Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
Alfred A. Knopf, 2011
316 pages, hardcover.
Ever since I read an interview with Karen Russell in Tin House magazine, I have been looking forward to Swamplandia! to be available to me at the Library.
The Bigtree alligator-wrestling dynasty is in decline, and Swamplandia!, their island home and gator-wrestling theme park, formerly #1 in the region, is swiftly being encroached upon by a fearsome and sophisticated competitor called the World of Darkness. Ava’s mother, the park’s indomitable headliner, has just died; her sister, Ossie, has fallen in love with a spooky character known as the Dredgeman, who may or may not be an actual ghost; and her brilliant big brother, Kiwi, who dreams of becoming a scholar, has just defected to the World of Darkness in a last-ditch effort to keep their family business from going under. Ava’s father, affectionately known as Chief Bigtree, is AWOL; and that leaves Ava, a resourceful but terrified thirteen, to manage ninety-eight gators and the vast, inscrutable landscape of her own grief.
Against a backdrop of hauntingly fecund plant life animated by ancient lizards and lawless hungers, Karen Russell has written an utterly singular novel about a family’s struggle to stay afloat in a world that is inexorably sinking. An arrestingly beautiful and inventive work from a vibrant new voice in fiction. ~publisher’s comments.
It is hard to escape the realist portraiture in this surrealist fiction, especially as the surreality drifts into very dark places. You are drawn artfully inward and downward. Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! is a book that holds its sinister edge from start to finish and confirms some of your worst fears. The novel is not an easy romp, despite Russell’s amusing turns of phrase, bursts of the absurdly funny, and her incredible vocabulary. It is lovely though.
The Swamp feels apt for several a metaphor and simile, as easily wielded as “The World of Darkness” invention; Russell doesn’t waste her opportunities. History lessons reveal a failure to tame and reform the landscape. The Bigtrees appear as stubborn and free-spirited—informed and reinvented by the swamplands that is their home. In some ways they are as unsuppressed, and in many ways as vulnerable to exterior forces.
Ava Bigtree, our primary first person narrative, guides us through the wilds of the swamp and the Bigtree family history. Ava though young in age, is more mature in other ways, which complicates the vision of her; as does her rational self becoming steeped in the less rational. She differs in delightful ways to her elder brother Kiwi, our other first person narrator, who takes us out of the swamp and into The World. He appears much more vulnerable, his foolishness more readily apparent–or is it? Both are coming of age in this novel, and somewhat violently. The Bigtree’s lives are not unfamiliar, and such is unsettling. Russel proves a deft hand at blurring edges and casting gray light on everything but what should mean most and remain indisputable.
Swamplandia! touches on family, loneliness, grieving, identity, and the pursuit of one’s dreams. The characters and their landscape are unusual is all. And while I would love to recommend this to anyone and everyone; I think it will be lost on or not enjoyable for some. I think that the Literary Short Story Reader will enjoy this novel, and those who appreciate well orchestrated sentences, dark imagery, and/or the Absurd and Surreal; for those who do not feel a strict hold on format/formula of the novel or sentence; Russell is a student of Italo Calvino (figuratively speaking), so other such students/readers will find a hint of his marvelous sensibilities here; also, for those who could bear to learn more about alligators, swamps, and or Florida.
*******What follows is a bit of a ramble, or what omphaloskepsis calls “notes.” Though the novel was painful at moments, and elicited some impatience at other times, I loved this read and the contemplations it inspired and participated in; the thoughts that culminated and complicated into a knot at the end. What follows is hardly everything.*******
Swamplandia! is gorgeously written. Even though the story has moments that ramble a bit. And I have overheard complaint that the novel doesn’t seem to quite come together–a feeling, as I understand it. It does take time and some effort to sort the novel out.
Perhaps a weakness in the weaving is in the choice to follow after Kiwi, or to choose his over what should promise to be a truly bizarre personal narrative by Osceola? Is it difference between Ava’s and Kiwi’s experiences/worlds? Kiwi is moving upward through the bowels of The World of Darkness and into himself while the girls seem to seek further into the swamp/hell and becoming less recognizable. Kiwi is somewhat treading water and things more often than not just happen to him. Is it that his grand turning point is more quietly perpetrated, ineffectual in its normalcy? The girl’s are more consciously making things happen, and it is with Ava that the story meets any traditional sense of climactic turning—a dramatically decisive move toward a thematic conclusion. Osceola’s is one we have to consider in retrospect, implement some of our own imagination. Swamplandia! does require crowd participation; which if you are not willingly invested in some form it is a favor to both you and the novel to lay it aside.
Bits and pieces reveal the authors forays in short fiction. There is a playfulness in structures, a daring in defying expectations. And you certainly sink into moments/sequences in Swamplandia! where some images and ideas become more flush with consideration. These moments remark upon the short fiction writer’s desire to resist gratuitous florishes, inane chatter. But the story does come together and the potential distractions toward linking encapsulations of thought/image are drawn into the lengthier ambitions of the novel. The linear motion of the greater time-line helps, as does its layers. It starts and finishes with: stages of grief, the hours of summer, a financial collapse, a propulsion toward Hades culminating with a decision at the gate. The progressive and eventual loss of innocence (figuratively and metaphorically).
