Tuesday, May 10, 2011
Swoon Over Miami: Karen Russell's "Swamplandia!"
Karen Russell's highly awaited debut novel came out in February, and even before then, I was one of many people counting down the days until its publication. I was in the middle of other projects at the time, so my reading of Swamplandia! was delayed longer than I wanted it to be. The Russell story that I cited in the linked post turned out to be an excerpt from the novel, and while the story admirably stands alone as its own piece, it also serves as an excellent microcosm of the entire work. Russell stated her desire to balance the literary with the playful, and in Swamplandia!, the balance is between the literary and a mix of other small genres, most notably a sort of American gothic and fantasy. While not without the occasional problem, the work is proof that Russell's short story gifts are not lost in longer explorations. However, it's not entirely impossible that certain readers would prefer her shorter works over the novel; that's not a critique, but rather an honest assessment.
In Florida, the Bigtree family (parents Hilola and Chief; children Ava, Kiwi, and Ossie; grandfather Sawtooth) runs an alligator park called Swamplandia!, highlighted by Hilola's skills as an alligator wrestler and diver. Her sudden death, not from a diving accident, but from cancer, not only wreaks havoc on the family emotionally, but leads to a sudden decline in tourists to the park, creating a dire financial situation. Ava, the youngest Bigtree, is determined to become a renowned alligator wrestler in her own right, but her goal is beset by her age and her trouble with trying to deal with her family's strife. Ossie, empowered by a spiritual handbook, begins communicating with the dead, falling for the spirit of a Depression-era dredgeman named Louis Thanksgiving. Chief leaves the family to travel to the mainland under the guise of securing finances and loans for the park's continuation. Kiwi, a self-proclaimed academic, ends up defecting to a rival amusement park, The World Of Darkness, attempting to make money to support Swamplandia! When Ossie "runs away" with Louis, Ava is left alone, eventually teaming up with a mysterious figure known as the Bird Man, and the two undertake a journey to the underworld in the hopes of rescuing Ossie in her destination to join into a spiritual marriage with Louis.
The opening descriptions of Hilola's alligator dives are wonderfully descriptive, and immediately reminded me of Binewski family in Katherine Dunn's Geek Love.
"The tourists moved sproingily from buttock to buttock in the stands, slapping at the ubiquitous mosquitoes, unsticking their khaki shorts and their printed department-store skirts from their sweating thighs. They shushed and crushed against and cursed at one another; couples curled their pale legs together like eels, beer spilled, and kids wept. At last, the Chief cued up the music. Trumpets tooted from our big, old-fashioned speakers, and the huge unseeing eye of the follow spot twisted through the palm fronds until it found Hilola. Just like that she ceased to be our mother. Fame settled on her like a film--'Hilola Bigtree, ladies and gentleman!' my dad shouted into the microphone. Her shoulder blades pinched back like wings before she dove (Russell 4)."
I was initially worried that Swamplandia! was going to be a repeat or homage to Dunn's 1989 work, but the beginning similarities quickly melted away. In Dunn's work, the Binewskis, when their intentional deformities are stripped away, are like any other dysfunctional family, with love, anger, and internal fights. Russell's Bigtrees are just a regular group who run a realistic amusement park, and, like virtually any literary family, their problems are genuine. Hilola's death breaks them apart just as much as her earlier presence, both as a mother and headliner, held them together. The majority of the chapters alternate between Ava's narration and third-person accounts of Kiwi's attempts to integrate himself with "mainlanders" in the other amusement park, and Russell's work of making the youngest Bigtree serve as the narrator is effective. The alternation between narrative voices is pretty standard, but the reader quickly realizes that Ava, for all of her youth and innocence, makes the perfect narrator. She desperately wants the best for her family, but her views are not childish or needlessly hopeful. Every other Bigtree has their own delusions and agendas, and while Ava is not completely exempt from this, she seems to have a subconscious understanding of why everyone else is doing what they're doing.
"Was [Ossie] crazy? She was crazy--I hardly needed to ask the question. It was 80 degrees in our room. I tugged at my hair with both hands and watched her performing hygiene in the mirror. My sister didn't look possessed--we were both wearing the same ankle socks and the striped pajamas that we wore to bed every night. Ossie had a green freckle of toothpaste on her upper lip, her hair was pulled into a high ponytail for sleep purposes, her cheeks were sunburned, she looked pretty dumb with her same big-eyed, ostrichy features, and all these outside things were so as-ever ordinary that I wanted to scream at her: You are faking, you are lying! There is no such thing as your dredgeman (Russell 93-94)."
Whether obvious or just hinted, Russell also crafts the novel as a contemporary and historical love letter to her home state of Florida. Nothing is needlessly romanticized, but there is obvious affection for the scenery, wildlife, and culture of the area. Her research is impeccable, but blends very well into the fictionalized details, creating a realistic background to the novel's characters and happenings. As Ava travels deep into the swamps with the Bird Man, the novel takes on a mystical, almost fantasy-like tone, but the details are never sacrificed. As the reader "travels" with the two unlikely partners, the trip to the underworld becomes a blend of the mystical and real sides of certain territories.
"These Seminoles, the 'real' Indians that Chief envied in a filial and loving way, were in fact the descendants of many displaced tribes from the Creek Confederacy. This swamp was not their ancestral home either, not by any stretch--they had been pushed further and further into the swamp by President Jackson's Tennessee boys and a company of scarecrows from Atlanta, a militia that was starved and half-crazed. We Bigtrees were an 'indigenous species' of swamp dweller, according to the Chief and our catalogs, but it turned out that every human in the Ten Thousand Islands was a recent arrival (Russell 191)."
The majority of the characters are revealed to have hidden agendas, some of which are saddening or shocking, but it's difficult to discuss these in-depth without providing major spoilers. Russell presents these revelations in some of the novel's best pages towards the end, blending the individual climaxes without making them obvious or part of any major differentiation in the plot. However, the novel's biggest problem is the very end: after roughly thirty pages of twists that lead to the conclusion, Swamplandia! ends on a sort of apathetic note. The ultimate destination of the Bigtrees is convincingly ambiguous, but it feels as if Russell was rushing to tie up the ending, rushing the final pages in a very standard telling. However, this critique is more of a compliment to the rest of the book: the details are painstaking and drawn out, and it's unnerving to have it end in such a quick fashion. Given Russell's amazing gift of storytelling, the ending is in no way a "mistake" on her part. Perhaps I'll eventually view it as a fitting conclusion, since the characters are mostly drawn out so well that she found it unnecessary to expand the ending to be a section that didn't need more expansion. The majority of my personal enjoyment of Russell's work still lies in her short stories, but for a debut novel, Swamplandia! is an excellent, unique work that contains her previous balance of the literary and the off-beat.
Russell, Karen. Swamplandia! Copyright 2011 by Karen Russell.