by Karen Russell
reviewed by Jake Cole
Karen Russell’s debut novel, “Swamplandia!,” is as much a reflection of her short-form mastery as her 2007 story collection “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.” Markedly split between two perspectives and writing styles, “Swamplandia!” subdivides further into vignettes of Southern Gothic trials and tribulations deep in the muggy, lost world of the Everglades – a place seemingly outside the progress of time.
Russell charts the hopelessly naive lives of the children of the Bigtree family, a collection of white alligator wrestlers who fabricate an entire Indian background for themselves just for the mystique. The Bigtrees could have fallen out of a Werner Herzog movie; in a modern world, they are hopeless, antiquated dreamers, choosing to live among creatures as old as dinosaurs in a dilapidated theme park rather than join normal society.
When the family matriarch and star attraction of Swamplandia! dies, however, Chief Bigtree’s commitment to maintaining the failing park drives a wedge into his surviving family. Soon, the novel branches off between the first-person optimism of Ava (the 13-year-old youngest child who wants desperately to save Swamplandia!) and the third-person narrative Kiwi (a 17-year-old restless soul itching to get out of the labyrinthine Ten Thousand Islands and live a more ambitious life).
Unfortunately, Russell lets no momentum gain once she breaks up Ava’s mesmerizing, florid account of the allure of her family’s mad dream. She cuts incessantly between Ava’s attempts to keep the park going after her father goes on an extended trip and the capitalist satire of Kiwi’s story, which takes place in another, far larger amusement park.
For a time, Russell gets laughs out of Kiwi’s new home -the World of Darkness – a grim, hissing goliath literally billed as “hell on Earth” to families so desensitized that a trip into eternal torment may be the only way to interest their attention-deficit children.
Imagine the car rides: “Mommy, are we in hell yet?” “No, sweetie, we passed Orlando an hour ago.”
Eventually, though, Ava’s story, involving her attempts to save her occultist sister from eloping with a ghost, becomes so wild, and haunting that breaking from it at the end of each chapter to get yet more jokes becomes infuriating. There’s also the matter of the book’s final third, in which Russell viciously cuts down Ava’s romanticized impressions of the almost mythological journey into the underworld with an all-too-real hell.
Perhaps Russell wanted to make a point about the death of childhood innocence, but her means of doing so reads like she hasn’t fully outgrown creative writing shortcuts. The novel’s falling action and denouement feel less like a violent emergence from naive chrysalis than a deflation of tension and drive that affects both story arcs.
Nevertheless, Russell’s prose is so vivid that “Swamplandia!” is, for the majority of its duration, a treat. Entire pages can be transporting, whisking the reader into the humid fractals of tangled mangrove islets and suffocating melaleuca parasites.
It’s unfortunate that “Swamplandia!” loses something when it ultimately sides with Kiwi’s banal, crippling matter-of-factness over Ava’s dreamy carnival. In her acknowledgements, Russell highlights Katherine Dunn, author of the carnival novel “Geek Love,” and George Saunders, the heir apparent to Kurt Vonnegut. For a time, Russell captures Dunn’s off-the-wall lunacy, but she ends up sacrificing unpredictability to ape Saunders’ heartbreaking satire and fails at his emotional heft.
For its first two-thirds, “Swamplandia!” was the best new book I’d read in ages, a portrait so vivid and unorthodox it bordered on the cinematic. Ultimately, though, the novel emerges as a work of great but unrealized potential, actually a step backward from Russell’s magical short stories. By the same token, that something as occasionally spellbinding as “Swamplandia!” could be considered a regression bodes well for Russell’s future efforts.