Tag Archives: Karen Russell

The Joshua Tree (inspired by Karen Russell)

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This is a story of how life meets literary obsession. Not that I could really tell at the time…

Some years ago, my husband and I took a short vacation in California in the middle of the winter. We stayed in Orange County, the area I knew best through a series of business trips. We did do some of the typical touristy stuff in LA: the Getty Center, Universal Studios, and Hollywood Boulevard.

At the time, my sister and I were playing a trick on a colleague of hers. She was a lab technician in a college and one of the physics teachers she worked with had designed an experiment that involved the use yellow rubber duckies, the kinds that kids play with in the bath tub. She stole one of the rubber ducks and I traveled with it around the world, wherever job and pleasure travel took me and took pictures of the duck in various locations. I then sent pictures of the duck back to that teacher in question, through an anonymous hotmail address, something like globetrottingduck@hotmail.com. I had pictures of the duck in various circumstances in India, in the suburbs of Washington, DC, as well as with the little siren in Copenhagen (not quite the literary connection I really want to talk about though).
One of my goals on Hollywood Boulevard was to find Celine Dion’s star so I could take a picture of the duck with it. Oh, sweet success…

Celine Dion

The thing about the duck was not the literary obsession… My sister was trying to duplicate the garden gnome travels as pictured in the Amélie Poulain movie, where Amélie’s friend who was a flight attendant carried around a garden gnome from the garden of Amélie’s father and mailed back custom postcards featuring the garden gnome.

Roadrunner

While in California, we also went to Palm Springs where we visited this zoo/botanical garden place called “The Living Desert”. There I ran into what I never thought really existed… well, I did know the TV version, but I thought it only existed as a cartoon character and somehow never thought it was a real bird… yes, you got it, the famous Roadrunner! I had to chase this little guy around (they really are not that big) for quite a while until I could snap a picture.
Meep, meep!
So we got the show biz connection, the movie connection, the TV connection… we will eventually get to the literary connection.
One of the excursions I wanted to take while we were in Palm Springs was to see the desert. Our hotel had a stack of pamphlets of course, some of which features off-road trips in the desert in a Hummer… I booked one really quick, before my husband had the time to say “over my dead body”… and off we were in a Hummer.

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We drove off a side road from the main highway that goes from Palm Springs to Palm Desert and went into the Joshua Tree National Park. Desert as far as you can see and big skies… Lovely cool day.

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Lots of desert plants. Like what we had seen at The Living Desert, this was typical of the Mojave Desert, each desert having its own characteristic ecosystem and variety of plants and wildlife.

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There were these funny taller ones, gray trunks with vivid green tufts on the end of arms.

Wait… you mean, THAT is a Joshua Tree? What a let down… I thought a Joshua tree was a large tree, something big and tall, with lots of shade… Not these sticks with tufts on the end. For a long time, I was disappointed. But the images stayed with me, and I often thought about that experience in the desert.

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And reading Russell’s “The bad graft” with Amy possessed by the spirit of the Joshua Tree,

Her heels grind uselessly into the carpet. Her toes curl at the fibres. She stands in the quiet womb of the room, waiting for a signal from the root brain, the ancient network from which the invader has been exiled. She lifts her arms until they are fully extended, her fingers turned outward. Her ears prick up like sharp leaves, alert for moisture.

She is still standing like that when Andy comes home with groceries at 10 p.m., her palms facing the droning light bulb, so perfectly still that he yelps when he spots her.

Just like that Joshua tree:

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Those are my real vacation pictures. OK, the order was rearranged somewhat to match the narrative. But really, the final picture with the two branches looking like upraised arms was not retouched in any way… Just too weird.

Reference
Russell, Karen. “The bad graft”, The New Yorker, June 9 & 16, 2014, pages 92-99.

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Karen Russell, “The bad graft” in The New Yorker Magazine

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I took quite a liking to Karen Russell’s writing when I read Sleep Donation. And when I opened the June 9 & 16 issue of the New Yorker, they had a short story by her, goodie! Like Sleep Donation and I suspect, the rest of her writing, it features a quite inventive turn of events, some fantasy and an alternate reality that may be somewhat frightening in its implications. A young couple sets out on a road trip across the country. After a stop in a desert camp ground, in the Mojave Desert, and the discovery of Joshua trees in bloom, the young woman no longer wants to wander, she needs to put down roots, stay close to the desert. There is some implied possession by the spirit of the Joshua tree (that tree has quite a mythical aura, I mean, just the name…).

Her heels grind uselessly into the carpet. Her toes curl at the fibers. She stands in the quiet womb of the room, waiting for a signal from the root brain, the ancient network from which the invader has been exiled. She lifts her arms until they are fully extended, her fingers turned outward. Her ears prick up like sharp leaves, alert for moisture.

She is still standing like that when Andy comes home with groceries at 10 p.m., her palms facing the droning light bulb, so perfectly still that he yelps when he spots her.

Until the invader loses its grip on her….

 

Reference

Russell, Karen. “The bad graft”, The New Yorker, June 9 & 16, 2014, pages 92-99.

Karen Russell, Sleep Donation

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Karen Russell offers us a fascinating satire on the blood donation business, its benefits and problems, even scandals. In bleak twist of faith, at some unspecified future time, North America is facing an unprecedented epidemic of terminal insomnia. Victims lose the ability to sleep and can only be treated through sleep transfusion. Sleep must be donated after donor screening, and filtered to ensure it is not “contaminated”. Most victims are cured after one such transfusion although some seem to be incurable.

This terminal insomnia is described in the following way:

Neuroscientists have since concluded that for a significant portion of our country’s population, the signalling function of the neuropeptide orexin has become impaired. Orexin deficiency has been linked to human narcolepsy, but this disfunction causes the opposite effect: an untenable hyperarousal. Sleep becomes impossible. People like Dori [Trish’s sister] remain conscious for months and even years, hostages of their brain’s chemicals, trapped in the vigilance state that eventually kills them.

The story is told through the eyes of a Slumber Corps volunteer, Trish Edgewater, whose sister was one of the first to die from this ailment. The Slumber Corps, similarly to the Red Cross, operates a network to collect and redistribute sleep, supported by both employees and volunteers. To honor her sister’s memory, Trish is a volunteer recruiter for the organization.

One of her recruits is Baby A, baby girl of the Harkonnen’s, who sleep is so pure, so untainted, that she is considered a “universal donor”. Because of the quality of her sleep, she is pumped to the max weekly, to her father’s great dismay.

When Trish discovers what may be fraudulent behavior on the part of one of the Slumber Corps leaders, she starts questioning her commitment to the organization and feels guilty about her behavior towards the Harkonnen, which she is starting to think is manipulative.

What attracted me to this novella is the “sleep” theme, given my own current inability to have a night of uninterrupted sleep. Granted, my own problem is nothing like terminal insomnia, so maybe I can draw comfort from the fact that it could be much, much worse.

Some people have labelled this book science fiction (or a dystopia), but I prefer to call it satire. The parallels between the issues related to blood donation and how the press covers them are sometimes so witty and incisive that in my mind, it is clearly satire.

Russell, Karen. Sleep Donation. Atavist Books, New York, NY, 2014.