By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA
One cannot help but notice Karen Russell's talent within the first pages of Swamplandia! There are very few novels that have been written in the past decade that can so quickly set a stage, draw in a reader and introduce a tragedy that will serve as both the first domino to fall, thereby setting the plot in motion, as well as the central conflict with which all of the characters will struggle from the first page to the last.
At the heart of Swamplandia!, Russell's debut novel, is the familiar story of the grief and turmoil that follows the death of a family member—the narrator's mother, in this case. True, there are aspects of the novel that are anything but familiar, like the fact that Ava, the narrator, is a thirteen-year-old alligator wrestler; or that she grew up on an island in the Florida swamp with her mother, father, grandfather, brother and sister that contained little more than their house and the family business—Swamplandia!, a gator-themed tourist trap; or that they refer to all of their gators as Seths; or that her sister eventually elopes with a ghost named Louis Thanksgiving; or that her father calls himself Chief Bigtree, and parades about their island in tribal apparel, even if he is the son of two lily-white Ohioans. However, for all of the seemingly bizarre events that take place in the book and the swampy idiosyncrasies that define many of the characters, there are two elements to Russell's writing that caught my attention very quickly.
The first is that the book is deeply historical. It is not the case that Russell wrote a historical novel, nor did she get lost in the minutiae that can so often define and bog down literature that claims to be historical; rather, she understands that one cannot make a compelling book by simply placing a group of wacky characters in a quirky environment, introducing a conflict, and then describing what happens. The characters share a common unity not because they are a family of eccentrics, but because they are all bound to the island upon which Swamplandia! rests. They are distinct from the pale, peach-colored tourists for whom they perform because they are isolated, because they possess their own history. This makes them more of a unique tribe than any number of gator "fang" necklaces, heron feathers or buckskin vests ever could.
Such a distinction is perhaps best exemplified in the Bigtree Museum, which is located on the grounds of Swamplandia! While typical American families may remember their pasts via photo albums and heirlooms that have been passed down from one generation to another for decades or centuries, the Bigtrees have an actual museum that is dedicated to preserving their various legends and stories. Though it is obvious, even to young Ava, that the items in the museum ("all kinds of crap from our house," as she puts it) hardly qualify as historical artifacts, it is important to note that this penchant for granting the past a false grandiosity is reminiscent of Faulkner, particularly his novel Sartoris. And while Russell does not have a matriarch or patriarch consumed by the myths and decorum of a bygone age, all of her characters are, in varying degrees, obsessed with a false past. This is a family that makes their living by wrestling not just alligators, but, as the Chief puts it, "a no-shit dinosaur." One of the signs in Swamplandia! makes the point even clearer: "the alligator is an anachronism that can eat you!"
Many people have called Swamplandia! a Floridian novel. This may be true, but this feature, that of a specious past's overwhelming influence on the present, has become one of the staples of southern literature. There is a penchant for turning rather ordinary historical events into epics and rather normal historical figures into legends. In Sartoris, for example, there is the retelling of Bayard Sartoris' raid of a Union camp for coffee. While in reality he was just a rambunctious and foolish young man catching the enemy off guard in order to steal coffee, the legend makes him out to be a daring warrior who was fearless because of courage as opposed to youthful impropriety. Swamplandia! contains a character who is very similar: Hilola Bigtree, the dead matriarch. The first line of the novel says it all: "Our mother performed in starlight." She was a larger than life figure, a legendary wrestler of Seths and a stunning beauty. Even her cooking is not just bad, but legendarily terrible. One has to remember that this is a woman as seen through her barely pubescent daughter's eyes. For all we know, she was just some woman who worked at a tourist trap in south Florida.
This brings up the second thing that I noticed in this novel. While it is obvious that any book that focuses on the greatness of the past will be filled with exaggeration and embellishment, this does not mean that the narration and flow of the writing will have to be so heavily reliant upon comparisons to set the tone. Swamplandia!, however, reads as though it is comprised of articles, proper nouns and similes. This is not a complaint. With the possible exception of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, I don't believe that I have ever seen so many unique, hilarious, insightful and brilliant similes all in one book.
To say that it is simply the writer's style, however, would be to miss the point I believe Russell was trying to make through the voice of Ava. Much of the book reads like a magical realist novel. The normal and real are banal; the otherworldly and unique are beautiful. Because Ava and, to a greater extent, her sister Osceola, believe that there is more to this world than just what we see, the use of simile invites us as readers to look beyond what may, at first, seem like a simple description. For this reason, I felt that the book was less about gator wrestling and the love lives of ghosts, and more about the lost illusions of youth. In many ways, it is nothing more than a beautifully crafted coming-of-age story.