The Dark Whimsy of Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!

And again, I’ve let a month elapse since my last posting. It’s not for want of any subject matter. I’ve had my mind on Karen Russell for quite some time, and this review of Swamplandia! has been languishing for months, hence the abbreviated length. On my first encounter with Russell, I was thrilled to find someone who could take a pitch that sounded more like a midnight scribbling or a flurried free write and run with it until it bled something thick. Her uninhibited take on the intersection of the fantastical and the banal has given birth to dozens of stories that can take their own bizarreness very seriously. She’s carved out quite a niche for herself in the realm of zoologically flavored magic realism, and as she’s shown in her collection St. Lucy’s Home For Girls Raised By Wolves, the short story format is perfect for her. Her words taper off the edge of every snapshot, informing just enough of the story’s world to fill in with your own imaginings. She teases at the extraordinariness that we wish we actually lived in our day-in day-out existence. And yet she isn’t simply fulfilling fantasies. Beneath the fantasy lies the mess that gives life to it in the first place. For all the otherworldliness around her characters, they still struggle with the same things that we do.

You can see why I’d be excited, then, to read her debut full-length novel. Taking off from her short story “Ava Wrestles the Alligator,” Swamplandia! depicts the Bigtree family living on the eponymous alligator farm in the Everglades and on the brink of bankruptcy. Hilola, the family matriarch and star performer, has since died of cancer, leaving behind her husband, the Chief, and three teenage children. By making the Chief disappear on one of his so-called business trips, Russell gives herself the only excuse she needs to ditch any risk of an adult perspective sneaking into her narrative to spend the bulk of her time inhabiting the impressionable minds of son Kiwi and daughters Osceola and Ava, the latter of whom is the nominal protagonist. Firmly established in her comfort zone, Russell runs wild with the concept of secluded youngsters governing over their dewy corner of the world, with the youngest Ava struggling the hardest to retain her roots and keep track of her siblings. Kiwi, full of piss and vinegar, leaves to find work elsewhere, under the delusion that he’s going to resuscitate Swamplandia! with regular remittances. In the meantime Osceola’s been fiddling with the supernatural, forcing Ava to go on a quest into the sawgrass marshes that even further complicates her concept of reality.

As might be expected from a proven practitioner of the short story format, Swamplandia! has the feeling of a novella gone astray, a suspicion that arises as the pages dwindle and the action slows. Its ending is as abrupt as it is convenient, relying on a coincidence that is, next to everything that has come before, fairly unbelievable. Even so there’s an eerie symmetry to it, seeing how the various loose ends intertwine without the least suggestion. The tedious ladder climbing that characterizes Kiwi’s ascent from the lowliest of menial work couldn’t be more different from the free floating ways of his sisters Ava and Osceola, and the climax depends on their journeys being worlds apart to even work, showing the unforeseen consequences of each character’s actions even though all of them generally think they know where their respective paths lead. Without Kiwi’s ambition there would hardly be a plot to follow, but without the girls’ meanderings Russell would be saddled with a fish-out-of-water tale in Kiwi that is much too acidic for her sensibilities. More than just a coming-of-age story, Swamplandia! shows an expedited process of the small town teens’ perennial dilemma: go to work at the mill or get the hell out.

Russell regularly promises flights of fancy in her stories, but they are rarely as startling as when she holds up a mirror to the ordinary aspects of civilization, or at least as she sees it during Kiwi’s journey to the mainland. It’s here in suburban Florida, in what plays out like a parable on the virtue of selflessness starring the tone deaf, blindly ambitious Kiwi, that she finds her strangest subject matter. It’s also where she finds the firmest footing for the book as a whole. While Osceola and Ava are fading further into limbo in the sea of windblown sawgrass, communing with the past in as naturalistic a way as possible, he effectively sells himself out, finding his own way through hard work and the obstinate fantasy of playing the hero. Russell can’t let it escape our attention that his soul is at stake, having him not only abandon his backwater home for the mainland, but to pick up work at the very corporate behemoth that has ruined Swamplandia!. An amusement park that, implausibly or not, takes Hell as its theme. Compared to the aural and existential wooziness of the Everglades, his experiences are rank and stinging in their precise depiction of its urban and suburban characters. These unfortunately all-too-familiar scenes play off of Ava’s scenes all too well, lending her ghostly stories more credence while making you wish some of Kiwi’s experiences weren’t so easily believable.

A disturbing parallel is established between Kiwi and Osceola’s paranormal paramour, the deceased dredge worker Louis Thanksgiving, whose spirit she is in thrall to, forcing Ava to track her down. While Ava is quite literally chasing ghosts, Kiwi follows in the ghost’s footsteps, losing himself in his work, defining himself by his pursuit of power and self-sufficiency. Russell’s biggest twist is when she leaps back into Louis’ perspective, adding yet another young voice to the mix that lets her explore the swamps with an even greater sense of alienation. This is likely the biggest reason I was more compelled by Kiwi than Ava, and Russell’s evident enthusiasm for his absurd storyline shows that she may very well feel the same. He possesses not one iota of self-consciousness, and he’s not instantly likeable, being an overly articulate know-it-all prig who draws laughs from his naivety and single-mindedness. A pall of tragedy hangs over his head, foreshadowed by the lingering existence of the anonymous Louis, and for all the good he thinks he’s doing, and as admirable as his actions may be, there remains the doubt that he will ever make as big of an impact as he hopes for.

Another reason Ava’s storyline doesn’t quite match that of Kiwi’s is that Russell writes herself into a corner by taking Ava further into the vast swamplands. Her personal climax is just as worrisomely extreme as has been hinted at for a number of chapters, leaving a residue of exploitation that can’t be overcome by anything that comes after. It’s a perfect example of when the most obvious trope is foreshadowed in the hope of subverting it, only for the writer to run headfirst into it. It succeeds in breaking Ava out of her dream state, and it may have something to say about the inevitability of and powerlessness over aging, but it feels cheap. For all we learn about Ava, her fate is too forced, too pessimistic a way to finally scrub out the artifice and false security of Swamplandia! That may entirely be the point, but it’s a point that pricks me the wrong way.

Despite this one instance of overkill, the remainder of the book is quietly moving; Ava’s chapters evolve into a heady diary in which she gradually comes to terms with the gravity of her situation and the looming danger becomes ever more terrifyingly defined. Russell’s knack for sonorous language perfectly captures the foreignness and beauty of the Florida wilderness, and she’s admirably immune to using too many modern day allusions to fully flesh out (and possibly date) the contemporary society Kiwi has fallen into. Overstuffed novella or not, it’s still a signature Russell story. Always underlying the tragedy is her wonderment at nature, within which her characters are always entangled or at odds: Ava with the endless swamp, Kiwi in the congested city. Granted, awful things may occur, but something about the vibrancy of the natural world and its scope creates a measure of optimism as biologically refreshing as a blast of fresh sea air. With her humor and wholeheartedness, Russell is one of the few who can wring light out of the darkest of fantasies and realities.

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