Fat Books & Thin Women


Review (Illustrated!): Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!

With thanks to Sara Lautman for the totally amazing Ava and Birdman illustration.

Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! is a book occasionally bursting with energy, more often bogged down by a cast of characters who are rarely as fully imagined as they deserve to be. Set in the failing alligator theme park of the title, Swamplandia! follows the Bigtree family as they struggle to find a way out of debts incurred since the death of their star attraction, mother to Ava, Ossie and Kiwi Bigtree, and since the opening of a more accessible theme park on the mainland near Swamplandia! Swamplandia! is often too clever for its own good, reveling in its oddities, but Russell’s creation of these theme parks is perfect and imbued with affection for the sort of rundown attractions the Bigtree family has to offer, mostly feats of nerve and showmanship (when wrestling an alligator, you have to push the audience to believe that you may lose, so that your win is worth something).

Russell’s story opens with the death of Ava’s mother and the failure of Swamplandia!, so it is mostly in memories that we get a picture of the park in its successful days. The park in the time of the novel is marked not only by its failures, but by the way the family relations form around it and are distorted by the park’s troubles. For most of the novel Kiwi Bigtree and the family patriarch, Chief Bigtree, are trying to earn enough money on the mainland to revive their park, but these stabs at career are made in private, marking how shameful this need for money is. Ossie and Ava, meanwhile, stay back at the swamp, Ava caring for a baby alligator (or a “Seth,” as the family calls them), Ossie falling in love with a ghost and precipitating one of the more chilling and rushed moments of Ava’s narration.

Russell’s novel is a capable one, a fun read, but repeatedly skims past the moments at which she could have dug deeper. The idea of Ossie’s love for a long-dead ghost, a man hired to dredge a canal through the swamp, provides countless opportunities for the sort of pathos Kelly Link evokes in “The Great Divorce,” a story about a failing relationship between a ghost and a man; but Russell never chooses to do more with Ossie’s relationship than let it reside in the novel for the sake of its oddities. The same could be said for much of the novel; as cute as it is to have a white-as-bread family originally from Ohio take on the name “Bigtree” to restamp their identities, Russell never explores that, or attempts to turn the name into anything more than a quirk of the family.

Kiwi, Ava’s older brother who heads to the mainland to save Swamplandia! by working at the very amusement park that has stripped them of their business, often reads as the “truest” of Russell’s characters, in his efforts to learn and navigate a world he has never been part of. Living off the mainland, the Bigtree family’s children have never attended school, and Kiwi’s ambitions (to get his GED, attend college and then graduate school, and become a scholar) collide with the “real world” in heartrending fashion, as he not only fails to wow his teacher at night school, but falls into debt to the amusement park he is employed by and struggles to learn to speak an English that is at times incomprehensible to him. Through Kiwi Russell provides a fuller picture of life at Swamplandia!, of the ways the park has failed Kiwi and his siblings even as they dream of saving it. Though Ava, the youngest Bigtree sibling, in particular embraces the park and her role of “alligator wrestler,” the children – especially Kiwi – have long dreamed of some more average life, as when Kiwi draws up his own report cards as a child: “He modeled them after a Rocklands Middle School report card, which he had purchased from his obese mainland associate, Cubby Wallach” (22).

What Russell does well is to capture the feel of a childhood lived apart, of trying to find a place in or between those worlds of the swamp and the mainland. When Ossie runs off with Louis, her ghost boyfriend, and Ava decides to take chase with a man she’s just met, the reader can’t help but be horrified and pray that this won’t be a narrative we’ve heard too many times before. But to a girl like Ava, a girl in training to be a better alligator wrestler than even her mother, that the swamp is so full of places that the door to Underworld can be lost in it, as the “Bird Man” tells her, seems not only possible but plausible.

Russell doesn’t take Ava’s story, or this idea of the Underworld’s swamp entrance, any further than she needs to for the sake of plotting. Swamplandia!‘s last pages feel rushed, the turning of the last page a shock. When Ava says, “I don’t believe in ghosts anymore” (314) she seems to be saying not just that she doesn’t believe in ghosts, but that in some way she doesn’t believe in those things that made up her childhood any longer, in that world so distant from what is possible on the mainland. In the last pages of the novel, though, Russell’s hand is apparent, swooping in to save characters stranded by their own lack of experience with the world and belief in things that could only read as real to children who grew up in a world that itself was barely believable. Russell’s work is readable and intriguing for those oddities she places with such confidence; but it may not be worth reading until she can use her stranger characters and settings to do something other than act as baubles for the reader.

