    Ken, your comment helped me appreciate this story a lot more than I had. I overlooked a great aspect: “the fantasy projection can no longer be sustained in the face of the terrifying (Lacanian?) ‘real.'” There I was just looking at the, hey, these two don’t go together great, and how scary to realize that. Thanks for that! I feel more in line with the good opinions expressed here. I still don’t rate it as highly as I did much of her earlier work, but that’s okay!

  8. William June 22, 2016 at 3:55 pm

    I’m lining up with the “nays” on this one. Trevor, you should have stuck with your original opinion about this story as an absurd version of young love — “For me, it feels tacked on.” It was sort of funny, but it didn’t do either of the two things that I want from a story: 1 — give me a new insight into some situation. I don’t know any more about young love than I did originally. 2 — Give me a character that I can believe in and care about. We’re in T.C. Boyle territory here, where the characters exist to show how clever the writer is.

    I enjoyed “Swamplandia”, but it was fully fleshed out and had a protagonist who was working hard for something. This story doesn’t.

  9. Greg June 23, 2016 at 9:09 pm

    Thanks Ken for showing us what the author was trying to do in the last sections!

    And I agree wholeheartedly with you Joe about the gorgeous sentences. Here is my favourite:

    “It was the burr of peace, the burr of happiness, goading him on to new movement. Oh, he was frightened, too.”

  10. Craig June 24, 2016 at 7:37 pm

    Oddly misgauged. Why does Russell repeat endless bad sit-com wisecracks about Boggie’s age when we can’t imagine a single scene as described, e.g., sitting upright, not decomposing with a foul stench, setting her story on a remote island with a well-populated suburban high school. I enjoyed Swamplandia which had many mindBOGgling facets, but the irreality here was labored, muddy, a slog.

  11. Auden L. Grumet, Esq. June 26, 2016 at 2:09 pm

    Totally agree with David and Craig. Nothing here for me. And the decomposition question/objection persisted. Couldn’t wait for it to end…so I quit midway through :)

  12. Patricia June 26, 2016 at 4:49 pm

    I haven’t read this yet, although I think I’ll take a peek and at least try it. Without knowing much about the plot, though, it does sound from the comments here like it’s a bit derivative of the film Lars and the Real Girl.

  13. David June 26, 2016 at 8:06 pm

    Patricia, I don’t think I would say the story is really derivative of “Lars and the Real Girl” because that film was about something – the problems Lars has with emotionally connecting and how a doll standing in gave the community an opportunity to reach out to him and help him. Sadly, if this story is derivative of a film it might be a slightly more highbrow take on “Weekend At Bernie’s”. I still don’t think I know what, if anything “The Bog Girl” was trying to be about.

  14. Trevor Berrett June 27, 2016 at 12:21 am

    I’m still not high on this story, but do those of you who really disliked it at least give Russell credit for her writing chops? I have issues with some aspects — indeed, one day I was tweeting with Elif Batuman about her and Joyce Carol Oates chastised us. One of my favorite — one of the few (the only?) — run ins with the literary elite. I think she’s got a lot of “cleverness for cleverness sake” going on. But she usually does a great job dealing with tone. She can be funny and clever, but then the story can quickly turn pensive and, if you’re in, emotional. I really liked this story up to the last bit, when to me the story wasn’t adding up to anything but a clever premise. That said, I don’t back away from my appreciation of ken’s comment above. He helped me capture something I’d been hoping to find, a bit of existential dread in the midst of a teenage drama about a bog girl.

  15. David June 27, 2016 at 8:53 am

    Trevor, I guess it depends on what you mean by “chops”. I take it for granted that any author published in the New Yorker can write a well crafted sentence and express an interesting thought in an interesting way, so the only real questions for me are whether a given story does that. I did like some of the humour here, but not really knowing what, if any, larger point there was made it hard to get a lot from it. You say the story was just a clever premise, but unfortunately I don’t see it as being that clever. If I can fairly quickly be reminded of both “Lars and the Real Girl” and “Weekend at Bernie’s” by this story’s premise it’s not really all that original. And if the point is to humourously say “first love can be really strange and difficult” then that is very old ground too. In digging up the bog girl I don’t see that Russell is doing anything other than digging up old ideas.

    If another Karen Russell story is printed in the New Yorker in a few weeks time I won’t look at that and think “Oh no. Not her again.” I am much more likely to think “I hope she has a better idea for a story this time.” At this point, that’s all the credit I can give her. Maybe its not much, but it’s not nothing. I tend not to think of commenting on a story as evaluating the author as if I were her professor in a creative writing class, noting all the ways she has demonstrated the skill and craft of writing. It sounds to me like that is what Oates was asking for. But I’m just looking for something to read that I can enjoy. When I get that, then I am often curious to look more closely to see how the author made the story work so well. But when I don’t get that I don’t usually think much more about it.

  16. Trevor Berrett June 27, 2016 at 1:33 pm

    Oates was defending Russell, or at least upbraiding us for criticizing Russell for exemplifying a particular brand of writing that Batuman had written about in The Possessed and that I dislike as well. Oates felt we were trying to take Russell down a peg for being, in Oates’ own words, “overpraised.”

