Karen Russell whisks wonder and weirdness into “Orange World”

In her latest collection of short stories, “Orange World and Other Stories,” Karen Russell warps together eight outlandish tales of the whirlwind sort, intoxicated with dizzying language, whiffs of magical realism and a subtle sort of wildness.

Russell, the New York Times best-selling author of “Swamplandia!” and a recipient of the MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellowships, writes the way a random word generator might, piecing together seemingly unrelated pieces into a small, whimsical gem. In the memorable title story, “Orange World,” a new mother breastfeeds the devil; in “The Bad Graft,” a woman pricks her finger in the desert and joins souls with a Joshua tree; in “The Tornado Auction,” storms are literally farmed and raised like livestock.

This is what Russell is known for: defamiliarizing the familiar and familiarizing the unfamiliar all at once. She takes the worlds we know and snaps them onto their heads; at the same time, she handles insanity with calm hands and an unflickering focus. 

Such is this delicately-architected paragraph from “Madame Bovary’s Greyhound,” in which Russell reimagines Gustave Flaubert’s classic from the perspective of a greyhound enchanted with freedom: “Herons sailed over her head, their broad wings flat as palms, stroking her from scalp to tail at an immense distance, and the dog’s mind became empty and smooth. Skies rolled through her chest; her small rib cage and her iron-gray pelt enclosed a blue without limit.”

Russell speaks of winds covering bodies like “a blue-salt caul,” of being “bound by the membrane of a gale.” “Champagne-yellow birds” are “uncork[ed]” in a “spray” from the trees. In the desert is a “hallucinatory choreography achieved through stillness, brightness, darkness, distance — and all of this before noon.”

Russell’s language vibrates as otherworldly as her stories. There is a transparent simplicity, contrasted with the tangible swampiness of beautifully unexpected description, which Russell balances masterfully. (And a master she is, having been a Pulitzer Prize finalist with her fantastical 2011 novel, “Swamplandia!”)

Just a quick description of Russell’s stories bring bizarre images to mind. In “The Prospectors,” two gold diggers ride a chairlift, “upholstered in ice,” up the side of a mountain to find themselves in a cabin full of ghosts. In “Bog Girl: A Romance,” a 15-year-old boy uncovers a 2,000-year-old girl from the depths of a bog and brings her home as his lover. (“Already he had dug out her head. She was whole and intact, cocooned in peat, curled like a sleeping child.”)

She takes the worlds we know and snaps them onto their heads; at the same time, she handles insanity with calm hands and an unflickering focus. 

Reading “Orange World and Other Stories” is like floating from one turbulent climate to the next — from deceivingly calm hurricane eyes to reverberating storms heard for miles; from dampening rains to lightning scars so devilishly brilliant they catapult off the pages. And all the while, the reader is a plane caught in turbulence, trying desperately not to blow off course, ultimately learning to release themselves to the winds of Russell’s prose. 

While engaging, Russell’s stories don’t encourage involvement into the characters’ lives the way so many well-loved reads do, keeping us captivated chapter after chapter or through an entire series. Her stories are detached, the characters aloof and in a glance unrelatable — although each piece conceals snippets of universal human truths, conveyed in such a way to make us rethink the world — if only to make us stop and ponder at one unexpected phrase. (“‘[F]orever’ was a tensed muscle that began to shake… loyalty was a posture she could no longer hold.”)

Russell’s collection does not function as a comfort read. It is not the sort of book you would pick up at the end of a long day. This is a book for those moments of crispness when every carefully constructed sentence can be properly savored and swallowed and appreciated. 

“Orange World and Other Stories” was released on May 2019 and can be found on Amazon for $17.