On Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!

Much less fun than image suggests.

Some books arrive in a hurricane of hype, and once you read it, you understand why. Other books arrive in a similar tsunami and you either have to concede that the book’s unworthy of such praise, or acknowledge that you just might not be smart enough.

Franzen’s Freedom is the former type. Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! is decidedly in the latter camp, I just can’t figure out which reason why. A promising premise ultimately crumbled for me under the weight of overwriting and a frustrating narrator [SPOILERS AHEAD].

The Swamplandia! alligator wrestling park, located off the Florida mainland on the Ten Thousand Islands by the Bigtree family, has fallen on hard times. Family matriarch and star attraction Hilola Bigtree has died, and recent competition from the new and flashy World of Darkness theme park on the mainland has driven the family to fiscal crisis, a crisis the family members react to in different ways. Park owner and father ‘Chief’ Bigtree vanishes on a business trip in pursuit of a scheme he calls ‘Carnival Darwinism’; oldest child and amateur scholar Kiwi heads to the mainland to work for Swamplandia’s competitors; middle child Osceola experiences some sort of breakdown related to her first love Louis Thanksgiving, who may or not may be a ghost. Thirteen-year-old Ava, and her dreams of succeeding her mother as the world’s greatest alligator wrestler, is the only one left to try and keep the park and her family from splitting at the seams.

On paper, it sounds like it can’t lose, but the book is a perfect example of the differing ways you can tell a story and how what works for one person isn’t ideal for another. Reading the description, combined with the classic children’s illustration of a young girl on the shoulders of a man leaping into the mouth of a giant water reptile, I was under the impression the book was going to be a lot more whimsical. The problem is Russell loves her characters too much.

Maybe it’s just me being an asshole, but when characters are failing as much as the Bigtrees do, I expect them to make me laugh a little.  Call it my Northern superiority looking down its nose at the homeschooled swamp children, but somewhere reading the book, after another depressing setback for the Bigtree children, I lost my entry point to the characters, I couldn’t [or refused to] empathize with them anymore. By the time Ava finds herself getting raped by a gypsy ‘Bird Man,’ her companion in her search for Osceola, I was rolling my eyes.  I’m so surprised leaving with the strange gypsy in the filthy trenchcoat could have ever lead to this, I thought.  It was just one more incident where one of the characters naively wander in to some situation they don’t understand and have something bad happen to them. Even the slightest promise of self-improvement accompanies another demoralizing setback: As Kiwi becomes a local hero for saving a girl from drowning in the World of Darkness swimming pool, he discovers his father’s ‘business trip’ is working as an announcer for sad beauty contests at a mainland casino.

Coupled with all of this is Russell’s prose, trying to paint a thin film of the fantastic over the dreary proceedings, and I never had any idea why: red alligators, ghostly possessions, Bird Men and the madness that is the World of Darkness [would you pay to play in the replicated insides of a giant whale?] all pop up throughout the story which, while effectively capturing the madness that is the state of Florida, ultimately irritated me and slowed down the narrative.  Swapping narrative styles halfway through the book [alternating first-person for Ava and third for Kiwi] felt unnecessary, and shoehorning the short life story of Louis Thanksgiving into the middle of the book [itself another previously published work] got a quick skim read.

And these are all my issues.  Somewhere along the way, I didn’t want to like the book anymore; I was done.  Maybe it was the moment I realized the most interesting character in the book is the one who dies before we even get there [Hilola], but something fell apart for me, and I started resenting the whole experience, and I can’t remember the last time a book made me feel like that.

That said, you may like the book.  Russell is not what I would ever call a bad writer, by any means, I just think her style wasn’t well matched to the subject, and it just didn’t click for me.  The book never knows if it wants to be a drama or a fable, and that thematic confusion, combined with Russell’s refusal to poke fun at her characters was just too much for me.

Or, equally likely, I completely missed the point.

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