    I want to keep myself relatively open to Russell, though. I pretty much liked everything she did until she published Swamplandia! (I even loved the excerpt of that novel that was published in The New Yorker in 2010). But I was vary negative about that novel and her subsequent story collection on here, and I think that, once I digested ken’s comment, I’m on the side that “The Bog Girl” is a step in the right direction. She seemed to get sucked into a well of “craft,” by which I mean her stories lost some of the heart and soul that I found in her earlier work and focused on the clever sentence or strange premise. It started to feel a bit by the numbers. She’d keep things in the opening paragraph that I swear were there just for her as the author and that we readers didn’t need and that, in fact, sucked out the life because we were looking at the bones of craft.

    To show a bit of what Batuman and I were referring to when Oates got after us, here’s one of my favorite passages in Batuman’s book:

    I realized that I would greatly prefer to think of literature as a profession, an art, a science, or pretty much anything else, rather than a craft. What did craft ever try to say about the world, the human condition, or the search for meaning? All it had were its negative dictates: “Show, don’t tell”; “Murder your darlings”; “Omit needless words.” As if writing were a matter of overcoming bad habits — of omitting needless words.

    I thought it was the dictate of craft that had pared many of the Best American stories to a nearly unreadable core of brisk verbs and vivid nouns — like entries in a contest to identify as many concrete entities as possible, in the fewest possible words. The first sentences were crammed with so many specificities, exceptions, subverted expectations, and minor collisions that one half expected to learn they were acrostics, or had been written without using the letter e. They all began in medias res. Often, they answered the “five W’s and one H.”

    The next paragraph is actually one of my favorites — in looking at the nameless lapdog in Chekhov’s “Lady With Lapdog,” Batuman says that none of these writers she is talking about “would have had the stamina not to name that lapdog” — but I’ll forego quoting it in full as it then leads to another great paragraph.

    Russell is definitely often guilty of this charge in my court of law, and her brand of the offense can often make her story feel flippant and static. But “The Bog Girl” is not nearly as flippant and showy as she’s been in the last few years as she publishes these stories of the strange. Here, Russell keep the humor — the “somebody was rounding down” stuff that could quickly topple the whole thing — but gives it a place in the greater structure, where familiar people are grudgingly accepting of an unfamiliar situation.

    I was enjoying “The Bog Girl” until the last bit. The Bog Girl herself, being a human from a different time — and now a monster in our own — adds a dimension that is not at all present in Weekend at Bernies or Lars and the Real Girl, especially with that noose around her neck, so I got enough enjoyment from what I considered a relatively fresh premise. As I got to the end, though, I thought, great, all of this good stuff to show that there’s really nothing much going on here. That would have been okay, but it made the story worse when I thought that she was trying to make the strange situation comment on (and thus gain meaning from) some ordinary facet of contemporary life. In other words, I’d be okay if it was simply a strange horror story; I’d be thrilled if it were good story, well written, weird and with some interesting comment on humanity. ken’s comment helped me see that a bit clearer, at least that’s how my own eyes cleared up or clouded over, depending on your perspective.

    I don’t think the story is great, and now I feel I’m defending it as if it’s my favorite piece in the magazine, but it’s risen in my estimation and so far nothing’s been said by others or thought by me to send it back down. I’m enjoying the conversation, though. I realize my comment here is a jumble. If you made it this far, you deserve a prize.

  17. Myrna Gottlieb June 27, 2016 at 6:44 pm

    “focused on the clever sentence or strange premise.” That struck me as well. “Their dog…came BERSERKING into the kitchen, barking at a deranged pitch” and in the same paragraph “insects MILLIONED around the porch light.” I enjoyed these descriptions (verbing?) but they stood out-had they been inserted by the author to show off her gift with words? It made me think of a joke that had been written ahead of time and then saved for the moment in conversation when it could appear to be a clever ad lib.

    On a second reading, I found that I enjoyed the story well enough to weigh in with the folks who rated it positively. For one thing, a New Yorker short story about which there has been so much interesting discussion on this board, imo has earned its place in the magazine. And many thanks to Trevor for sharing his personal interaction with the great Joyce Carol Oates.

  18. Charles May July 2, 2016 at 12:27 pm

    . The basic critical question about the stories of Karen Russell may well be: Is she the protégé of Italo Calvino and Donald Barthelme, or is she a child of The Twilight Zone and Stephen King?
    Her most recent story “The Bog Girl,” which appears in the June 20 issue of The New Yorker, reaffirms my view that she is the latter–a lightweight, not, as she has been called, a “rising star among the next generation of great writers”—at least not yet.

  19. David July 3, 2016 at 8:29 am

    Charles, this is the first Karen Russell story I have read, but I have read most of Calvino and count him among my favourite authors. I see no traces of Calvino in this story, but I can see how someone might think it looks like a Twilight Zone episode or a Stephen King story.

  20. Trevor July 4, 2016 at 12:14 am

    I definitely agree with Charles here. While I’d love it if she were the protege of Calvino or Barthelme, I don’t mind that she’s not — except that Russell seems to think she is, and that rubs the wrong way.

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