Thursday, October 11, 2007

St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell

There's a nearly infallible way of telling a literary story from a genre story: the genre story is required to have an ending that wraps up at least part of the plot, while the literary story merely needs to have an emotional moment at which to stop.

St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves is a collection of literary stories.

Yes, all of the stories here have at least vaguely fantastic elements, and I did come to this book from seeing Russell read at an event for The Best of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, but these stories all stop rather than end, which makes them solidly literary.

(Careful readers of this blog may have noticed that I generally use "literary" as a description rather than as a term of approbation. This is also the case here. "Literary" isn't necessarily good or bad; it's just a kind of writing and reader expectation.)

St. Lucy disappointed me, I'm afraid. The writing was generally good, but I find that "literary" short stories have to be written transcendently well to overcome the inertia of a century of well-written, MFA-caliber stories about feelings. Russell is using fantasy elements to differentiate herself from the general herd of lit-fic writers, but there are, and have been, a lot of somewhat literary writers, from lit-fic and from the fields of genre, doing similar things. She's not postmodern, which is a big plus, but, still, she's one of a pack of writers -- and, at this point, her voice isn't distinctive enough to break her out of that pack.

Writing literary stories with fantastic elements is doubly dangerous; the writer runs the heavy risk of the fantastic element turning into a gigantic flaming metaphor, flashing its lights and honking its horn as it drives at top speed down the center-line of the story. The more attention you pay to a story's literary qualities, the more the metaphor is strengthened in comparison to the literal meaning. It is possible to balance it all, but I'm coming to believe that you need to be Kelly Link to do it. (And there's only one Kelly Link.)

Russell's metaphors do run away with her stories on occasion, and they're usually the same kind of metaphors. All of her protagonists are young, and all of these stories are, in one way or another, about learning to grow up. Alligator or werewolf, if the narrator is a girl, the metaphor is about sexual awakening. The stories about boys are sometimes also about sex, but can also be about death. But that's about it; these are stories about metaphorically learning about sex or learning about death. Individually, the stories are decent, though none really jumped out at me; together, they serve to punch the same button over and over and over again.

Russell is still young; this was her first collection. I have hopes that she'll soon find something more individual to write about. St. Lucy, by itself, is pleasant but unspectacular, somewhat new lyrics to a tune we've heard many times before.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I read this collection awhile back, Andy, and I wasn't impressed at all. Which is to say, perhaps the hype made me expect something better. What I found was a gaping void of nothing at the center of almost all of these stories, style wasted on facile and uninteresting and juvenile characters. I really wanted to like it, but I didn't. At the same time, it struck me that somewhere down the line I might like something else by her, but that she was in the wrong stage of her development for me to enjoy it now.


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