With some books you begin a relationship with an author that will continue hungrily through everything they write. Russell’s writing inhabits its own universe, with metaphor and simile taking us to strange new places; we are led by the hand and find ourselves completely submerged, only later to come to, groggily, in our own world... Orange World is Russell’s third collection of short stories and it contains all her trademark signs of weirdness: a boy falls in love with a bog girl found preserved in the ground, a land on the watery edge of apocalypse is explored by a woman in a gondola, tornadoes are harnessed and sold at auction like cattle. The worlds of the stories are entirely convincing, small pockets in which it is possible to become lost... Along with other US short-story writers such as Kelly Link and Lauren Groff, Russell inhabits landscape entirely, bringing the Floridian humidity to every sentence. Where other writers shift towards the novel, aside from the wonderful Swamplandia! she remains steadfastly a short-story writer, and Orange World demonstrates how her attention to this tricky craft has paid off. Though her characters are living their own magic-realist, fabulist lives, it is possible to see ourselves within them, peering out.
In the title story, Rae’s social group for mothers, the New Moms, learns about three worlds — Green, where everything is safe, Orange World, filled with non-life threatening harms (“a nest of tangled electrical cords and open drawers filled with steak knives”) and Red, which signifies deadly dangers. The little snarling devil that Rae nurses is an Orange World threat, a matter of manageable concern. The solution that the New Moms find is an unexpectedly joyous adventure, streaked with sadness. Russell is among the most skilled of this generation’s fabulist writers. In her surreal worlds, life is passing strange, but it is not devoid of wry comfort.
Russell’s stories are reliably funny, empathetic, studded with beautiful sentences, and gently, spine-tinglingly creepy. They take place in a world in which everything is haunted, but also just a little too mundane to be really scary. The devil in “Orange World” turns out to be just a devil, not Satan himself. The ghosts of “The Prospectors,” who force their fortune-seeking victims to dance all night, are just “boys, I couldn’t help but think, boys our age.” The zombies of “Black Corfu” are way less scary than the gossip mongers who smear a poor doctor’s reputation, and the Joshua tree that possesses a young woman in “The Bad Graft” mostly likes going to church and then going out dancing.