Upon reading The Best American Short Stories 2008, two stories shocked me. One was “The Worst You Ever Feel” by Rebecca Makkai because of its great ability to stir an emotional response while placing the reader directly in the scene of the events. The other was “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” by Karen Russell. This shocked me for quite another reason. This short story lacked basic storytelling qualities that I would expect in any ‘Best’ short story. It should not get picked for another edition.
Particularly when a story is length-challenged, having a deep and thought-provoking title is quite useful. To do this authors commonly use foreshadowing or embed some meaning directly into the title. I would expect the title, “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” to be a child’s book based on the lack of creativity. I was disappointed. It has a significant potential with all the stalking and preying on hapless victims. The title is too stark and fitting for an auto repair manual; the story is exactly what the title is about. Period. The only question that raises to my attention about it is, “why are there vampires in a Lemon Grove?”
“In October, the men and women of Sorrento harvest the primofiore, of “first fruit,: the most succulent lemons; in March, the yellow bianchetti ripen, followed in June by the green verdelli” (244). This as the very first sentence does not spark interest. It seems like it should be an agriculture department paper, or Wikipedia entry on the Sorrento lemon harvest. It should spark interest in the story and possibly give more information that is relevant to the story.
There were several corny clichés in this story too. The worst one was used as a transition to the discussion of bats. “At sunset, the tourists all around begin to shout. ‘Look! Up there!'” (245). This is not something new and reminds me of the well-worn exclamations – “is that a bird? a plane? No, it’s Superman!”
Also, the word choices in this story did not develop the characters. When Clyde sees Magreb for the first time, he says “I had been stalking her, following her swishing hips as she took a shortcut through the cemetery grass” (249). Adding one descriptive detail (swishing) about the love of his life does not particularly illuminate his feelings for her and leaves the reader with a two-dimensional view of his love for Magreb.
More effort should have been added to describe this particular encounter. Interestingly enough, another encounter, the one with Fila, is more descriptive, but not in a way that adds to the story. “Vampires” was certainly not one of my choices for ‘Best.’
In contrast, the short story “The Worst You Ever Feel” by Rebbecca Makkai is an emotion-evoking work. At the end of the story when Aaron had just melted on stage and urinated in his pants, the description of what his father did next was developed very well: “His father was above him, touching his hair and forehead, first saying ‘No matter, no matter’; then whispering words like an incantation: ‘May this be the worst you ever feel'” (157). This concludes the story very well and expresses a universal and sympathetic prayer of a parent for his/her child in a moment of childhood distress. It relates to disappointments and stressful situations that happen in every childhood and yet brings a masterful simplicity, affirmation and maturity to the parent’s response to the child.
The story also contains a few disturbing sections describing a sense of mourning which was treated with a great deal of respect. An example: They were sick, all of them, and not able to stay awake much. If they had indeed moved the piano to block the door, they must have worried that they wouldn’t have strength to move it back when the fires and gunshots were over. At some point, they had to accept that they would likely die in the room. Those who were married, like Morgenstern the pianist, would have written farewell letters to spouses they feared were already dead. (151) This matter-of-fact tone hits the reader with force and certainly stimulated in me a sympathy for the characters in such despair as to write farewell letters before their impending deaths.
The language stresses the bleak future that they likely face. The feeling of certain death is one of man’s greatest fears. Many people wonder if they would have the courage and forethought to think of others at such a moment. The way the author forces these characters to confront their mortality adds to its literary credibility.
This story also has very interesting and deep characters. Radelescu is a professor, operating his own music studio, and yet he is hunted down over several days. In case that wasn’t enough, he’s a survivor of a communist-controlled jail. He’s missing a finger and made multiple violins out of scraps of wood and bits of clothes. This is a compelling character whom a reader respects, wants to read about, learn more about his desire to survive, and his many struggles and how he surpassed them. He is the kind of character whom you do want to meet, despite the fact he only speaks Romanian.
Reading through the short stories, these are plenty of contrasts. “Vampires in a Lemon Grove” should not be included this anthology, especially when there is such a quality work as “The Worst You Ever Feel.” Here, Makkai has crafted a story with striking emotions, interesting characters and events so dramatic, three things totally absent from “Vampires.”