“Orange World”
by Karen Russell
from the June 4 & 11, 2018 issue of The New Yorker

The New Yorker Fiction Issue 2018The 2018 Fiction Issue of The New Yorker is out, featuring stories by Lu Yang (see here), Karen Russell, and David Gilbert (see here).

Russell has been a bit of a fixture in the Fiction Issue, and I’m all good with that. I loved Russell’s debut story collection, published, yikes!, clear back in 2007. Since then my regard for her work has fluctuated. She is a wonderful writer, so I always read what arrives, but my prevailing reaction has been one of disappointment. That’s not always the case, though. I adored her “The Dredgeman’s Revelation” (see the post here), which ultimately became part of her debut novel Swamplandia!, which I didn’t like (see my thoughts here). Then came her follow-up collection of stories, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, which I really disliked. I must be in the minority, there, because my posts on those stories are among the most view posts on this site, even today.

I’m excited about “Orange World,” though, because I really enjoyed grappling with the last thing I read by Russell, “The Bog Girl,” published in 2016 (see the post here). The first time I read “The Bog Girl,” I was disappointed by the ending, but after the comments I came around to it (I loved the setup from the time I sat down to read it).

I think I love Russell most when she’s at her most mythical, with a preference to settings that feel old. I’m not sure, then, if “Orange World” will be for me, but I do like her opening:

abnormal result. high risk. clinical outcome unknown.

At night, Rae pulls a pillow between her legs and lets the pain scissor at her. She feels like a gut-shot animal lying in the road. Rae was not raised with religion, so when she sees the blood in the toilet she invents her own prayers. After the results from the third set of tests come back, she starts begging anything that might be listening to save her baby.

And then, lo, something does answer.

I can help you. It spoke without speaking, glowing low on the horizon. She had made it over the ledge of 4 a.m. to 5 a.m., what she’d once believed to be a safe hour. The out-of-the-woods hour.

I am excited to see how this one goes, and to hear from you all!

Liked it? Take a second to support The Mookse and the Gripes on Patreon!
By |2018-05-28T11:36:50+00:00May 28th, 2018|Categories: Karen Russell, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |22 Comments

22 Comments

  1. William June 1, 2018 at 8:53 pm

    Finally! A story that’s not so boring that there is nothing to write about it. Karen Russell has instead written a story that is outstandingly awful! Worse than anything I have ever read by her. The old white middle-class woman first-world baseless neurotic motherhood anxiety trope carried beyond tolerability. So original. Nice job, Karen!

  2. DH June 2, 2018 at 7:15 pm

    I loved it. Of course, I’m an old, white middle-class woman who instantly recognized my inner world rendered visible.

    Maybe the comment above fell victim to autocorrect and was supposed to say, “Outstandingly artful!”

  3. Greg June 9, 2018 at 6:26 pm

    Great use of humour DH to defuse an uncomfortable situation!

    Also, the story delivered me into the world of being a new Mom. I learned so much about the competing emotions that mothers go through. And I felt them too! Here were my favourite parts:

    “‘I love you,” they tell each other frequently on these calls. More truth won’t fit through the tiny colander of the telephone receiver.”

    “‘The weak belong to the strong,” her grandfather liked to say, a sentence that electrified her with its poetic horror.”

    “She grips the asphalt, recalling her labor, that earth-splitting pressure. Pain can mean such different things, depending on what you believe is drawing closer to you, pushing into view.”

    Lastly, I adored these nuggets from the author interview:

    “…we need to find ‘new emotional vocabularies with which to tell the old stories.'”

    “Motherhood definitely makes the debris of the body visible; it also brings the strange debris of the mind into view.”

    “By the way, I hope that “Orange World” doesn’t give inadvertent support to the terribly destructive narrative that motherhood is a woman’s highest calling. It’s not. It’s just a different kind of story.”

  4. David June 13, 2018 at 6:24 pm

    When this story was published, I went back to see what I wrote here about “The Bog Girl”. It was, until now, the only Karen Russell story I have read. I recalled that “The Bog Girl” was published around the time I first started commenting here. A brief check tells me that it was June 13, 2016 when I wrote my first comment on this site and indeed it was about “The Bog Girl”. So I decided to mark the two-year anniversary by holding my comments on this story until today. I also ended up taking notes as I read so this is a lot longer than my usual (already long) comments. But hey, no one is forcing you to read them, right?

