"Haunting Olivia" by Karen Russell

New Yorker fiction -- June 13 & 20, 2005 issue

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The story is here.

First a spotlight on the author. Karen Russell teaches undergrad fiction at Columbia U., where she got her MFA. She also, coolly, has led Spanish language immersion programs in Cuba and Spain, and is leading a student "Cultural Exploration" trip this summer in Australia, NZ, and Fiji. I poached all this from her bio here. Russell appears to be older than twelve, MSF and TLB, but perhaps not by enough to keep you from self-flagellating. (I couldn’t find that picture ya’ll mentioned, but here’s a little interview).

This is an excellent unconventional story. [Political aside: In my world, the word "conventional" has lost its positive associations and decayed into a synonym for "boring and uninspired." This is probably my own personal counter-backlash against the backlash against the unconventional; I now associate "unconventional" with “original” and “good”. Something unique is by definition unconventional. It's a sui generis work that jerks one momentarily from one’s reading complacency and into the full-color, Dolby Digital™ waking dream. ("Experimental," by the way, just means "misguided".)]

The Florida Keys. Fourteen-year-old Wallow—real name Waldo Swallow—and his younger brother Timothy Sparrow (Tarot, we infer), are trying to find the ghost of their little sister Olivia, who disappeared without a trace two years before. On that fateful night, the three siblings had been out crab sledding—an ingenious non-existent sport where sledders zip down coastal dunes in giant, hollowed out, racing-stripe-adorned crab shells. Neat, eh?

But also: tragic. Hungry, bruised, and sick of sledding, Wallow and Timothy return home to watch porn on their grandmother's illegal cable box and experiment with Demerol—leaving eight-year old Olivia (“But we still have half an hour on the sled rental!”) to play by herself, at the beach, at night.

In this cosmos, reality and fantasy pivot on the "diabolical goggles", a magic snorkel set that the boys find in the hold of a sunken ship. The goggles allow the wearer to see the glowing spirits of creatures who have died in the sea. Wallow and Timothy—who blame themselves for their sister's death—quickly realize that the goggles might allow them to locate Olivia, and the search begins. An Ahabaian Wallow captains a series of night-time expeditions, forcing his freaked-out brother to keep his head underwater at every moment. Along the way, Timothy sees a panoply of unearthly sights, including the awesome ghost of a plesiosaur (“It is a megawatt behemoth, bronze and blue-white, streaking across the sea floor like a torpid comet.”).

The story is rife with this kind of haunting, (bio)luminescent description—everything seems to glow with the phantom of its own vitality. A glow, if you’ll recall, is a little tiny light in a cloud of darkness, and Russell taps this metaphor nicely. We see that Olivia’s spirit is very much alive. [Language aside: every word from "limn" to "lambent" to "celestial" to "constellate" is deployed to, well, "illuminate" the murky milieu. Usually such plundering of the light lexicon irritates me—probably because it reminds me how annoyingly few light-describing words we've got. English, ye benighted tongue!—but this time I didn't much notice.] Here's a snippet that describes the lost Olivia, "one weird little kid" who
played “house” by getting the broom and sweeping the neon corpses of dead jellyfish off the beach. Her eyes were a stripey cerulean, inhumanly bright. Dad used to tell Olivia that a merman artisan had made them, out of bits of sea glass from Atlantis.
Initially the conceit seems a bit silly—sunken ships, magic glasses, ghosts. But the story is committed to its premise, and is soon able to outgrow its limitations. It's not a magic realism story, where you can't decide if it takes place in our world or some extraordinary but somehow normal otherworld. It is just a latter-day tale of wonder, in the vein of Peter Pan: where the brilliant minds of children collectively reimagine the tragic until it is softened into the fantastic. This story does this well.

From a pedant's perspective, sure, there are a few things wrong with it, but they're all surface-level and so don't matter to me much. The grandmother character is weak, despite her gigantically perfect name, Granana, which rhymes with her favorite food. She eats so much banana-based fare that "her farts smell funny, and her calf muscles frequently give out." Quirky stuff, but Granana never quite comes alive. Ah well. Also, one of the story's central places, the Glowworm Grotto, is a locus of some considerable reader confusion. I won't go into that because it doesn't make for interesting commentary, but if you read it you'll see what I mean.

