Wednesday, March 27, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Swamplandia!

Swamplandia! A review of Karen Russell’s new novel Swamplandia! (Knopf, 2011)
Carrie Wasinger

PHOTO: Daniel Oines

The economy must be improving. The kiosks near the registers of my local Barnes and Noble are once again resplendent with useless do-dads designed to sit on a desk and look pretty. During a recent visit, I lost twenty valuable minutes to those dastardly kiosks, mesmerized by a small set of scented candles, lined up in a row, each a different color, each author-themed.

Yes, that’s right, author-themed. In case you cared to know, Barnes and Noble thinks Charles Dickens smells like tangerine, juniper, and cloves, Jane Austen like gardenia, tuberose, and jasmine, and Edgar Allen Poe like cardamom, sandalwood, and absynthe. Jack Kerouac’s candle seemed to be missing. Funny that.

Setting aside the absurdity of boiling down literary genius to a few manufactured perfumes piped into a jar of wax, I thought those candles actually posed an interesting question: just what exactly does a good book smell like? Of the five senses, smell is the most closely linked to memory. A certain odor can make us laugh, gasp, or weep, set our hearts pounding in terror, or cause us to back away in disgust. Books do the same.

So, I began assigning aromas to titles I’d recently encountered: Philip Larkin’s High Windows was asphalt and warm rubber, Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending was a soft leather chair, and Margaret Wise Brown’s Good Night Moon could be nothing other than a set of crisply washed sheets. But when I came to Swamplandia!, Karen Russell’s debut novel, I stopped short. Is there an appropriate scent for a fall from grace?

Swamplandia! opens in Florida’s Everglades, a kind of modern Eden that is both brimming with vegetation and wildlife and quickly succumbing to invasive species and poor land management. The novel introduces us to thirteen-year-old Ava Bigtree, the youngest of Chief and Hilola Bigtree’s three children. Ava harbors grand dreams of one day growing up to follow in her mother’s alligator-wrestling footsteps, wowing crowds of tourists at Swamplandia!, her family’s gator-themed amusement park. But when a sudden illness takes Hilola the headliner from her husband and children, the family is plunged first into despair and then into financial ruin. The remaining Bigtrees–Ava, Chief, Ava’s sister Osceola, and her older brother Kiwi–must cope with the loss of their beloved wife and mother.

Each does, in very distinct, very ill-fated ways, populating their respective griefs with various fantasies and dreams. Brilliant but inexperienced, Kiwi hightails it for the mainland where he takes a job at a rival amusement park, thinking he’ll somehow earn enough to rescue Swamplandia! from the clutches of the bank. In a desperate scheme called “carnival Darwinism,” Ava’s father insists that Swamplandia! will evolve only by investing in a rare alligator species. He heads off to pursue that venture, while Ava’s sister, Osceola, finds solace in hallucinations of a ghostly lover who she believes will lead her into the underworld. When Osceola follows her dead beau into the swamp, Ava sets out on a quest to find her. But Ava the would-be hero finds herself imperiled when she’s tempted, oh-so-naively, into the talons of a truly creepy drifter, the Bird Man.

Many have called this novel “quirky,” but such an adjective doesn’t quite do justice to the bizarre scenario that Russell offers, nor the events that spin out from it. One has to wonder if the idea for the story weren’t inspired by some back page headline in a supermarket tabloid (“Famed Alligator Wrestler Dead of Cancer, Family-Owned Theme Park in Jeopardy!”) But with a narrative dexterity that rivals old Grandpa Sawtooth’s gator wrestling prowess, Russell keeps the novel from careening over the edge of absurdity by carefully constructing one of the most believable portraits of family loyalty to grace recent literature. The Bigtrees have developed an entire clan history around their “Seths” (as they call the gators); to lose the park would be to lose their identity. Whenever it becomes difficult to believe that parents–any parents–would raise their children mere feet from the maws of such vicious predators, readers need only remember that in this landscape of soulless, isolated, spectral human beings at least the Bigtrees have family. The gators are their glue and are certainly not the most dangerous elements in their environment.

Russell is no stranger to peculiar narrative scenarios, as her wonderfully evocative 2007 collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves demonstrates. The seeds of Swamplandia! can be found there in the story “Ava Wrestles the Alligator.” Though it takes far fewer risks than those beautifully phantasmagorical short stories (and as a result may ultimately be less endearing), Swamplandia! fleshes out that earlier incarnation with several compelling characters and events.

