Every season, it seems, those in the know—the literary powers that be—send out a subtle decree telling readers which novels to love, which ones to buy, which ones are written by The Next Big Thing: aka The Geniuses. It is a subtle decree, sent down from on high, that’s harder to ignore for not knowing exactly who it came from. It would be too much to attach nefarious designs to the regularity of, every year, the arrival of new, not unattractive literary geniuses, their debut novels (that often follow a quiet, but precocious collection of stories) in tow, to be reviewed and reviewed and reviewed. Such is the case with Karen Russell and her novel Swamplandia!. It’s hard to ignore the uniform swooning that surrounds this book, and if I could write a good review based solely on envy (not just of the attention, but of Russell’s ample talent), I certainly would.
Swamplandia! is a fine book and it shouldn’t have its glut of glowing reviews held against it. But why is it so easy to swoon over a book that does so much of what it’s supposed to do? Since when is better-than-most equivalent to panties to the floor greatness? Is it literary relativism? Is there such a dearth of great writing that the publishing industry is grading on a curve? I wonder what a truly bad book looks like, when even Steven King, by virtue of just sticking around, is taken seriously. That said, Karen Russell writes beautiful sentences and I agree with the pundits: she has a fecund way with a phrase. And her novel builds towards an ending that is both emotionally satisfying and, within the context of what came before, entirely believable. Yes, it’s beautifully written, but, despite the gushing and fawning, it’s so deeply flawed that it was more often a chore to read then not.
Swamplandia! tells the tale of the Bigtrees, a family of alligator wrestlers who run and inhabit a theme park in the Florida Everglades. It begins with their decline following the death of Swamplandia!’s star attraction, Hilola Bigtree, the family matriarch. Hilola was a grounding presence for her earnest but oft-bumbling husband and a near-magical being in the eyes of her children. After she dies and the park falters, her husband is revealed to be deluded and weak, her eldest daughter, even by the family’s standards, beyond strange, and it’s left for the two protagonists, thirteen year old Ava and her older brother, Kiwi, to save the family, and, in alternating chapters, tell the story.
The thing that first riled me up about Swamplandia! was Russell’s attempt at social satire—extremely heavy handed social satire. Kiwi leaves the family to join the competing amusement park, World of Darkness. The World of Darkness is used to make points about…something. Presumably the world. And corporations? Sure, them too. But most of Russell’s venom seems to be for Kiwi’s co-workers and the tourists who are lame enough to go either to Swamplandia! or The World of Darkness for entertainment. Admittedly, I don’t leave New York much, but is everybody outside of it as fat, dead eyed, and grimly stupid as this book would imply? I don’t know Karen Russell’s background. Maybe she was raised by rocks and shrubbery and, therefore, her seeming contempt for the lower middle classes is totally in the know. I’ve met a couple poor people, here and there, and, really, they seemed fine. All I know is that when Russell has Kiwi humming the hit song “Haters Will Hemorrhage Blood!” I wrote in the margins “yeah, yeah, negroes are redic.” Everybody in this book who is not a member of the Bigtree family is either awful or laughably ignorant.
The main problem with Swamplandia! (besides that goddamned exclamation point), however, is one of genre. It’s a gripping Fantasy novel (small n) trapped in a Magical Realism Novel (Capital M, R, and N) trapped in a Great Novel, like the cartoon of the bigger fish eating the smaller eating the smallest. The story of the Bigtrees and their alligators, of young Ava searching for her eloped-with-ghosts sister, Ossie: handled differently, it’s a story I’d happily be left alone with. About halfway though, when stuff really starts to happen, I was even thrilled. But unfortunately, for me and quite possibly the book, Swamplandia! is non-genre fiction, it’s magical realism—a fancy, respectable cousin. Because of that, all the fantasy elements are left as mere window dressing. No ghosts, just ghostly happenings, which don’t need to be explained because of the Mysteriousness of the World. Since Swamplandia! is also a Great Novel—and, as such, must wrestle with important things, alligators aside—I had to trudge through a lot of dead mom and ineffectual dad junk, and SO much pat commentary on The World of Darkness, Russell’s matchy-matchy euphemism for the World, that I had to remind myself I actually gave a shit about these characters. I’m sure many will find Russell’s creation a “fully realized world,” but I found so much outside the essential story of Ava and Kiwi distracting.
And I really did care about Ava and Kiwi. I consistently wanted to throttle the brother for his social imbecilities, and, when Ava was put in danger and, finally, in a scene I found deeply unpleasant, was not at the last minute saved from that danger—I was distraught. And, despite the irritations and aggravations of the novel, I must admit, I was teary eyed and relieved to find something resembling a happy ending. Karen Russell’s skillful writing nudged me into caring for the Bigtrees; frustrating, though, was that the majority of her choices left me wishing they could succeed in a different book. If I had Russell’s gifts I would write a killer fantasy novel. Probably a trilogy. It wouldn’t be reviewed in the Sunday Times. But Swamplandia! is Karen Russell’s book. It is a good book. You should purchase it. I didn’t like it.