‘The New Veterans’ by Karen Russell

Karen Russell’s stories are the illegitimate children of Ray Bradbury and Annie Proulx. Her prose surface is as slick with coloured lights as a soap bubble, and the reader skids off it in every possible direction the story allows, looking for the meaning of the things that are happening. This is so exciting it must be bad for you. ‘The New Veterans’, is narrated by a masseuse, in language carefully inappropriate to the discourse. What characterises a “massage subject”, she explains, as if addressing beginners in the trade, is that they try but fail to be relaxed on the table. It’s “a ruse that never works”, though. Their bodies talk anyway, confiding, “I can’t believe I’m telling you this.” Today’s subject is a soldier, his upper back covered with a hyper-realist tattoo of his time in Iraq. What follows could have been just a clever riff on ‘The Illustrated Man’, postmodern eye contact with Bradbury, half-mischievous, half deadly serious; but as the story moves into itself it discovers its own sad values. The masseuse, drawn in, is captured by the massage subject despite herself, and turned into his unwitting sin-eater. She knows, she says, that the dead give off an uncomfortable illumination, “a phosphor than can permanently damage the eyes of the living. Necroluminescence–the light of the vanished.”

First published in Granta, Winter 2013 and available online ”to subscribers. Collected in Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Chatto & Windus, 2013

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