Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

by Orual

gorgeous book design!

When I found out that Russell’s first novel would be an expansion of the story “Ava Wrestles the Alligator” from St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, my anticipation was somewhat dampened. Lucy’s is one of my favorite story collections — I’ve read it twice straight through — but I didn’t love Ava’s story. If it were my choice, it wouldn’t be the story I’d want expanded. Still, I was super excited for this book.

But then I started reading it and realized there are two major problems:  the story and the writing. (You might ask yourself:  what else is there? But the book design is really lovely! They couldn’t have come up with a better picture for the cover. And Knopf books are really the best-smelling books being printed today.)

The Story

The basic plot:  Thirteen-year-old Ava Bigtree, of the famed Swamplandia! Bigtrees, tries to fulfill her destiny of becoming an alligator wrestler while holding her fracturing family together after the death of her mother.

Some reviewers have mentioned this:  There just isn’t enough here to sustain a 320 page novel. Ideally, this would have appeared in St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves as a novella, maybe 70 pages, which would have allowed Russell to explore the actual substance of this book in a format much fairer to her readers.

The truth is, the first 150 pages of this book make you feel like you’re swimming in molasses. Sure, it’s sweet — Russell is an inventive writer with a great vocabulary — but you can’t seem to get anywhere and you feel a bit like you’re drowning. The story doesn’t start really moving until halfway through the book, almost to the exact page, and even then, it’s never a page-turner. What momentum it gains is lost once some characters begin a seemingly endless trip through the swamp.

The only apparent purpose of Kiwi’s side plot (which doesn’t seem to fit because of the change in perspective) is to lengthen the novel and set up the somewhat contrived ending. Other people have said that Kiwi is their favorite character, but I found him sophomoric and selfishly delusional. (He leaves the girls alone with their father, knowing him to be a pretty incompetent parent, and steals all their cash.) Kiwi’s sections were useless, yet often welcome, if only to break the monotony of Ava’s storyline and the descriptions of the swamp/Swamplandia.

When Ava first meets the Bird Man is headed off to the underworld with her guide, I got excited. The chapter began with a quotation from Dante, and I thought that maybe this book was going to take an erudite turn, with Ava journeying to the underworld much like Odysseus in The Odyssey, Aeneas in The Aeneid, or Dante in The Divine Comedy. It could have been amazing and poignant. Instead, it really just peters out into incomprehensible nothing (Ava is alone at Swamplandia; why does the Bird Man take her days out into the swamp to get in her pants?) And the part with Mama Reeds came out of nowhere and served no purpose, giving me the impression that Russell was just writing what came to her without thinking of connection or coherence. Even just a mention of Mama Reeds earlier in the book would have legitimized it somewhat.

I was interested to come across “The Dredgeman’s Revelation” in the middle of the book. I remember reading this tale as a short story in The New Yorker some time ago and not liking it. But here, it was a welcome change; as a short story, it had its own plot that moved along smartly in comparison with the rest of the book. I enjoyed it much more in this context.

The Writing
Here is what I realized very quickly:  Russell’s writing is amazing in small doses — namely, short stories. It’s charming and eloquent and thick. But when it runs on for a hundred pages or more, you feel suffocated by the endless description and 50-cent words. I’m a fast reader, but her writing is full of verbal hurdles that would be okay (maybe even appreciated) if the plot was equally as thick and compelling. But it’s not, and I don’t enjoy spending five minutes reading a couples paragraphs on swamp flora. I feel like I know the plants better than the characters in this book.

Also, Russell is often guilty of one of my biggest writing pet peeves:  using words that don’t make logical sense because they sound pretty. “The moon continued to whir,” for example. “Their wings panted towards us,” for another. This kind of writing sounds good and poetic or whatever, but the more I think about what it’s supposed to mean, the more frustrated I get. And it slows the book down even more. (HOW CAN THE MOON POSSIBLY WHIR? SPACE IS SILENT.)

Finally, Ava’s voice. Her reasoning and actions made me think more of a ten-year-old than a girl of 13 or 14. But her voice and thoughts and vocabulary were those of a much older individual (say, a 30-year-old named Karen Russell).

Anyway, this book disappointed me, and I’m surprised by the rave reviews it’s getting from the critics. I wonder if it’s easier to like this book if you haven’t read (or didn’t LOVE) St Lucy’s.

But I must say — I am really quite jealous of Russell’s prose. And I’ll undoubtedly read anything she publishes in the future.