Swamplandia! You broke my heart. I wanted to like you. Nay, I wanted to love you, but I didn’t, I couldn’t. Karen Russell’s overuse of simile was distracting, but the overall metaphor of the project fell flat. Swamplandia! is a manic pixie dream girl text: quirky, bursting and colorful, cute, but lacking depth and seemed, to me, to lack purpose as well. Faux insight, while pretty on the page, is like drunk sex. Awesome but dull. Empty and dry yet overflowing with misplaced, confused, and jumbled emotions.
There will be spoilers here, but not really, and the book was so meh you might as well.
I reblogged my post on Geek Love because Swamplandia! walks in the shadows of Geek Love, looks up to Geek Love, much in the same way that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind owes a great deal to Annie Hall. But whereas those are two stellar movies, Swamplandia! doesn’t come close to the complexity and humanity of Geek Love. Dunn’s characters, especially Olympia, desire; they move, they break, they sweat. They grow, they change. Russell’s characters begin broken, and this journey narrative, instead of uniting the characters and solving their existential crises, takes us on a brief tour of each of their sitting-and-spinning anguish, which all culminates in a kind of nihilistic hope. We watch them flounder and burn, but no one rises from the ashes. We dwell in the muck, in the swamp of their grief, watch their failed attempts at moving forward, only to then end up in a rundown bowling alley hotel. Ava, Ossie, Kiwi, and the Chief are bowling pins, knocked down by the fierce bowling ball of their mother’s death, waiting for a machine (some deus ex machina) to be put back up. This whole narrative struck me as passive.
In the end, the family’s back together, yes, but not really. And this seems to be the take home message. Everyone’s not okay, everyone’s flailing, everyone’s sad and dejected, but at least they’ve got each other. Sitcom material in a unique and arguably rich setting. But I wanted more. MOAR!
Give me liberty! Give me redemption! Give me struggle, inside and out! Give me Geek Love!
The title comes from their home, a circus of sorts, a tourist attraction where the mother swims with the alligators and wrestles their jaws shut. The father, the Chief, christens all their possessions as artifacts. Nothing Ava owns, it would seem, truly belongs to her. Except her grief. When the mother dies, everyone goes crazy. Kiwi, the oldest brother, in an act of supreme rebellion, flees the island and goes to work for a rival park, The World of Darkness. Ossie fucks dead people, fleeing the realm of the living, preferring the company of ghosts to her family. The Chief leaves his daughters to also go to the mainland. His disappearance is the most mysterious, but ends up being the most mundane. Also, and it should be noted, while he left to make money to support his sinking ship, he left his two teenage daughters, one sixteen, one thirteen. Ava, our protagonist, is 13. When Ossie leaves Swamplandia! to marry her ghost boyfriend in the Underworld, Ava, with the help of a creepy–but not alluringly so–man who in 100+ degree heat wears a heavy coat of black bird feathers, not unlike what Jon Snow and the other Crows (members of the Night’s Watch) wear in Game of Thrones.
Okay. Premise, not bad.
But this book is more interesting in blurb. Nothing happens. We oscillate from Ava’s point of view to Kiwi’s, so we oscillate from The World of Darkness, a campy model of Hell and Hades, to possibly the true Underworld, whose entrance is located somewhere deep in the swamp. The Bird Man speaks: “The whole swamp is haunted, kid…I’m sure you folks have sensed it yourselves, wrestling the alligators, living way out. And there are thousands of openings in the limestone and the eastern mangrove tunnels. What the old gator hunters and plumers called the Black Woods…Way out there, that’s where you’ll find those shell islands. Most people go from one side to the other and they never get to the underworld. If you’re a first-timers–if you’re alive–and if you want to make the return trip, well, kid, you need a guide.”
Russell recalls Dante’s Inferno:
Therefore, for your sake, I think it wise
you follow me: I will be your guide…
In some cultures, crocodiles are the guardians of the Underworld. (All alligators are crocodiles, but not all crocodiles are alligators, fyi.) They represent the bridge between earth and water, the known and the unknown. They resemble dinosaurs, a link to our amphibious roots. And they grin like monsters. All those teeth! Vagina dentata, you say, and you wouldn’t be wrong. Think of the tick tick tick crocodile following Captain Hook around, like a harbinger of death. Think of the vagina as a womb and a tomb. The Underworld itself is also a liminal space. As we cannot conceive of nothingness, humans invent a place–Hell, Dis, Hades–where our transparent souls go, a point of no return, different from life on earth, but not so different as to be inconceivable. Whether it’s fire and brimstone and eternal torture, to harps and bouncing on fluffy clouds, to basically a river of ashen fishy souls swimming and moaning. This is not death. It’s fictitious death. And it’s scary as fuck.
