Author: Karen Russell

2011, Knopf

Filed under: Literary

I have no doubt that Karen Russell writes excellent short stories. There are some compelling, affecting scenes in Swamplandia!, but each is isolated from the others, suspended in its own private amber. But a novel—as opposed to a story, which can survive on a single exquisite moment—must have ladders and pyramids of such things, needing each other and adding to the total sum.

Most of Swamplandia!’s the narrative pales in comparative excitement to the conspicuous swashbuckling of the book’s name and setting. For a novel with an exclamation point in its title, there’s disappointingly little energy or novelty in the storytelling, except for Ava’s overcooked voice (more on that shortly). The premise, too, promises great things: the three children of the gator-wrestling Bigtree family go on dangerous adventures after the death of their mother (insert exclamation point). But Russell seems determined to waste that set-up entirely. Almost nothing, quite literally, happens at Swamplandia!, the Bigtrees’ gator park, and the possibilities of the children’s unique upbringing go unexplored.

Here’s a brief example of such wasted potential: the clan leases a billboard on the highway advertising, “COME SEE ‘SETH,’ FANGSOME SEA SERPENT AND ANCIENT LIZARD OF DEATH!!!” The Bigtrees call all their alligators Seth, because, as the patriarch explains, “‘Tradition is as important … as promotional materials are expensive.'”

It’s a funny, charming little detail. But where there’s the opportunity to explore that detail’s reverberations and uniqueness, Russell balks. The children could learn how to fleece tourists, they could experience the facade of show business and perhaps scramble when civilians discover that “Seth” is a lie. But there’s no real deception going on, in fact the mother’s act is called “Swimming with the Seths” and a sign proudly proclaims “A SETH IS A 180 MILLION YEAR VETERAN OF OUR PLANET!”

It’s not that this tactic is bad, it’s just that it misses so much of its enormous potential. Likewise does the plot. The catalyst for the novel is the Bigtree matriarch’s death—she dies not ripped apart in front of a crowd, but slowly, of cancer, in a mainland hospital, another deliberate attempt by Russell to counteract the expectation of excitement.

After Mama Bigtree’s death, the tourists stop coming and the park empties out. The oldest son, Kiwi, leaves shortly thereafter, to make money for the family by working at their competitor, a park called World of Darkness. But his adventures there are so profoundly ordinary (fitting in with co-workers, not making enough money) that he might as well be working at a mall in Des Moines.

The older daughter, Ossie, discovers an ancient, abandoned dredge boat which she claims houses her new boyfriend, a ghost. This storyline holds promise until she takes the boat and disappears from the novel for nearly its entire length.

(The backstory of the ghost boyfriend, Louis Thanksgiving, is the most compelling and best-written passage in the book, with also the most likeable character. It’s 15 pages long, and we never see Louis again.)

Finally, Ava, the youngest Bigtree and our narrator, finds a Bird-Man in a tree, and hires him to take her into the underworld to find Ossie, on a fantastic, adventuresome rescue! … only that rescue turns mundane and then deeply disturbing, as if Russell wants to hammer home the uncharming lesson that a sense of wonderment and romance is a dangerous liability.

That lesson points out the major problem of this novel: the plot’s aversion to wonder grinds against the natural grain of Russell’s sensibility. Ava narrates the entire novel (Kiwi’s sections as well as her own) with a half-naive, half-magical child’s exuberance. She frequently cracks off a good line, like this:

Outside our porch had become a cauldron of pale brown moths and the bigger ivory moths with sapphire-tipped wings, a sky-flood of them. They entered a large rip in our screen. They had fixed wings like sharp little bones, these moths, and it was astonishingly sad when you accidentally killed one.

The key to that passage is a combination of childish delight and authorial restraint, only the one cutesy “sky-flood” in the whole paragraph, and only a single simile.

Russell loves similes. Not in a healthy, adult way, but in a squeeze-it-until-it-dies way, using several per page, sometimes in sentence after sentence:

Blue and gray marbles caught in their scales like stubborn bubbles. The big yellow shooter rolled around one Seth’s scaly shoulders like a dollhouse sun.

These similes are more distracting the weirder they get (dollhouse sun?). But the overall effect is one of repetition and boredom:

…tired of his ears ringing like Sunday church bells…

Ossie stretched the shirt between them like a fence.

When I set it down, a skinny velvet bookmark dropped out like a tongue.

I’d still catch myself praying in an automatic way, like a sneeze…

Tiny broccoli florets floated in the gluey cheese like a forest consumed by lava.

Sometimes we’d try to clown around in the old way and I’d get a feeling like invisible pies dripping down both our faces.

…frantic clucks rose from the chicken coop like rainfall reversing itself…

Shapes nuzzled toward us. It took a few seconds of blinking before your memory filled each like paint…

I dragged a blanket down to the sofa and left our whole house lit up like a ship.

This relentless tide of similes saps the prose in part because the comparisons are often so unrelated to the things in question as to be nearly meaningless, and partly because the style leaches into other people’s dialogue (and even a passage from a textbook brings an overwrought simile) and so it erodes the sense of a fictional continuum with different characters and voices.

Certainly, the hype around Swamplandia! plays a factor in the disappointment of reading it. Perhaps in five or ten years, after Russell writes a few more books and this one is seen as her promising but uneven first novel, perhaps then it will be an interesting read. But if you’re expecting a brilliant debut, or an adventure, or anything more than a handful of moments and a swampload of similes, go ahead and give this one a miss.

Similar reads: I struggled with books to tag similar to Swamplandia! Here are a few others that promised excitement and let me down: Going to See the Elephant, by Rodes Fishburne; The Monsters of Templeton, by Lauren Groff. If you want recommendations, try our Great Reads.