Lady Yeti And The Palace Of Artificial Snows by Karen Russell, 2006
The magic trick:
Creating an imaginative world that connects with very realistic themes
OK, folks, it’s Karen Russell Week on SSMT. Brace yourselves for a brand of literary fiction that seeks to both frighten and connect emotionally. The emphasis tends toward New Yorker high literature, but Russell often employs the bizarre, surreal and downright scary to score those points. We’ll have plenty of mysterious snow palaces and ghost fish to suit your Halloween mood. Let’s start today with the mysterious snow palace.
Russell is nothing short of a master when it comes to setting. These stories often start like the opening of a Wes Anderson movie. Every description comes with an explanation. The world isn’t quite like ours, so we can’t be trusted to just picture it all on our own. We need backstory and context. So, like those Wes Anderson movies, this world-creation can either feel exhilarating or exhausting. Maybe it’s both.
Fortunately, Russell seems to sense this and knows exactly when to peel off from the scene-setting stuff and get into the meat of the story. This artificial blizzard, it turns out, is not fun and games. It gets right to the heart of a very common and very difficult situation for adolescents: the feeling that your parents aren’t in love with each other the way a married couple is supposed to be.
In this way, it’s a very representative Russell story. It’s deeply imaginative. It features kids. It makes the world feel a little bit more interesting than our everyday. But the interesting, imaginative creation is dark and threatening, and the themes that are drawn out aren’t fantasy; they’re all too real.
And that’s quite a trick on Russell’s part.
There were rumors that the Ice Witch and Lady Yeti were sisters, or that they were actually the same woman. And it was true that you never saw one with the other. But in every bodily respect, the Ice Witch and Lady Yeti were opposites. The Ice Witch was a skeletal beauty. Cold, quartz eyes, an anemic complexion. Once I caught her licking salt from the Big Soft Pretzel machine. She wore blue earmuffs and pearl-seamed gloves. She chain-smoked Sir Puffsters in the parking lot. The Ice Witch could work a sequined hypnosis on the male skaters, sure. But babies and primates don’t disguise their terror. Infants howled. The alpha orangutans lobbed bricks of ice at her; the orange runts cowered; and the medium-sized apes mostly ate their own feces and sulked.
Lady Yeti’s voice growled over the loudspeaker. “Now presenting . . . the World Famous . . . Apes on Ice!”
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