Stories That Ask Whether Humans and Nature Were Always Incompatible

Karen Russell’s latest collection meditates on anxieties about mankind’s place in the world.

A May-December relationship that was probably doomed from the start, the romance between Homo sapiens and whatever life force connects all species on Earth has soured. (Lynne Sladky / AP)

“One of the extraordinary adaptive powers of our species,” Karen Russell writes in her new collection of stories, “is its ability to transmute a stray encounter into a first chapter.” A stray encounter, she describes, could involve the meeting of a 22-year-old man and a 26-year-old woman in a Pennsylvania bar and, soon after, the sudden decision to quit their jobs, rent a car, and drive to the Mojave Desert in California. Because this is a Karen Russell book, a stray encounter could also find that same woman pricking her finger on a Joshua Tree spine, the “insoluble spirit” of the sentient plant leaping into the woman’s body, and the creature immediately realizing it has made a horrible mistake. “Compared with the warm and expansive desert soil,” it laments, “the human body is a cul-de-sac.”

In Orange World and Other Stories, Russell’s third short-story collection and fifth book, nature and humankind find themselves many mistakes removed from their first chance meeting. A May-December relationship that was probably doomed from the start, the romance between Homo sapiens and whatever life force connects all species on Earth has soured, their differences enormous, their protracted breakup violent. That only half the partnership—guess which one—is just beginning to understand this is where the horror begins for the characters in Orange World.

As she has done since debuting her 2006 collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, Russell is playing to anxieties about humanity’s place in the natural world. Her characters tend to behave as if they’re not sure whether they belong to nature or it belongs to them, and when they do land on the correct answer, it’s usually much too late. Whereas Russell’s previous collections treated these worries with doses of myth and magical realism, in Orange World, Russell is fully awake to the nightmarish side of her imagination.

Born and raised in Miami, the author explicitly addresses climate change in only a handful of Orange World’s stories, most notably “The Gondoliers,” set in a near-future South Florida that is all but entirely underwater. In “Bog Girl: A Romance,” its title alone suggesting Night Shift–era Stephen King, a teenager drives a peat harvester through Northern European bogs while wondering how “he could feel so perfectly indifferent to the [clean-energy] debate, even seated in the cab of the world-killing machine. Right or wrong? Right or wrong?” The windstorm-farming narrator of “The Tornado Auction” feels no such detachment, admitting that “when you’re raising weather by artificial means, it’s hard to pretend you don’t have a hand in the Change.”

Those stories that don’t name the crisis are still haunted by it. In “The Prospectors,” the book’s Great Depression–set opener, an avalanche turns 26 men into ghosts who fail to realize that they’re dead. All they want to do is party. In “The Bad Graft,” a park ranger believes that the “tremendous blossoming” of Joshua trees across the Southwest is “the ancient species’ Hail Mary pass.” Even “Black Corfu,” which takes place in 1620, carries the ineluctable dread of a civilization threatened by a world that can do without it. That Russell embodies this threat in 17th-century Croatian zombies and reinvigorates the exhausted walking-dead genre —“posthumous surgeons” sever the hamstrings of corpses to keep them in their graves—is yet another measure of her gifts.

Russell brings plenty of surface-level absurdity to Orange World. “The Tornado Auction” really does feature a tornado auction. “Madame Bovary’s Greyhound” affords a point of view—or, at least, “a shimmering precursor to consciousness”—to the dog in Gustave Flaubert’s novel. The book’s title story concerns a minor devil, “a knockoff Satan,” who tricks new mothers into nursing him.

But as clever as all this may be, Russell has weighted the characters in Orange World with personal crises that—to them—can seem as monumental as global ones. All extinction fears are local, after all. Injustice and loss of reputation frighten the doctor at the center of “Black Corfu” as much as his island’s zombies do. In “The Gondoliers,” the youngest of four sisters has secretly violated a code they established in order to survive in watery New Florida. The farmer in “The Tornado Auction,” meanwhile, is at odds with his disapproving daughters and mourning just about everyone he’s ever known. “One by one they died,” he says, “my mother, my father, my brothers, my bosses, my rivals, my storms, my wife, and turned my world into an afterlife.”

Reviewers, novelists, and Russell herself have credited the strange frequencies passing through her stories to the writer’s supposedly weird home state. There certainly is some truth to that, though only as much as there is to the idea that Stephen King’s novels are terrifying because Maine is kooky, or that Flannery O’Connor’s fiction is so disturbing because she grew up in Georgia. What’s most unusual about Russell’s work is how paradoxically comforting it is, particularly right now, when it takes no great leap of the imagination to picture a world, orange or otherwise, without our species. This is not misanthropy or defeatism. Russell is scared, too, but her new book stands as a reminder that worrying about the future and grieving it are not the same thing.