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.