Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
(Knopf, February 2011)
When Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! opens, the fabulously glutted gator park of its title is already on the verge of collapse. The hordes of visitors it once attracted are being seduced away by the more perverse spectacle of the World of Darkness, the Dantean tourist trap that’s opened nearby. Swamplandia!’s star swamp-swimmer and alligator wrestler Hilola Bigtree has died and her three teenage kids have been left behind holding the last squawking alligator snacks for Live Chicken Thursdays. There’s seemingly nowhere left for the story to go. But what for other books would be a grand finale, a maximum saturation point, is for Russell only an opening act. Russell’s imagination and invention in Swamplandia! are as fathomless as her empathy for her characters, and the result is a book that’s fantastic in every sense of the word.
Swamplandia! is Russell’s second book after St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, her 2006 debut short story collection. St. Lucy’s earned Russell recognition as a Granta Best Young American Novelist and a place on the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 25 list. Since then, her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Conjunctions, and Zoetrope. Much has been made not only of Russell’s youth but of the youth of her characters. Her stories are peopled by dreamtime children who’ve been known to get stuck in giant seashells or borrow “diabolical goggles” to search for little sisters swallowed up by the sea. Yet for all the Spanish moss and giddy atmospherics of her work, Russell keeps her stories from ever becoming saccharine. She fixes her attention foremost on the pathos of the children themselves and uses their strange and terrific circumstances to render them all the more vulnerable.
If St. Lucy’s is Russell’s delightfully freaky wunderkind, Swamplandia! represents that project’s equally winsome, gawky adolescent self. This relationship between the two works is in some sense literal; Swamplandia! evolved out of “Ava Wrestles the Alligator,” the opening story from St. Lucy’s. But Russell’s new book is also decidedly teenaged in the characters it follows and the murky waters it maps—the terrifying liminal spaces between kid-dom and adulthood, between this world and the next one, between what is and what should be. Not coincidentally, there’s no more ready a metaphor for the buzzing intensity and weird developments of teenager-hood than the netherworld of the swamp. Luckily for us, finding real heart in wild and uncertain territory is what Russell does best.
Although the mock Indian outfits and the smell of the Gator Tots might occlude it, the book’s most basic premise could’ve been cribbed from a Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney flick—C’mon, gang! We’ve got to figure out a way to save the farm! This realization, however, makes the crazed bailout plans of the three Bigtree siblings all the more fabulous. Kiwi, the Bigtree brother, takes a job at the competing theme park. Ossie escapes via “dates” that look a lot like possessions by ghosts. Ava plans to assume her mother’s wrestling mantle, until Ossie seems to disappear with one of her spectral boyfriends and Ava is forced to give pursuit.
Like any teenager, Swamplandia! can feel self-consciousness about assuming its place in a more adult world. While the buoyancy of Russell’s imagination has always been ballasted by emotional weight, the novel takes on new levels of what its characters might call “mainlander” baggage—those grey realities of life beyond the Bigtree island. When it’s revealed that Hilola Bigtree died not in the wrestling ring but of cancer, the news is almost harder to believe than some of Russell’s more fantastic machinations. The relative thinness of the early scenes discussing Hilola’s death seems not to compute with the rest of the wild machinations in the Swamplandia! reality—but then, that feeling of deflation is precisely the gator Russell is trying to pin down, and it’s felt all the more acutely next to the adolescent intensity of the rest of the story.
Swamplandia! runs at full tilt not only in plot but in prose. Russell’s sentences are saturated with unexpected tropes and strange imagery, as if the manuscript itself had been allowed to steep in swamp water until its words bloomed their own Floridian fungus. Russell’s best inventions are the ones that are most unhinged from any sort of riff on the real. Compared to the freshness of the rest of her language, the tongue-in-cheek names she gives to the products and places of this world feel like cheap shots–shots Russell seems helpless to resist. In this way, her writing can feel young, unchecked, and dangerously close to taking on too much water. Yet that’s exactly Swamplandia!’s appeal. Swamplandia! relishes that super-saturation, the frenzy and ecstasy of swamp life. Russell’s writing is the antidote to staid realism and sturdy, gutless storytelling. There may be gators in Swamplandia!’s waters, but that’s what makes the dive so thrilling.
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky is a graduate of Wesleyan University and the New School’s MFA program in fiction writing. She suspects she lost a contest to be named America’s most extreme poetry fan because the snapshots she sent of her Sylvia Plath costume, complete with oven, were deemed too controversial. She currently interns at Tin House.