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And don’t forget to visit Sara’s tumblr to see more of her comics and art!

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9 Comments

very thoughtful & thought provoking review- this is one I’ve been meaning to read. Just love the illustration!

Comment by Jennifer, bookspersonally

Swamplandia is one I’ve had my eye on. That illustration is incredible and the book seems to have quite a bit going on, without being overwhelming or confusing. Must pick up.

Comment by Natalie ~ the Coffee and a Book Chick

The illustration is fabulous! I could just pinch Red Seth :D

I don’t entirely agree with the last few sentences of your review, though. Karen Russell is still a young writer, and even with the success she’s had to date, she’s going to continue to grow and mature. It’s not realistic to expect perfection at this stage. The ending could have been smoother, but I think she’s left herself a lot of room to revisit these characters and their world in future projects. If she does, then the Bigtree family will grow with her.

Comment by ohemgillie

Sure, but isn’t that pretty much what I say? – I think she’ll do something better, though I didn’t come right out and say that she’s a young writer who’s going to continue growing. (I hope.) As far as it goes, I don’t believe in judging a writer’s book any differently because he or she happens to be new…it’s not until I can look at the whole of a writer’s work that I feel comfortable talking about a novel for its place in their growth as a writer. With someone like Nabokov, you can look at his (sort of ok) early novels and write about them for the themes that start coming up that he explores more fully in later books, or for the development of his style; but you can do that because you already know that he is going to write some awesome books. With someone like Russell…you know, I think she wrote a fine book but could have done more with it than she did. And her next books may show that this is just what she does, or they may show that Swamplandia! was a sort of testing ground for her and that she’s beginning to do more than play with some quirky characters and settings. Regardless, I think an editor should have had her redo the ending of this one until she came up with someone not so jarring and Hand of God-ish.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

The suggestion that her early work might not be worth reading is pretty harsh. The execution of the ending wasn’t perfect, but I think the characters did need a little rescuing from the outside and the truths that Kiwi and Ava learned from their experiences were uncomfortable and jarring. Aesthetically, it was clumsy but it was thematically appropriate.

Comment by ohemgillie

Gotcha, gotcha. Given that I label Russell’s last pages as “clumsy,” I think my use of the word “worth” was…pretty clumsy. I’m not quite sure how to describe how I meant the word in the review; not to say that the book isn’t worth reading as in it shouldn’t be read (like I wrote, it’s a readable book, it’s a fun one, it’s got a lot of fantastic images…ones I wish I could come up with) but that the work seemed to devalue itself slightly by not taking all these themes Russell probes at more seriously. At some times I thought it worked very well that Russell left her characters to their own devices most of the time, that she doesn’t push her “point” or even sometimes seem to have one – the whole Ava and Birdman sequence is horrifying to me, in large part because Russell let us view it only through Ava’s eyes, forcing us to “retell” the story (with an eye to way too many news stories about sex predators and the like) as we read it. But at end I felt a let down by the whole thing, seeing so many lines of the plot come out to not much at all. I’m sorry that it sounds like I’m saying not to read Russell’s novel, which isn’t the case – while I was disappointed, I’m glad I read it; I just wish I had measured my expectations more as I went into the read. I should probably go back and try to write a clearer ending to my review, too.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

When I recommend Karen Russell to other people, I tell them to read her short stories, where the characters can be wonderfully quirky without having to live in reality or make sense, and the setting can stand on its own. Trying to flesh those elements out in Swamplandia! just didn’t work for me, and I really wanted it to.

Comment by Jenny Colvin

I’m glad you wrote this – I was just wondering if her short stories might work better for me. I couldn’t help comparing Russell’s writing to Kelly Link’s, and maybe part of the reason Link comes out on top is that she only does short stories – so her characters and settings can be quirky, but they never run into the limits of the real world or the problem Russell’s characters faced (in my mind) of being exceptionally quirky and not much more for the bulk of the novel. Thinking about it…I would love to read a short story about any of them, because that would cut out so many of the problems I had with the arc of Swamplandia!.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

[…] but moments of the novel were thrilling and creative and had me wishing she had written more. My review of Swamplandia! reflects my disappointment with the novel; although this was Russell’s first novel I somehow […]

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