    —–

    The first paragraph is very strong both visually and viscerally. I have hope that this story might be better than the previous one.

    Then it gets weird. It’s not clear what is going on. But we quickly jump to a different scene.

    The way the Orange World and Red World are presented makes it pretty clear that this story cannot be read as realistic. It is unimaginable that a real educator would so callously describe so many nightmare scenarios. It’s not exactly funny, but I think black humour is being attempted here.

    “Rae has never made it this far into a pregnancy before.” Yikes. So much for humour. Yet two sentences later… “Everybody gets a swaddle and a baby doll. The head comes off of Rae’s. While she is jamming the head back on, the swaddle floats to the ground. Picking the swaddle up, she steps on it.”

    “On the first night that the devil appeared to her….” Now I am worried. Deal-with-the-devil stories are nothing new. Scary ones, funny ones, weird ones… they have been done. Can this one offer something new? I am skeptical. Especially since I really don’t have a clear idea of the tone of the story yet, so it’s not clear if this encounter will be funny or scary or weird or what.

    …and she makes the deal and I still don’t know.

    “Why hadn’t she thought to appeal to Heaven, Rae wonders now. She took the first deal offered. She’d done a better job negotiating for the Subaru.” It’s supposed to be funny, but it hits me with a THUD. I am also distracted by being reminded of Subaru-buying in “Fungus”. Wondering if The New Yorker has an endorsement deal with Subaru to include buying their cars in all the stories this week. Do a quick word search for “Subaru” in “Silver Tiger”, see it does not appear, double check my spelling of “Subaru” and check again… Nothing. Ok. Back to “Orange World”.

    The weirdness of the idea of Rae laying on the road to breastfeed the devil in the sewer is so odd that I am distracted from the descriptive writing here. The paragraph is well crafted, but what the hell is this?

    The further description of the feeding is just grotesque. I wish I knew what the point of it all is. It’s not enjoyable and not (yet) an original take on the familiar story.

    The brief insertion of Rae’s mother into the story feels like one of those out-of-place bits in stories authors justify by saying “that really happened to me”. But for the story, the fact that Rae’s grandmother is dying and Rae’s mother caring for her as she dies should be more than just that, and yet it does not appear to be more than that.

    The story waddles on seeming now to be just a routine story about the anxieties and difficulties of being a new mother. The devil seems to almost be forgotten. The quick riff on “Rubecca’s” name is kind of meh, but this: “Does she have a baby? It’s unclear. What she definitely has is sciatica” – made me laugh.

    Yvette’s reaction when Rae tells her about the devil is very unexpected and much more interesting than I thought it would be. The prospect that there might be message boards online where mothers are talking about this devil is also odd in an interesting way.

    “Only once, in all these lonely months of nights, is she spotted.” Months??? Does Yvette ever follow up with her? Do they even talk about it again? This is quite a jump. Why does it have to be months? Isn’t days enough? Seems odd.

    Now we get a meeting of mothers with demonic experience. (“Carol. Please. This is not helpful.”) But this meeting and what happens next seems to just sort of drag along. Ho hum. And then we get another mention of a dead child. Every time I think the tone is supposed to be light and funny, something like this happens.

    Finally they decide to act. But now it feels like its turned into a caper film where they plan a kidnapping and wacky things happen. Because it’s a devil, too. A devil in a cat carrier has to be funny, right? By the way, the logic here falls apart. It’s a devil. why do they think taking it out to the woods will keep it from coming back? Even if it were a person it could find its way back if it wanted to.

    Oh, so a devil is like a vampire that dies when it comes into contact with sunlight? Were we supposed to know this? Rae didn’t. How did Yvette know? This still isn’t making a lot of sense to me.

    And we end with one more scene with Rae’s mother.

