26. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Published in 2011 by Vintage Books.

Longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction, 2011.

Ava Bigtree can’t help but feel like she’s floundering, rather than flourishing, in her deceased mother Hilola’s footsteps. Hilola was the feature attraction show-stopper at the Bigtree’s family-owned and operated alligator wrestling theme park, “Swamplandia!”, nestled on an island little more than an adventurer’s spit of a hundred acres, off the Floridian mainland. “Mainland” is a geographical state that the Bigtree children—Ava; her awkwardly academic brother Kiwi; her eerily disengaged sister Osceola—have come to both desire and decry. The swamp, the theatre of routine and spectacle, of sold-out crowds clamouring in the stands, the moods and movements of their alligator brood (each animal named Seth, to avoid ambiguity): this is the life to which they’ve been born. However, when Hilola Bigtree succumbs, mundanely and sadly, to cancer, “Swamplandia!” falls on hard times. First Kiwi, then the Chief (the children’s gruffly well-intentioned father) head to the mainland for reasons both disparate and bonded, leaving the girls, the alligators, and the island to each other.

Much has been made of Swamplandia! since it was published, and it’s easy to see why—the novel is a quirk-factory. The ingredients for a tall-taled yarn are stacked sky-high, lined up for our perusal without even a shred of self-effacement in the prose. Nothing seems tongue in cheek or inversely satirical about the host of Seths, the fantastic Bigtree establishment ensconced within the swamp, the undead visitations of Osceola’s supernatural gentleman callers. To swallow this narrative arc, you won’t need suspension of disbelief so much as an utter willingness to park your reliance of concrete allegories outside. This novel isn’t for the reader who dismisses weirdness; quite the contrary… if you’re not inclined to wade through the inlets that lead to the sound of surreality, then this isn’t the best way to kick off your year in reading. Adherents to the sweet, cerebral cult of oddities, however, will find the book gratifying, akin to a curious girl’s fictional compendium of island-within-island navigation, of gritty, unsentimental survivalism.

I have read few books within recent memory wherein the author so skilfully constructed her setting as integral to the work’s beating heart. In Swamplandia!, the swamp is far more than a mere cardboard backdrop against which a plastic alligator or two is positioned. The landscape is capable of eliciting fear, awe or grudging respect (or all three), depending on which season you confront it. Early on in the story, Ava’s description of persistent bad weather coincides with the theme park’s declining fortunes.

“Our swamp got blown to green bits and reassembled, daily, hourly. The wet season was a series of land-versus-water skirmishes: marl turned to chowder and shunted the baby-green cocoplums into the sea; tides maniacally revised the coastlines. Whole islands caught fire from lightning strikes, and you could sometimes watch deer and marsh rabbits leaping into the sea of saw grass on gasps of smoke.”

When the plot becomes dense with dreadful adventure, much later on, as Ava, in the company of the enigmatic, leather-jacketed Bird Man, embarks on a quest to rescue her sister from the dark maw of the underworld, the descriptions of the islands teeming around our tenacious narrator threaten to steal the show. The nearer Ava draws towards the Stygian wilderness in which she believes Osceola to be trapped with her paranormal beau, Louis Thanksgiving, the more dreadfully fascinating her surroundings become.

“I was seeing new geometries of petals and trees, white saplings that pushed through the peat like fantailing spires of coral, big oaky trunks that went wide-arming into the woods … A large egretlike bird with true fuschia eyes and cirrusy plumage went screeching through the canopy.”

If landscape in Swamplandia! can be considered a pliable, inventive entity, then the tridented, oft-unspoken concord among the Bigtree progeny often feels and reads like a ghost character who haunts the pages, howling with love and angst. Ava’s frankly inquisitive absorption of the secrets and foibles in both her brother and sister’s nature make her a talented voyeuse. The perils into which she dashes, seemingly uncaring of her personal welfare, are prompted by the fiercest of sibling devotions, and yet, very little that is voluminous or fulsome distinguishes the talks that Ava trades with Osceola and Kiwi. Their adoration is made to stretch thinly over mysterious swamp islands, into the cheerless concrete of mainland life. In depicting it, Russell reminds the reader of the craggy heartlands of human communication, of how, even (or especially) among those who love each other best, familial adoration is unerringly represented by a snarling, non-communicative beast, one who skulks in a cave, one whose feelings run too deep to fathom.

It is, however, in the narrative split between Ava and Kiwi that the structure of the novel falters, diminishing a sustained sense of reading pleasure by forcing unsolicited somersaults from one compelling character, to one decidedly less so. This shift is taken up when Kiwi heads to the mainland, his act of teenagerly defiance to his father’s pipe dreamed notions of salvaging the future of “Swamplandia!”. For what he’s worth, Kiwi is not an unsatisfying character. His self-imposed blend of awkwardness and haughtiness, his massive disconnect from mainland life meeting his puppyish desire to ingratiate himself into the best ideas of his full potential: these make for good reading, and hold the bulwark of levity for much of the novel’s narration. Anyone’s who’s felt the weight of being a smart outsider hang heavy on their shoulders will relate to what Kiwi goes through as he endures the undignified employ at the subterranean-themed rival amusement centre, The World of Darkness. Witness, for instance, as poor Kiwi’s inner sufferer-scholar flares up, following the unwarranted opprobrium of a superior.