It's a successful, classically constructed story. The beginning starts right before the end, the middle flashes back to before the beginning, and the ending continues from where the beginning left off (i.e. right before the end). But take note workshoppers and workshopees: there's not a ton of leaden "back-story" to weigh down the narrative—only enough to fill us in on the essentials. And the flashback—really, there's only one scene of it—is all action. Things move quickly throughout. Usually one glance from the narrative eye is enough to keep us hypnotized. The language knows when to be whimsical and when, glancingly, to be profound.


Sam said...

Sarno -- I guess I dug "Haunting Olivia" too, particularly its fine language. But weren't you at all thrown by the precocity of Timothy's voice? When's the last time you heard a twelve year old use the word "effulgence"? How about this sentence: "The goggles are starting to feel less like a superpower and more like a divine punishment, one of those particularly inventive cruelties that you read about in Greek mythology." At the age of 12, I was reading Fruity Pebbles boxes, comic books and Choose Your Own Adventure. I don't know. On balance, though, I liked this story.

Grendel said...

I was a little thrown, too, Sam. I don't think it would be too hard to fix it, either. Either put it in past tense so it's retrospective, in which case the language gets a pass. Or put in some references to how he's a genius and won the spelling bee or skipped a couple grades or something like that, in which case the language would be okay. But what would be the best solution in my opinion would be to have him make mistakes in trying to be so dazzling with words. That would make him much more human and really characterize him.

I think that's how she thought she was doing it. In the interview she says, "I think of Timothy as sort of a Renaissance nerd, with the omnivorous appetite of the grade-school nerd, equally obsessed with poems and worms and scatology. I like child narrators because they give you a unique liberty as a writer. Kids haven't been abashed yet. They straddle the divide between adult and child, real and supernatural, and draw from both to make sense of the world. I wanted a voice that could give readers the first glimmers of grownup cognition but also provide a child’s-eye view of grief. I suspect that Timothy is the kind of boy I would have been, using big words but pronouncing them incorrectly, with a vocabulary that outstrips his experience in the world."

Thing is, we can't hear him mispronounce them, and he spells them right, so where's the outstripping? I'd love the story if he misspellled or misused those big words every once in a while.

Sam said...

Corbin -- Couldn't agree more. A bit of bumbling here and there would've done a lot for the voice, the character, the story.

Tao Lin said...

eh, i wasn't much affected

i felt like i was reading Nancy Drew, though i've never read Nancy Drew

Grendel said...

I forgot to mention that I really liked the story otherwise, and am pro-plunge on all his other observations here.

Sam said...

Yeah. You're ok in my book, Plunge.

the plunge said...

Thanks guys. And please..."plunge" is no more. It's the plunge now.

the plunge said...

And Sam and Gren, re: the too-smart-for-his-age problem, I agree it is noticeable. But after I just accepted it, it didn't much faze me. You get that kind of thing a lot nowdays. I just reviewed Foer's new book a couple months ago, and it was the same type of deal. I'd take a smart kid over a dumb adult anyday.

Lila said...

I never thought I'd say this, but I think I'm with RODB on this one. I didn't like the story in the slightest. To me, it seemed like fiction about children that was also written for children--overly simplistic and sort of cutesy in its handling of characters and emotions. But aside from that, I found it really, really boring. The only reason I kept reading at all was to determine all the ways I disagree with The Plunge.

Jane said...

While there were definitely some magical moments (love the crab sleds, the pleiosaur, and even granana's bananas) the language definitely bugged me, too. It felt like the author showing off rather than intentionally creating the voice of a precocious 12 year old.

I did admire how Wallow's character emerged and deepened as the story unfolded. I could have done with a bit more sense of that kind of motion and development throughout -- the sense of a more complete story arc.

CLAUDIA said...

Hey, just re your comment on the "It's a successful, classically constructed story. The beginning starts right before the end, the middle flashes back to before the beginning, and the ending continues from where the beginning left off (i.e. right before the end)." - can I ask why you think the beginning starts right before the end? I don't think it does. Apart from one flashback, the story is perfectly chronological, isn't it?