PHOTO: havankevin

A notable addition is the luminous, wittily told account of prodigal son Kiwi’s adventures on the mainland. When he runs off to work for the rival theme park, readers may fear that the mounds of useless information he’s gleaned from his home-schooled swampland education will only impede this Horatio Alger wannabe. Yet Kiwi resists our desire to read him like a cliché because he’s clever enough to realize that without Hilola, the Bigtrees’ life in the swamp must come to an end, somehow, some way. Eden cannot exist without its Eve. At some point, the family must pass through the gates into the world, even though that new world may not be better than the one they are leaving behind.

Thus, Kiwi’s story functions like a narrative fun-house mirror. It shows us that no matter how weird things may get in Swamplandia!, what happens on the mainland is even more bizarre. That rival theme park stealing Swamplandia!’s business is aptly named “The World of Darkness,” and its patrons are dubbed “lost souls.” Kiwi’s coworkers seem to exist in a linguistic universe comprised entirely of cuss words and sexual innuendo so bald it can’t really be called innuendo. It’s all very adolescent, all very empty, and all clearly intended to satirize the banality of American pastimes. Read only the chapters devoted to Kiwi’s adventures, and you’ll be well rewarded.

In contrast, Ava’s story is both less effective and more disturbing. Russell never delves deeply into the workings of Kiwi’s mind, preferring to give him to us through a third person limited point of view, a technique that allows her to remain critically distant though sympathetic to his plight. Consequently, we fall in love with his naivety and watch with knowing appreciation as he grows from inexperienced boy to only-slightly-more experienced young man. In contrast, Ava tells us her story in first person, a choice that ought to make us identify with this young girl–make her coming-of-age adventure more immediate and important–but which oddly backfires. At thirteen, Ava is sophisticated enough to see the Army Corps of Engineers’ “hydrological controls” as “shortsighted and failure-prone,” but not to recognize that a homeless man dressed like a buzzard who steals all your food and lures you into the deep swamp might want to do you harm? There are times when Ava deserves a good shaking. Her innocence verges on willful ignorance. But perhaps that is the point. This is a modern-day fall from grace, after all.

Russell’s prose style is as lush as her subject matter, bringing the rich fecundity of the Florida swamplands into vibrant life. Here Ava describes tourists watching her mother’s performance: “The tourists moved sproingily from buttock to buttock in the stands, slapping at the ubiquitous mosquitoes, unsticking their khaki shorts and their printed department-store skirts from their sweating thighs. They shushed and crushed against and cursed at one another . . . . People screamed and pointed whenever an alligator swam into the spotlight with [Hilola], a plump and switching tail cutting suddenly into its margarine wavelengths, the spade of a monster’s face jawing up at her side. Our mother swam blissfully on, brushing at the spotlight’s perimeter as if she were testing the gate of a floating coral.” Although Ava’s family may be marked by absence, her world is one of overabundant presence: sawgrass prairies that stretch farther than the eye can see, mangrove forests teeming with waterfoul, insects swarming in plague-like proportions, tourists doing the same. Russell luxuriates in careful, often minute descriptions of objects and people, a technique that may be off-putting to more plot-hungry readers.

PHOTO: Daniel Oines

Nevertheless, it’s a good choice for the novel’s exploration of loss. Loss in the novel is never truly absence. Instead, it’s the presence of coping, and coping, like a wild gator, can sometimes grow to monstrous proportions. It may, in the case of sister Osceola, overwhelm a person’s grip on reality or, in the case of papa Bigtree, convince a person it’s ok to leave his young daughters alone for weeks in an isolated swamp. Do not look for this novel to provide a happy ending, nor even complete satisfaction. As with every fall from grace, the Bigtrees’ paradise of innocence must by necessity disappear. Once exiled from Eden, you can’t go back. Nevertheless, the knowledge gained is enough to allow them to make their solitary way, with wandering steps and slow, into a new world. For all its faults–and what first novel doesn’t have a few?–Swamplandia! is a delicious morsel which left at least one reader craving more. If Russell’s next endeavor is equally complex and brave, then readers who are willing to go along for the ride have something to look forward to. I never did come to a satisfying conclusion for my thought-experiment, but when a friend asked me about what I was reading this week, I mentioned that it smelled a little like genius.

Be sure to visit the Empirical website to subscribe!

If you are a writer and are interested in writing for Empirical, check out this link to find out how to submit.

No comments:

Post a Comment