Sunday, May 1, 2011

Review of Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Why do I dread writing this review?  I was so excited about Swamplandia! – couldn’t wait to read it.  I began reading a few pages but stopped.  I didn’t read it over vacation because I wanted to be alone with it for a stretch (yet I couldn’t be bothered to lift it on the five hour road trip back).  I finished some other books and picked it up in earnest again.  I read.  I got sleepy.  Read some more.  Got sleepy.  What was going on?  I liked the characters.  I liked the concept – it had so much potential and originality.  Why wasn’t I loving this book?

I pushed on because it wasn’t terrible.  It wasn’t even bad.  It just made me very sleepy.  I think part of the problem was Russell’s extensive use of metaphor and many self-conscious turns of phrase.  Gustave Flaubert said, “An author in his book must be like God in the universe; present everywhere and visible nowhere.”  I felt that Russell was too visible in too many places.  Sometimes the description of the setting slowed the pace without adding anything to the general mood or tension in the book.  I got “bogged down”, so to speak. (har, har).  Some of her prose was beautiful but pointless.  Some of it didn’t seem to fit in the characters mouths.  For instance, the main character, Ava, muses:
“I tried to imagine what species of bird could make a sound like that.  A single note, held in an amber suspension of time, like a charcoal drawing of Icarus falling.  It was sad and fierce all at once, alive with a lonely purity.” 

Beautiful words, but I wouldn’t have put them in Ava’s mouth.  Ava often waxes poetic like this, but it doesn’t sound like a thirteen year old with a substandard education and a sheltered life.  It sounds like Karen Russell trying to dazzle me.  Another thing that slowed the book down was the insertion of historical facts about the Florida swamplands.  These were not seamless – I always felt like they were asides basted in with sloppy whipstitches.  It interrupted the flow of this fantastically original story.

Anyway, the World of Darkness is so surreal, it screams out, “Yes, I am a symbol of something larger in this story.”  To me, that something larger is the lingering shadow of death, especially the death of one as significant as the mother, wife and raison d’être of Swamplandia!  With Hilola’s passing, the Bigtrees lost any draw they had to their park, and Ava is still too young to replace her.  Each Bigtree copes with the loss of Hilola in his or her own peculiar way.  For Chief Bigtree, the father, the answer is “Carnival Darwinism”.  He plans to compete with World of Darkness with lame and expensive ideas (which they can’t afford because of their substantial debt).  But no matter what gimmick he thinks he might try, nothing can replace Hilola.  He retreats to the mainland to “do business”; the children presume this means he’s getting investors for his schemes.  He is absent from the family for most of the novel.  His means of coping with his wife’s death is to try to compensate for her loss by investing more in the park.  He futilely clings to the false mythos he manufactured about Swamplandia!.  To let it go would be to let her go.

The eldest Bigtree, seventeen year old Kiwi, thinks his father’s plan is ridiculous and decides to go to the mainland and get a job to help save Swamplandia!  Ironically, he ends up working at The World of Darkness.  Kiwi’s version of hell is working this menial, dead-end job that pays barely enough to cover his expenses, let alone make payments on his father’s bank loans. Through his stint at World of Darkness, we come to understand the anger he feels about Hilola’s death as well the insularity of his swampy upbringing.  Kiwi is taunted by the other employees his age because of his pretentious vocabulary and his lack of social grace. 

All the Bigtree children were haphazardly homeschooled on the island, but Kiwi wants to go to college.  He attends night school in the city to try to make this dream come true.  Through a series of accidents and fateful encounters, Kiwi slowly gains the respect of his peers and gets a few lucky breaks that help him build his life.  Ever the realist, Kiwi plunged headfirst into The World of Darkness, taming the Leviathan of grief that would swallow him up.  He comes out stronger.

The middle child, Osceola (Ossie), is sixteen and has never been kissed.  Her first birthday without her mother is the saddest attempt at a celebration ever.  Her brother and sister give her an XXL sweatshirt from the Swamplandia! gift shop that doesn’t fit her, and the Chief gives her a pair of moccasins from the park museum that she had outgrown.  The cake is even stale.  Ossie longs to have friends like mainland girls do.  She wants to go to prom.  Yet, she knows she could never fit into that world.  Ossie leaves her birthday party, saying she wants to be alone. 

When Ossie discovers a book on spiritualism, she begins contacting the dead.  She uses a Ouija board and finds herself numerous ghost “boyfriends”.  Ossie herself is like a ghost – she has white hair and fades into the background of the family.  Her mother was a famous gator wrestler, and Ava was Hilola’s up-and-coming protégé.  Kiwi was the smart one.  Where did this leave poor, weak Ossie?  A ghost in her own life.  Ossie doesn’t belong in Swamplandia or the mainland, so she retreats to the Underworld, running away with her ghost husband, “The Dredgeman”.  At the last minute, right when she was ready to join the land of the dead, her ghost husband leaves her.  Without him, she “couldn’t finish it” (her life).

Sweet Ava is the youngest victim in this family tragedy.  Her brother, the only voice of reason in the family, has left home in a show of rebellion against his father’s schemes.  Chief Bigtree leaves the girls alone in Swamplandia to “do business”.  We’re never really sure if he’s abandoned them altogether or if he’s really trying to pull it together.  Then Ossie, Ava’s last remaining companion, runs off the meet her ghost man on his derelict dredge in the swamp, admonishing Ava not to wait for her.  She tells Ava to call the Chief and use their stash of money if she needs it. 