    ———-

    With “The Bog Girl” I was not sure whether it was supposed to be funny, satirical, or just a weird tale. With this one I feel the same. If there was more to it than a deal-with-the-devil story or a new-mothers-worry-a-lot story I don’t know what it was. There were a few brief bits of the story I liked a lot, but most of the time I was perplexed by it. Maybe in another two years time I’ll try another Karen Russell story and finally find one that clicks. Maybe.

  5. Greg June 14, 2018 at 6:10 am

    Happy Two-Year Anniversary David! I have enjoyed reading your thoughts over this time, and I have learned so much from you. Especially on how to evaluate a piece of writing through an objective lens.

  6. Trevor Berrett June 14, 2018 at 2:23 pm

    Yes, happy anniversary, David! I’m so glad you found us and have shared so much with us!

  7. Ken June 15, 2018 at 12:52 pm

    I will give Russell a strong ability to create a narrative that compels the reader to keep going, but I didn’t find much (besides wondering what was going to happen) else here (sort of like what David said). I also found the social observations of the upper-middle class kind of familiar and the whole devil thing just seemed silly almost. It’s just too easy to do stuff like this–hey my character is nursing the devil! I did laugh out loud a few times, though, which is worth something.

  8. Ken June 15, 2018 at 12:57 pm

    Did anyone find the under-developed nature of the narrator’s husband to be a problem? Maybe it’s deliberate, but it bugged me.

  9. David June 15, 2018 at 6:01 pm

    Ken, I didn’t think much at all about the husband while reading the story not even to think there should be more about him in it. I don’t know why that is, but even now I can’t say I am all that curious about him or think there should have been more of him.

  10. Larry Bone June 17, 2018 at 10:52 am

    David:
    Your comment about the New Yorker possibly having an endorsement deal with Subaru made me wonder about the magazine’s financial situation. Their non-writing contributor staff recently affiliated with a union, supposedly for survival. So I was wondering if an endorsement deal for mention of a car might help the New Yorker survive. There are so few magazine venues left for short story publishing. And most readers probably think any commercialism will somehow adversely affect short story quality or content. But a product placement deal for when a character drinks Coca Cola in a film doesn’t necessarily harm the film, especially if its a thriller like Bourne Conspiracy. As a word choice, Subaru is just nice sounding compact word, not too much like Mitsubishi or too little like Fiat. Also Subaru sells more than the other two and the character’s choosing it over any other auto name, perhaps a small compact Ford or Buick, makes the character seem a little unusual or not so everyday. I know any commercialism is a compromise and makes a sponsored venue for a short story seem suspect for possibly watering down the creative genius of a particular story. But if the short story had to have an auto or a soda or laundry detergent and a particular name lends reality or credibility to the story, what’s the harm? I think it showing up in 2 New Yorker short stories is odd but a rare occurrence. The New Yorker’s parent company seems always to have given the editor pretty much free rein because the magazine is such a literary and nonfiction writing icon. Maybe there is no need of worrying whether (like Social Security), the New Yorker will survive and whether a Subaru product fee or (multiple products fee for “Fungus”) might help.

  11. Madwomanintheattic June 19, 2018 at 12:17 am

    I have a beloved friend whose 21 year old son has been diagnosed with a brain tumor. I would make a bargain with a capybara, your dog Tulip, or Jane Goodall and/or her ape if it would help, and if I had any breast milk. In other words, Karen Russell finally got to me although I have strongly disliked her past narratives, especially the ones that deal with the undead. Maybe it is the unimaginable passions of motherhood and the horrible fears and imaginings that accompany it even in memory that make this story and its black humor so compelling. Guys, once again you missed it by being guys just as I perennially miss your captivity by the equally fanged and hairy Superbowl.

  12. David June 19, 2018 at 7:04 am

    Madwoman, when you say “once again you missed it by being guys” you say something both wrong and offensive. The first part of your comment makes it sound like you think the criticism here is that we do not believe that the woman would make the deal or don’t believe that she would keep the deal even after being told that this devil has no power. That is absolutely not my criticism and I don’t see that criticism in other comments. That’s how your comment is wrong. As for how it’s offensive, imagine if I now said, “you probably did not understand our comments because you are a woman.” If you disagree with other comments, that’s fine. but when you try to diagnose other commentators as defective based not on their words but instead on aspects of their identity you cross a line. This is even more true when you personalize your claim with the example of your friend’s son. Your comment reads as if you think that we, as men, really would not understand being willing to do anything to save the life of someone we loved, that only a mother could feel that way. Maybe you have this low an opinion of men, but I would hope not.

