Thursday, June 5, 2014

Book Review: Karen Russell's Swamplandia!

What drew me to Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! was the state of Florida, the place of seemingly infinitesimal oddities. Russell aims to show as much Floridian strangeness as possible as she takes the reader on a whimsical journey through the lives the Bigtree family, a family who ran from the north to run an Alligator themed tourist trap bearing the novel’s name. Once a huge attraction, we witness the events that lead to the park’s collapse as well as the collapse of the society it sustains.

Told through the eyes of young Ava, we experience this disintegration of their family business after the death of their mother, Hilola, who had been the central attraction to the alligator park as she both swam with and wrestled the beasts (Seths as the Bigtrees referred to them). The park and the isolated swamp island it rests upon stand as Ava, her sister Osceola, and her brother Kiwi’s life—they had rarely left the island, had never attended a school, and all three were in charge of various facets of the park itself. Thus the children, all under the age of eighteen, have a complex, if not flawed view of the world and the mainland in general. That said, a rival and hip tourist trap opens nearby, a water park called The World of Darkness. This park, which borders on the macabre at times, features wave pools colored to look like blood and water slides through the Leviathan’s intestinal track while being attached to the mainland. The World, as Kiwi is prone to call it, sucks away at local businesses and forces Chief Bigtree to find a way to save his family as the wave of tourists runs dry. Simultaneously, Kiwi, desirous of the being a hero, leaves is island seclusion in hopes of saving the family and fulfilling his academic dreams.

Writing mostly in the first person, at times Russell dazzles with her rich ideas and her writing in general. She drops lines in that ring with beauty, as when Kiwi attempts to write postcards to his sisters and finds himself unable: “He went on accumulating beginnings.” The line rings with so much information, so much detail, that it hangs on the page and in the heart. Another example of such beauty comes again when Ava details the drudgery of watching public television documentaries, Russell creatively and artfully packs the page: “The TV documentary I was watching was so boring that it felt like taking medicine, a think syrup of information, a good antidote to thoughts.”  Very pointed, very creative, the type of lines one thought they would get more of throughout the novel.

Further, Russell seems to understand the mystery and intrigue that Florida presents. At one end of the state swamplander’s hold onto their redneck, law shirking past, while on the other million dollar houses lead the blight of urban sprawl. Russell is at her very best when she focuses on the cultural clash, pitting urban and rural ideals against one another: “Now that Kiwi has at last made it to a suburb it was easy to want the swamp. What was this fresh hell? The World of Darkness seemed like a cozy and benign place compared to the sprawl of these stucco boxes.” Kiwi cannot stand the uniformity, the predictability, the crass nature of the mainland. Everything moves to fast, even the things he likes, and no one, not even the crude friends he makes through work, seems to understand the mystical, island learner that he is.

While at times exhilarating, the novel can lag. Once the Chief abandons his teenage daughters, with provisions and a date of return, we languish in chapters about ghost of Louis Thanksgiving and a mysterious dredge barge that has bumped up on the island. The narrative seems to slow, to wind along the swamps in a similar manner to Ava on her journey to the Underworld with the nefarious Bird Man. Perhaps this effort is intentional, as Russell pushes the reader to see the unique culture that is Florida and that is the swamp, but it happens nonetheless. The pages do keep turning, but the pace ebbs and flows as the reader is left looking for the narrative to progress and for Russell to show the true beauty that her writing holds.

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