Russell is writing a coming of age story about a young alligator wrestler and her kooky family, who I didn’t find all that kooky. They want their mother. They want to be loved. They want to perform, to be relevant and interesting. They want to be themselves. They’re simple folk (oh, that phrase makes me vomit in my mouth a little). Not to beat the drum again, but Dunn’s characters are not simple. The situations Dunn’s characters find themselves in don’t induce a feeling of lethargy and meaninglessness.
Like in real life, Russell’s Underworld is a bust.
So, is Russell’s point that Swamplandia! is hell on earth? Or is the corporate Aruba of The World of Darkness actually hell on earth? Is hell going at it alone, without your family? Is hell being a part from the ones you love? Is hell trusting someone only to find out they suck, and they’re a rapist, and you were a foolish kid thinking you could save someone through a simple act of bravery? Forge ahead! Says the beginning of the novel. Forge! But then, why? What was the point of all that forging? To conclude life is meaningless and that’s there’s no real point in forging because it’s all luck and chance and we’re all going to die anyway?
Boo! Boo hiss! I say.
Where’s the razzle dazzle? Where are all the crocodiles?
Early on Ava discovers a red alligator (or Seth*, as her family calls them) and thinks this carmine creature will save their park, will bring the tourists back and bring everything back to normal. She nurses it, carries it everywhere, then randomly uses it as a weapon, throwing it, and running. WTF? The red seth represents hope. Hope that she will locate her sister. Hope that the park will be restored. Hope that she may even see her mother in the Underworld, because hey, if there is a ghostly realm, and an Underworld, of course, her mother would be there. Of course, her mother would sense her presence, or know that she was searching for her, and appear to her, give her some Dumbledore wisdom and love. But instead, the Bird Man rapes her (it’s gray rape, but it’s still fucking rape), her innocence is lost, and there is no Underworld. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. She does. Hope is now a weapon. Fuck you, Bird Man. Fuck the park. Fuck it all. Throw your metaphors in the air! We’re back to forging. This time, we’re doing it alone. Ava, time to grow up. Shit just got real. Get ready for some grand finale do or die alligator wrestling.
I loved a crocodile once. Back in the days of Myspace (which was infinitely more aesthetically pleasing than Facebook), this was my About Me for a while.
He hurt the ones he loved, this skilled lothario. I knew he was dangerous. I didn’t care. I had a death drive. I wanted danger. I wanted to be consumed, raw. I wanted to ride him around and see where we went. In the end he wasn’t that dangerous. He was as boring as Swamplandia! The symbols and signs went nowhere.
Let me add, as an addendum, one of Russell’s similes. “Trumball was the engine for their twosome, the talker, and his talk kept picking up speed, as if his big voice were on a downhill slope.” I say her similes were distracting, one because they were constant, but this is her style. Fine. But often, like here, there’s something off, something wrong. Engines don’t pick up speed downhill. The car picks up speed. The engine relaxes. I wanted Russell to do this, to relax and let the narrative pick up its own speed, but she is an engine. I saw her behind every sentence, at every turn, shaping the narrative, controlling it. As a result, the whole thing felt labored. Like Ava in the end, fighting the swamp, looking for home, looking for the finish line. Skill kept her alive but it was luck that brought her family together. Deus ex machina. Everyone survived but no one thrived.
It was sad that no one won the Pulitzer in 2012. The finalists were The Pale King, Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, and Swamplandia!. While it sucks that no one won, I was shocked to find Russell up against David Foster Wallace’s genius. Like Swamplandia! and Geek Love, there is just no comparison to be made there. At least not yet. Russell’s young and that’s impressive in and of itself. I’m not saying I’ll never read anything of hers again, but there is much room for improvement. She meandered in the small details then flubbed the big picture. Other people loved it though, so there’s that.
*A reference to the evil Egyptian god Seth who murdered his brother Osiris and wounded Osiris’s son Horus? Seth is represented as having the head of an animal with a long pointed snout.