“Kiwi could feel his intelligence leap like an anchored flame inside him. His whole body ached at the terrible gulf between what he knew himself to be capable of (neuroscience, complicated opthalmological surgeries, air-traffic control) and what he was actually doing.”

Indeed, reading the ‘World’ segments are grimly, wit-stingingly winning: the setting is described as so mock-garish, so ostentatiously macabre, so unaware of its own enormous kitsch, that it prompts comparisons with similar, comically absurd urban designs. A short story featuring Kiwi’s exploits and misadventures at the ‘World’ would go over spectacularly, but even for all his tragicomic fumblings towards manhood, Kiwi’s narration is eclipsed utterly by Ava’s.

Perhaps what I like best about Swamplandia! is its audacious ambition. There is always some distance, in varying increments, of how outstanding a thing wants to be, of how ardent its desire to overwhelm you, compared to the impact, the force of actual resonance it generates. Respectfully, there is more distance between ambition and impact in this kaleidoscopic swamp-romp than, say, the illumination of other, greater first novels. That said, (bearing in mind that even a poor work of art, which this is not, usually requires patience, effort and devotion), Russell’s work here is both charming and challenging, beautiful in a graphic, grounded light. It introduces us to a pragmatic heroine fighting for a happy story, or at least, a safe one, while a wilderness of reconditely-curved fates clutch at her ankles like vine creepers. If there were no other fine hallmark of writing prowess in Swamplandia!, Ava Bigtree on her own would be worth the price of the paperback/hardcover/Kindle copy. She’s the sort of little girl whom grown women ought aspire to de-age themselves towards.

11 thoughts on “26. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

  1. When I finished Swamplandia! I was disappointed by what I saw as the huge gulf between Russell’s ambitions with this work and what she actually achieved. But, in so many ways, that’s exciting – what she writes next will, I hope, add a more satisfying plot and closure to Russell’s gorgeous backdrop. I love the way you write about the swamp itself, here; wish I could have come close to describing Ava’s world the way you do. At end I didn’t love where Russell took things (the novel felt incomplete to me, like she just wasn’t sure where to take things next or how to wrap things up either neatly or convincingly), but the first pages in the swamp still resonate so clearly. Russell’s world is so quirky and also so believable. I need to read her short stories, soon, so I can see what she is able to do when she’s writing about worlds outside the swamp.

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    1. Thank you, Ellen… reading Russell’s vivid evocations of the natural landscape truly took my breath away. Like you said, I think what makes her writing shine is how quirky and believable her world-construction is. I was also un-wowed by the resolution; it seemed a little bit deus ex machina-esque for me, if you know what I mean. The wrap-up felt… disingenuous, somehow, and I was expecting it to conclude in a much more grim way. That, I felt, would have suited the direction in which things had been leading. All that said, though, I did enjoy the reading experience. I think I’ll pick up her short story collection, soon, too. Really looking forward to your thoughts on those.

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  2. This is a fantastic review, and despite, and maybe even because of the few flaws you point out, I am so interested in reading it! Better perhaps to read something audacious and ambitious that fails just a bit, but stretches you as a reader and writer in the process, than to comfortably.enjoy something utterly safe and familiar.

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  3. Great review! I haven’t yet read this one, but your review was able to evoke the setting already. One of the books I read last year, Amarylis in Blueberry, made me feel like this…the novel itself was ambitious, but it ended up falling short. I’m sure the author’s next works will be a vast improvement…

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    1. Thank you, Jennifer! I just had a look at Amaryllis in Blueberry’s Goodreads page, and I noticed a lot of the sentiment there expresses what you mentioned. I see it’s compared to an exceptional novel which I began reading some time ago, but put down for reasons I can’t remember: Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible.

      I also just stopped by LitStack and left a comment on your wonderful review of The Vanishers. That one’s going on my TBR, for sure! I acquired a copy of her The Effect of Living Backwards a couple years ago, but haven’t gotten round to reading it, just yet. Soon, hopefully! She seems like an author worth discovering.

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  4. I read this book late last year and absolutely loved it. I appreciate what you say about the stark difference between the Ava and Kiwi chapters, but there were points toward the end of Ava’s trip through the swamp, when things got darker and darker, when I was happy for a bit of a reprieve. I’ve recommended this book to everyone I know (who I think can handle it). Great review.

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    1. Dear Disconnect, thank you for stopping by the blog! This was the first book I read this year, and I’ve no regrets about the choice. You’re quite right about Kiwi’s chapters staggering the difficult of Ava’s, especially later on. I thoroughly agree with you about recommending books to people who can handle it. I mean, American Psycho was one of my favourite reads of 2011, but I’m definitely not going to hand my mother my copy. I don’t think she’d thank me!

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  5. Pingback: Reading Ruminations: January to March 2012 « Novel Niche: A Place for Books

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