Thoughts on”Bog Girl” by Karen Russell, published in the New Yorker June 20, 2016
Bog Girl is a short story about Cillian, an Irish teen who finds a girl’s body in a peat bog. She had been murdered 2,000 years ago, strangled by a rope, her body dumped in the bog and preserved for two millennia. Cillian decides to keep her, to bring her home, to dress her in his mother’s clothes, to bring her to school. Everyone acts like it’s normal.
I love Karen Russell and I love absurd fiction when done right, but I don’t think she did this right. I’m struggling to pinpoint what she does wrong.
The story reminds me of a David Foster Wallace story I read in the New Yorker years ago, a fiction story about a boy who wanted to kiss every part of his own body. It was absurd and strange, but I liked it then. Maybe it had more to it. Maybe my reading tastes have changed. But “Bog Girl” feels more like weirdness for weirdness’ sake.
After Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Russell’s last short story collection, Russell appears to be veering more toward a fantasy horror style of storytelling. Her last New Yorker story, “The Prospectors” (published almost exactly a year prior to “Bog Girl”) was about kids investigating a haunted ski resort.
My problem with that story, and this one, is in the endings. Russell has never been particularly strong at endings, but horror it’s necessary to have a good ending, I think. Both stories end on similar beats: the “horrors” disappear, and we don’t get to see what consequences the events had on the characters.
That leads to another problem, and maybe what Russell is currently lacking: tension. “Bog Girl” feels like a slack rope, which is ironic given the rope around the Bog Girl’s neck. It tightens under your fingertips at the end, but then the story stops. Does the rope slacken again, or does it break?