    (PS – In 2018 42% of NFL fans and 48% of people who watched the Super Bowl were women)

  13. Madwomanintheattic June 19, 2018 at 9:19 am

    ,Ok, David – you’re right, and I apologize. I admit my reaction to the comment by William above prompted the animus I expressed; surely DH’s tempered and good-humored reply should have taken care of it. I am tired of having critics dismiss protagonists’ narratives by considering only race, gender, and class. If you think it’s only William, think about the term ‘chick lit.’ Think about the opinion expressed recently by (my favorite) Black political analyst that she doesn’t read the New Yorker because it’s “too white.” I want to be a reader who tries to consider the human condition in which we all have a share. Brought up on 19th century British literature by brilliant authors who routinely denigrated Jews (pace, George Eliot), I had to teach myself to look for the humanity that was untarnished, to consider that while writers too have their ‘others,’ readers should look for broader criteria. For example, see the comments above that consider the paucity of development of the husband; those are non-dismissive gender-oriented comments based on style. If Karen Russell searched as I did all my life for Queen Lear or Prince Hal’s mother, she (and I) might be over-compensating. Sorry, David. I admire many men and stand corrected by your thoughtful comments.

  14. David June 19, 2018 at 11:03 pm

    Madwoman, thanks very much for your reply. Your additional comments are helpful in understanding how you see the story and other views of it. I re-read William’s comment and I see what you mean. I interpreted his comment a little differently. I took the “white middle-class woman” part of his comment as saying that women in many parts of the world face much greater hardships and more serious dangers with pregnancy and caring for infants, so this woman’s worry is unreasonable as it does not reflect the reality of her situation. In a way, I took him to be expressing the same concern you mentioned about ignoring people who are considered “others”. I disagree with his comment because the story makes clear that while this is Rae’s first child, it is not her first pregnancy. The implication is that she has had at least one (probably more than one) miscarriage, which would make her fears much harder to dismiss. The fact that we find out that Yvette lost a child adds to the case for her fears being quite understandable.
    .
    I mentioned on the page for the Shteyngart story that I am currently reading Freshwater (I highly recommend it). The novel is written by a transgender Nigerian and Tamil author and the main character is a young woman with a similar ethnicity. In fact, eight of the last nine books I have read were written by authors who were not men, not white, or from a non-Western country (and in a couple of cases all three). So I share your interest in hearing a wider variety of voices in the things I read. I have not decided what I am going to read next, but the three finalists are a book by a black American, a book by a Japanese author, and a collection of short stories by a British woman. Whichever one I go with, it will extend my current run to nine of ten.
    .
    Another PS – Your mention of the denigration of Jews in British literature reminded me of The Merchant of Venice. I have always believed that the proper way to interpret it is as an anti-Semitic comedy where the well-known speech Shylock gives is meant to present him as a ridiculous person. I only rarely find anyone who shares that view. But that’s a discussion for another day.

  15. william June 19, 2018 at 11:14 pm

    At the present time, at least 1,000 mothers and children have been separated at the US-Mexican border. Have any of you heard anything about Karen Russell taking part in activism to end this practice? I haven’t.

  16. Madwomanintheattic June 19, 2018 at 11:38 pm

    David, thanks for your understanding. i am reminded of what I used to say to my exceptionally privileged students when they felt ashamed to complain about a love affair gone wrong, the death of a grandparent, a fight with a fellow, “Do you think that because you are rich and smart and good-looking that your pain doesn’t hurt?” Believe me, their hurts hurt. All our hurts hurt, and recognizing our privilege doesn’t change that or make us less worthy.

    On the subject of Shylock, i have never thought about the speech in that way, but I will think about it now. To your point, In the First Folio the play is listed as a comedy. Edward Gordon Craig, illustrator of the sublime Cranach Press Hamlet, said that to understand Shakespeare’s intent, reading a play is better than seeing it acted where you must perceive it through the medium of an actor’s interpretation. So i promise to give that speech a read-through out loud.