The Bigtrees have a stubborn will to survive, but each have different modes of survival, ways of adapting/responding to change. Russell creates complicated characters that are wholly compelling in their variously portrayed identities/personalities. As the light moves, as the setting and circumstances change, the reader has to reconcile the different sides of the characters (as the characters themselves must). Is Kiwi really a genius? He seems to think he is. What might suggest he is or isn’t—and by whom? And how does the perception of genius affect Kiwi’s decisions? How many lights can we see an individual in and which one is true?
You are rarely, if ever, entirely sure what is going on, really going on. You can have a good idea and Russell will frustrate you. People who must know what is really going on, should not read this book, because even when a sense is offered, it is still murky—Ava and the Bird Man are the most uncomfortable examples of this. Yes, there are painfully clear depictions, but not everything is crystalline in retrospect. And some things come to better light in the corner of one’s eye. Was life for Hilola peachy-keen, especially in her marriage? Just what parts of her history were manufactured—or for whose/what’s sake?
There is a lot of social commentary in Swamplandia! Some portrayals that feel like a David Sedaris influence. Because of the mechanics of the novel, when something appears so casually straight-forward, it is a bit startling, and one wonders how straight-forward it actually is. In this, Swamplandia! must be considered as a whole. Excising pieces could be dangerous, however quote-worthy. I feel pretty comfortable with this sampling:
There were many deficits in our swamp education, but Grandpa Sawtooth, to his credit, taught us the names of whole townships that had been forgotten underwater. Black pioneers, Creek Indians, moonshiners, women, “disappeared” boy soldiers who deserted their army camps. From Grandpa we learned how to peer beneath the sea-glare of the “official, historical” Florida records we found in books. “Prejudice,” as defined by Sawtooth Bigtree, was a kind of prehistoric arithmetic—a “damn fool math”—in which some people counted and others did not. It mean white names on white headstones in the big cemetery on Cypress Point, and black and brown bodies buried in swamp water.
At ten, I couldn’t articulate much but I got the message: to be a true historian, you had to mourn amply and well. Grandpa ate rat snakes and alligator meat even after grocery stores made frozen dinners available; he bit that one guy, Mr. Arkansas; but I don’t think these facts disqualify him from being a true historian, a true egalitarian. Tragedies, too, struck blindly and you had to count everyone. […] From his stories we learned as children how to fire our astonishment at death into a bright outrage. (200-1)
What’s in a name?
“My mom had a name that she tore off, too,” I [Ava] heard myself saying. “[…]She had a mainland name—her maiden name, it’s called. She used to be Hilola Owens. So she wasn’t always a Bigtree. And then she only got to be a Bigtree for eighteen years, you know, and now she’s nothing.” (176)
Swamplandia! is occupied with Identity. How perceptions of self and an external perception often struggle for reconciliation. The realizations Kiwi makes, having left the closed culture of the swamp, provides a bit of play and insight. I liked that Kiwi was a susceptible to discussions of color and identity—see Russell is quite Real in her writing.
“White boy’s here to tutor us,” said another white boy, a corncob-haired Midwestern-looking kid. “Community service! White boy trying to…” Kiwi heard sniggers and a few affirmative grunts. The insult drifted into something unintelligible. It took a beat to realize that he was the joke here, the punch line—he didn’t think it came naturally, to see yourself as an object. It was like conjugating your own name in a foreign tongue. So: in Loomis County he was a “white boy,” apparently. This was news. Well, it’s not like I can disagree—Kiwi stared at his skin in the pencil’s aluminum rim. He wished he could explain the island to these city kids, though. Could tell them about Chief Bigtree’s “Indian” lineage; how as a kid they’d put makeup and beads on him, festooned him with spoonbill feathers and reptilian claws; how at fourteen he’d declared: “I’m a Not-Bigtree. A Not-India. A Not-Seminole. A Not-Muccosukee.” This category of “white” gave him a whistling fear, a feeling not unlike agoraphobia. “White” made Kiwi Bigrtree picture a vast Arctic plain, a word in which one single person could never survive. Whitey, white boy—Kiwi didn’t like getting snowballed intoa color. But maybe everybody felt that way about their adjectives, Kiwi thought. He remembered the feeling of coming down the Loomis ferry dock with his battered Swamplandia! duffel into a wilderness of faces. (166)
How much does a person shed, change out; what is growing up, adapting; what is core to the individual, unshakeable, impenetrable, translatable? Who hands out the licenses in which to claim certain attributes; what can be adopted, which are inescapable (if any)? What can we/do we use to hide certain aspects of ourselves to make ourselves more palatable? What do others do to us to make us more palatable (and convenient) to them?
I really enjoyed the read. I love conversations on identity. I love the exploration of what is real or no? How discernment, the ability or lack there of is dangerous?–even as it may prove comforting and comfortable for a time. The place of knowledge, imagination, ambition, necessity, and lore in perception and world building.
I intend to read Swamplandia! again, after a healthy space of time. I really enjoyed the writing, the descriptors, the diction… But after finishing the novel, I felt the need to distract my mind from where it lingered in a very haunted and sorrowful place. Some of the violent images near the end affected me personally. May want to have something equally enthralling or lighthearted and rainbow-hued ready to read soon after–or at least before bed. Or maybe read Swamplandia! in a book club for the discussion, and the possibility of group therapy. I took a couple of days as it was, stumbling over ideas in and conversations with the book. I still feel fairly inarticulate.
I look forward to getting a hold of Karen Russell’s St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.