‘Reeling For The Empire’ by Karen Russell

Karen Russell, 2013 MacArthur Fellow

Reeling For The Empire by Karen Russell, 2013

The magic trick:

Tapping into a fairy-tale feel at various points in order to ground the surreality of the story in something the reader with recognize

Apparently, it’s a fine line between Karen Russell and George Saunders. Certainly it’s difficult to read this story and not be reminded of Saunders’ brand of subversive social commentary through surrealism. I’ll further that dig by mentioning that the aforementioned fine line separating Russell and Saunders’ work mainly consists of Saunders’ wicked sense of humor – the only trait from his writing Russell seems to have left behind. And oh is it missed. Surrealism without a sense of the absurd might be the worst kind of art. At least to me.

Anyway, I’ll stop bashing a writer who is infinitely more talented and successful than I’ll ever be. What she lacks in humor, she almost makes up for in mythology. Maybe that’s not the right way of putting it (see, I’m just not a very good writer). What I mean is there is a connection through this story to something familiar – and no, I don’t mean George Saunders again. Damn. I’m struggling to explain this.

What I mean is there is a fairy-tale quality to this story. And that’s crucial to holding it all together, especially when it gets weird. The scene when the agent first shows up at our hero’s parents’ house to “recruit” her plays on several tropes of classic tales. He is the most attractive man she has ever seen. She is but a poor, naïve girl ready to be preyed upon. His handsome looks, fancy clothes and urbane sophistication will be her undoing. It’s familiar. And that’s good. Because the whole silk worm thing might throw you. It’s always good to have stable footing when you start reaching for the surrealistic stars. And that’s quite a trick on Russell’s part.

The selection:

The Agent visited after a thundershower. He had a parasol from London. I had never seen such a handsome person in my life, man or woman. He had blue eyelids, a birth defect, he said, but it had worked out to his extraordinary advantage. He let me sniff at his vial of French cologne. It was as if a rumor had materialized inside the dark interior of our farmhouse. He wore Western dress. He also had – and I found this incredibly appealing – mid-ear sideburns and a mustache.

“My father is sick,” I told him. I was alone in the house. “He is in the other room, sleeping.”

“Well, let’s not disturb him.” The Agent smiled and stood to go.



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