“The Prospectors”
by Karen Russell
from Orange World and Other Stories

A read this story a few years ago when it appeared in The New Yorker. Here is the post. I’m posting on it again as part of an extended look at the stories in Russell’s latest collection, Orange World. Rereading the story has brought me to a moment of reflection. See, usually when I read something by Karen Russell I’m drawn in by the voice and the imagined world. She has a sensibility that veers to the off-kilter and creepy, and I like it. But sometimes by the end I’m disappointed. I walk away thinking I didn’t like the story. In fact, I quite liked the story; I just didn’t like the ending. Rereading “The Prospectors” reminded of this — I enjoyed going through it again but the ending washed that enjoyment away. The story dies quickly, and when you look at its corpse it appears withered, dry, and hollowed out. Not much remains. This made me quite grumpy when I went through her collection Vampires in the Lemon Grove. I’m trying to figure out if I should feel as disappointed as I do, or if I should rewire my expectations a bit to enjoy these tales for what they are.

In “The Prospector,” Russell goes to a favorite premise: a young person falls for — at least, temporarily — someone who is dead or some semblance thereof (see also “The Bog Girl,” Swamplandia!). It begins as a realistic story with a historical setting. During the Depression, Clara and Aubergine, the first-person narrator of the piece, run away from home and make their way west, calling themselves “prospectors” because, to survive, they filch money from the men they seduce, men who think they’re taking advantage of the girls. They are, of course, but the girls feel like they’re in on the scheme and, therefore, somehow in control.

We met mining captains and fishing captains, whose whiskers quivered like those of orphaned seals. The freckled heirs to timber fortunes. Glazy baronial types, with portentous and misguided names: Romulus and Creon, who were pleased to invite us to gala dinners, and to use us as their gloating mirrors. In exchange for this service, Clara and I helped ourselves to many fine items from their houses. Clara had a magic satchel that seemed to expand with our greed, and we stole everything it could swallow. Dessert spoons, candlesticks, a poodle’s jewelled collar. We strode out of parties wearing our hostess’s two-toned heels, woozy with adrenaline. Crutched along by Clara’s sturdy charm, I was swung through doors that led to marmoreal courtyards and curtained salons and, in many cases, master bedrooms, where my skin glowed under the warm reefs of artificial lighting.

Clearly, though, their ways of getting by have affected them. Indeed, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Clara, the one who seems to be the most attractive to the men they find, is being used by our narrator herself.

They’ve taken their route clear across the country and, when the story begins, have ridden up a ski lift to the grand opening of a luxury lodge on the mountain top above a town called Lucerne, Oregon. When they get to the top and find an escort waiting, Clara’s act kicks in:

Already she was fluffing her hair, asking this government employee how he’d gotten the enviable job of escorting beautiful women across the snows.

When they arrive at the lodge and do indeed find themselves at a party, but one with only a couple dozen men.

The girls quickly realize that they have arrived at the wrong lodge and the wrong party, and it’s a bit cheesy:

“Clara,” I murmured, “I think we may have taken the wrong lift.”

Years ago, at another luxury lodge, there was a terrible avalanche and most of the workers were killed. They find themselves at this party, among the dead. It’s quite the lively graveyard.

Somehow aware not only of their predicament but also of what they need to do to escape, they vow to survive the night: the next morning a photographer is supposed to show up to document the party, and they just know they cannot have their photograph taken. They run off to the ski lift, and it’s very anti-climactic.

And that’s where I usually get frustrated and wonder what the point was, or, rather, wondering what important issue Russell may be exploring with her art. Russell’s story does look at the ways some women have had to try to survive, the way it starts to feel like death. It’s not much more than that, though. But why can’t I let that go? Why can’t I acknowledge I quite like her stories, even if many of them don’t quite raise to the level of, say, William Trevor or Alice Munro (not a fair bar for anyone).

I’ve decided that I like Russell’s work for their verve and setting, for the worlds she imagines, and not necessarily because they strike a resonant chord on any deeper theme. And I very much like the world she creates in “The Prospectors.”

Hopefully releasing myself from the obligation to find something incredibly deep and nuanced I will find my way back to really enjoying Russell’s work. I’m anxious to keep going with Orange World.

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