  17. David June 20, 2018 at 12:56 am

    William, I don’t see why we should expect authors of stories to be on the front lines of political activism or that it be a requirement for them to write about certain subjects, so your question just seems odd.

    Madwoman, on my reading of the Shylock speech his is very sincere in his argument, but meant to look ridiculous because his plea that he’s just like the Christians is supposed to sound absurd, as it would to an anti-Semitic audience. So reading the text might not really make that clear. But here is a link to 75 seconds from an old Seinfeld episode where he even uses a variation on the line “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” that might show what I think Shakespeare’s desired result was. Check it out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DmGRJWxLqiE

  18. Larry Bone June 20, 2018 at 7:16 pm

    Great clip! The Seinfeld episode is funny and yet so accurate about how unfair snobbish dismissal that can occur to any person from anyone else at any time. Even if the alleged nose picking did occur and could be difficult to look at. The show is supposedly about being Jewish but most Seinfeld fans think of the show as being about little things that can happen to anyone at any time to ruin their day. It could be seen as a protest against petty anti-Semitism but seems much more about the absurdity of a huge disrespect visited on someone for just being human. The potential girlfriend seemed so Teutonic, so beautiful, so perfect that she will always make sure her finger never gets too close to her nose. As though her nasal passages are as perfect and beautiful as she and are always clear and are never allowed to clog or get congested for any reason. The Seinfeld character realizes that emotionally she is stone, that she has no sense of grace and a fixed idea of what objectional behavior will terminate an otherwise promising relationship. He might have been hurt but accurately realizes that in her mind it was all about her. She was, is, and will always be, all about herself and how she would never pick her nose. It is a fixed unkind blindness. It makes you appreciate the Elaine character so much more. Although I think she would have given him a good talking to. But, I think the Teutonic woman’s anti-Semitism is totally rejected by how absurd she seems keeping in mind that such mindless behavior still occurs over little and big stuff or nothing at all.

  19. Greg June 25, 2018 at 12:43 am

    Larry, your question from June 17th has given me pause:

    “I know any commercialism is a compromise and makes a sponsored venue for a short story seem suspect for possibly watering down the creative genius of a particular story. But if the short story had to have an auto or a soda or laundry detergent and a particular name lends reality or credibility to the story, what’s the harm?”

    After giving it much thought, I believe art (e.g. literature, serious film and music, painting, etc.) should be above sponsorship. For example, Pearl Jam refuses to have its tours sponsored.

  20. David June 25, 2018 at 7:26 am

    Greg, the problem with that view is it would seem to exclude advertisements themselves from being considered art. And if that includes PSA-type advertising, it comes close to saying anything with explicit political content with the desired effect of changing people’s views also should not count as art.
    .
    I always prefer when stories, books, and films use real names of real products rather than made-up ones because it does ground the work in the real world. So if the particular brand does not make a difference to the story (here I can’t see how it would matter whether it was Subaru, Toyota, or Ford) and an author can make a few extra bucks from one of them by using their name, the art is unaffected.
    .
    In the particular case of this story, the wife & mother has died in a car accident, which is the reason the man and girl need to go buy a new one. I don’t think most car companies would see this as the kind of story they want to use for product placement, even if they were looking to do so with stories. But the salesman comes off looking like a really good guy anyway. The Subaru company probably liked that.

  21. William June 25, 2018 at 12:13 pm

    David —

    I think your argument is undermined by your broadening of the sense of ads to include PSAs. I would change your phrase “explicit political content” to “explicit commerial content.” I think that changes the argument.

  22. David June 25, 2018 at 2:32 pm

    William, I was suggesting a progression of similar things. From something with content that says “Drink Coke!” (commercial) to something that says “Don’t forget to vote!” (PSA) to something that is a political advertisement, like the “Yes We Can” song from 2008 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jjXyqcx-mYY). But also to compare commercial products, PSA’s, and political products seems fair, as in all cases we are talking about something that is designed (in part) to persuade you to to do something.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.