Karen Russell, the author of the terrific 2011 gothic/horror/magical realist novel Swamplandia!, has talked in passionate terms about how her early love of reading led to her later life of writing. When Russell was an anxious child, she says, reading seemed a magical force, a really convenient rabbit hole into which she could disappear. She loved what she calls weird writing, works that traded in the uncanny and the bizarre. (She lists Dante and Stephen King as early favorites.)* Russells own writing seems an attempt to recapture this sense of wondrous strangeness: Swamplandia! takes its subject (and its title) from the self-declared Number One Gator-Themed Park and Swamp Caf in the Florida Everglades, while Russells first short story collection was memorably titled St. Lucys Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. If, as Wordsworth wrote, the child is father to the man, then Russells writing shows that the reader can be mother to the writer.It seems appropriate, then, to begin a review of Swamplandia! by comparing this first-time novelist to some of her predecessors. Russells incredibly weird, occasionally violent characters bear a family resemblance to the grotesques of Flannery OConnors fiction; her interest in re-telling the fantastical history of the Florida region calls to mind Peter Matthiessen; her sensitivity to, and sympathy for, the experience of young adultstheir specific ways of talking, their painful bids to fit in, their occasional resorting to magical thinkingremind me of the Israeli novelist David Grossman; finally, her physical descriptions, in particular her ability to invest landscape with both beauty and a sense of physical, moral menace, seem to echo certain passages in Joseph Conrads Heart of Darkness and Nostromo.
Swamplandia! is the story of the Bigtree family, who own and operate Swamplandia, a gator-wrestling theme park off the coast of southwest Florida. Though they have not a drop of Seminole or Miccosukee blood in them, the Bigtrees sell themselves as natives of the land: in the billboards that try to lure tourists to come to their hard-to-get-to island, the family is ridiculously decked out in buckskin vests, cloth headbands, great blue heron feathers, great white heron feathers gator fang necklaces.For many years, the star of Swamplandia has been Hilola Bigtree. Expert gator wrestler and wife to Chief Bigtree, Hilola is also mother to three children: a thirteen-year-old daughter, Ava; Avas older sister, Osceola; and her older brother, Kiwi. When Swamplandia! opens, however, Hilola has died of ovarian cancer, and the family and the park are falling apart. Ossie has begun communicating with the dead, using a Ouija board and wandering off at night to meet, maybe romantically, with a series of ghosts. Meanwhile, Chief Bigtree journeys to the mainland in the hopes of raising funds for his struggling park. (He advocates a plan that he calls Carnival Darwinism, in which the family will adapt by raisingand scuba diving withsaltwater crocodiles.) Kiwi, skeptical of his fathers plans and hoping to find some semblance of a normal teenage life, also leaves for the mainland, hoping to find work and make enough money to settle his familys debts and pay his way through Harvard. (First, though, he needs to get a GEDhis familys homeschooling curriculum has given short shrift to math, history, and English in favor of more practical matters, like how to escape from an alligators jaws.)Ava, meanwhile, desperately misses her mother, and is left alone on the island with Ossie, who seems to become madder with each passing day. When Ossie steals her mothers wedding dress and runs off into the Everglades to marry the ghost of a long-dead swamp dredger named Louis Thanksgiving, Ava decides to go after her. She enlists the help of the Bird Man, a creepy figure who dons a feather-coated jacket and specializes in driving predatory birds off of private property.Swamplandia! follows two main plot lines: Avas mission to find Ossie in the hellish swamplands, and Kiwis coming-of-age story as he works at The World of Darkness, a rival mainland theme park that seems to borrow much of its atmosphere from Dantes Inferno. Avas journey into what her sister has told her is the Underworldagain, we can hear echoes of classical literatureis the more gripping of the two narrative strands. (This isnt to say that Kiwis section is without its strengths. I particularly liked Russells descriptions of the hilarious ways in which The World of Darkness commercializes horror.)Russell is a deeply metaphorical writer, and almost every page of Swamplandia! contains some original, disturbing figurative comparison. In one of the novels most terrifying scenes, a mass of buzzards violently attacks the men working on a dredging ship. As the birds terrorize the crew, Russells prose grows more and more metaphorical: when the buzzards close their wings, a crewmember thinks that they look like the funeral umbrellas dripping rain along the stone walls of the St. Agnes Church in Clarinda; a characters thoughts become like the discarded rinds of screams; as a crew member is physically carried into the sky by these marauding birds, his head lolled below his shoulders as if [he] were trying to work out a bad crick in his neck. Russell writes that the bird attack is as plausible and horrifying as Louiss worst dreams, and her writing often imitates the strange wedding of the banal and the horrific, the childlike and the menacing, that so often characterize nightmares. Its easy to see why Russell mentions Stephen King as a formative influence: like him, Russell delights in the creation and cultivation of dread, both at the level of plot and at the level of language.Despite her regular deployment of the tropes of gothic and horror fiction, Russell also possesses the gifts of a more traditional, restrained realist. In particular, Russell beautifully captures the cadences of teenage speech. In one scene, Kiwi is in on his way to a casino with some coworkers: Can you maybe crack a window, bro? Kiwi asked in a small voice. I feel kind of carsick? A lesser writer would directly tell us how anxious Kiwi is to impress his older, hipper friends. Russell is able to get this sense of lonely desperation across by subtle conversational cues: Kiwi calling the driver bro but hedging his request with a maybe, his turning a declarative statement (I feel carsick) into a question. (I was particularly struck by Russells attention throughout to the tendency of teenagers to punctuate every sentence with a question markI cant think of another novelist who has so accurately represented this common verbal tic.)At times, Russells writing can be overheated. She searches so relentlessly for surprising formulations that the power of each individual image is sometimes lessened; her bid for defamiliarizing effects becomes itself a thing of habit. Still, there are passages of incredible lyrical beauty and precision. When Ava is reunited with her family at the end of the novel, for instance, she kept closing [her] fingers around the secret, enfleshed stones of their wrist bones. Secret, enfleshed stones is just about perfect, and shows a delicacy that sometimes gets swamped (pun intended) by Russells showier passages.At one point, the Bird Man tells Ava, The mainland authorities are no friends of ours. Swamp people are this countrys last outlaws, kid. We have to stick together. It seems that Russell feels this same sense of community-in-isolation with her fellow readers/writers. Swamplandia! should be welcomed by anyone who, like Russell, continues to search for the rabbit hole that is good fiction.* Here is the podcast of an interview with Russell in which she discusses her early reading habits.