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.
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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.”