Ava partly thinks Ossie is playing a game with this spiritist stuff, thinking her sister will eventually come home.  When she doesn’t return, Ava goes deep into the swamp, searching for The Underworld to find her.  A stranger named Bird Man is the only adult who shows any interest in Ava’s predicament.  He tells Ava that she’ll never find Ossie if she calls the authorities.  They won’t believe her, he says, nor will they know where the Underworld is – but he, the Bird Man, does.  Ava follows him, willingly, into her own personal hell.

Because Ava misses her mother terribly, she wants to believe that Ossie’s ghosts and the Underworld are real.  She holds hope that if she finds it, she will get both her sister and her mother back.  The liminality of the swamp contributes to this seductive belief.  Ava says:
            “Every doubt got pushed away.  Kiwi’s voice (There are no such things as ghosts) I ignored.  Faith was a power that arose from inside you, I thought, and doubt was exogenous, a speck in your eye.  A black mote from the sad world of adults.”

This desire to put her faith in what is false leads her into a harrowing situation.  Ava is broken in so many ways, but she learns that instead of seeking strength from outside of her – either from her mother, her family, the Bird Man, or the crowds of adoring tourists – she can find her strength within.  She discovers that she doesn’t need ghosts or the Underworld.  Her grief doesn’t rip her apart like an ancient Seth prowling the marsh; she wrestles with her grief and emerges stronger.

The best character in the book was the one that existed only in the memories of the others: Hilola Bigtree.  While Swamplandia! didn’t get a deep emotional rise from me, there were a couple of heart-rending scenes at the end which revolved around the mother.  First was Kiwi’s remembrance of Hilola in the weeks before her death:
            “Brush your teeth, son!” she’d screamed at him once from her hospital bed, nine days before her death.  “You’re not brushing are you…?” and the pleading and suspicion in her voice belied the stupidity of this accusation.  She was all doped with morphine.

I can’t explain why this particular scene got to me.  As a mother, I think the hardest part of facing mortality would be leaving behind my children.  Only a mother loves her children enough to fret over these small and seemingly unimportant details of our lives.  Without the mother, who would attend to these matters for the Bigtree kids?  Certainly not the Chief.

The other emotional part is when Ava is lost in the swamp and swimming in a gator pit.  A Seth clamps down on her leg, and she can’t surface from the water.  She remembers the training her mother gave her and does everything she was taught.  The gator releases her, and she swims to safety.  But before she can escape the jaws of the Seth, she must release the burden of clothes she carries with her – her sister’s ribbon, the Dredgeman’s shirt and jacket, a scrap from her mother’s dress.  She had to let go of these symbols of loss to save herself.  She says:
            “I wasn’t scared now; my insides still held the space of the shape my mom had filled.  I’d lost everything, all the clothes, even the ribbon on my wrist.”
Baby Seths basking in the sun.

In the end, the chaos catalyzed by the World of Darkness subsides.  There is no happy ending – only a shift to bland neutrality in the Bigtree’s lives.  It is from this calm and drab place that they will begin their lives again.

Overall, I think I liked Swamplandia!  The book would have been perfect without the patchy history lessons or the poetic prose that slowed the pace.  Swamplandia! could have been a great book with some simple deletions.  Its blurb offered so much promise, and I think my expectations were too high.  I wanted to like this book more.  Will I read Karen Russell again?  You bet.  There was plenty here to like, and I think she’s only going to get better as she writes more long fiction.  I admit I was a little disappointed – like a diner in a fine restaurant who orders the special that’s good but doesn’t live up to its description.   Swamplandia! was served with a tad too much unnecessary seasoning which prevented me from devouring it or savoring it.  Yet, the story was satisfying, and it filled me up.  I foresee this isn’t the last or the best we’ll read from Russell – here’s hoping what’s next will be more subtle to the taste.

Here is the plot synopsis in a jif:  Thirteen year old Ava comes from the Bigtree family of alligator wrestlers who run a theme park called Swamplandia!  They call their gators Seths.  When the book opens, Ava’s mother Hilola, the star wrestler in the park, has died from ovarian cancer.  In the aftermath of her death, The World of Darkness sweeps in and turns the Bigtree family’s world upside down.  The World of Darkness is a competing theme park that takes away all of Swamplandia’s tourists.  It is a surreal place where people vacation in a replica of hell – you can be swallowed by the Leviathan or swim in the blood-red Lake of Fire.  You can fly over the dismal swamp lands in a plane flown by one of the Four Pilots of the Apocalypse.  Tourists in “The World” are called Lost Souls.  Clearly, the World of Darkness is absurd – what sort of crazy parents would take the family to such a macabre place for entertainment?  (Well, maybe the more extreme Baptists who send their kids to “hell houses” on Halloween instead of haunted houses would enjoy the World of Darkness.  I really couldn’t say for sure.)


  1. Book Phantom, you are articulate, awesomely opinionated, and just great. I keep waffling back and forth about whether or not I want to read this book, the world sounds spectacular, but I've just heard too much talk about the writing's unevenness, to convince me to give it a go. Oh Karen Russell, I'm sorry, but I will always have a special place in my heart for "St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves."

  2. Thanks, BAMB. Yeah, I felt kinda' bad about this review because I heard good things about St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. Even though I didn't love Swamplandia!, I will give St. Lucy's a try one of these days. Glad you stopped by!