To me, a new Karen Russell book is literary Christmas. Her new collection tells the stories of characters doing their best to conquer insurmountable odds: addiction, enslavement, the aftereffects of war. The stories explore the strengths and frailties of people; below, I’ve tried to match each one with a song that does it justice.
“Let Your Guard Down” by Emily Wells: To me, this song sounds like the slow passing of years. It speaks to the feeling of having everything and nothing at the same time. In “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” Clyde and Magreb have found a way to dull their hunger, but Clyde still feels an emptiness—an emptiness that’s furthered by Magreb’s growing distance and his insatiable desire.
“Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Part I” by the Flaming Lips: Though this song doesn’t quite match “Reeling for the Empire” in tone (Russell’s story is full of a sort of sad quietude), I wanted a song that spoke to Kitsune’s strength. It’s a bonus that this song’s protagonist literally fights machines. Kitsune pits herself against not only the literal reeling machines, but also the machine-like society that the Agent represents.
“Skip the Youth” by Frightened Rabbit: I know that this is a song that’s kind of slow to start, but the build-up correlates well with the climatic moment in “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach.” Nal’s final moment is a long time coming. Plus, when I hear the line “if I can shake me, I can dance with you,” I can’t help but hear Nal talk about getting in his own way…and then finally getting out of it.
“Why Oh Why” by Woody Guthrie: This is a song that asks (sometimes silly) unanswerable questions. The sentiment echoes Miles’s experience in “Proving Up.” He finds himself in murky situations, facing questions that have no easily definable answers. It also seems appropriate that Woodie Guthrie be the voice of a homesteader’s story.
“One Great City!” by The Weakerthans: I suppose it’s possible that the Presidential Horse Barn of “The Barn at the End of Our Term” is actually set in Winnipeg, but that’s not the reason for including this song. “One Great City!” is a song about hating where you live and feeling trapped by it, then finally breaking free. (P.S. Did anyone else have a semi-Free Willy moment at the end of this story? Because I totally did. Go, Rutherford, go!)
“We Will Rock You” by Queen: Initially I wanted to include a fight song for “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating,” but Antarctica doesn’t have one. So: a classic sports stadium song for a story about loving a team above all else. It was either this or “Whoomp, There It Is,” but Dougbert doesn’t strike me as the hip hop type. I could be wrong.
“Wish it was True” by The White Buffalo: “The New Veterans” is probably my favorite story in the collection. I have friends in the Navy, Army, and Airforce. I remember, in particular, one of my best friends coming home after two back-to-back nine-month tours—his first tours right after college. Over the phone, he sounded like a shell of himself: distracted and depressed. Russell’s story hits home the way this song does; both are about trying to do right by the people you love in situations that force you to always come up short.
“Wake Up” by Arcade Fire: If you saw the film Where the Wild Things Are, you’ve heard this song. I picked it for “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis” because I see Larry’s guilt, and his struggle to do the right thing, in the lines, “Children, wake up. Hold your mistake up.” He takes ownership of the way he treated Mutis (“we’re just a million little gods causin’ rain”) and does his best to right his wrongs. A song about growing up to go with a story about growing up.
I’d love to hear from you all. Have you read Russell’s new book? Which story is your favorite? What song would you choose for it? Let’s get a long playlist going!
Stream the Ploughshares Playlist for Vampires in the Lemon Grove at Spotify.