I knew even before I opened this novel that it wasn’t going to be my sort of thing. I never would have read it at all if one of my book clubs wasn’t reading it. First of all, there is an exclamation point in the title, and I don’t read books with exclamation points in the title.
OK, occasionally I do. But I’m not proud of it.
Second, it took me about ten seconds of reading the description of the book on Amazon to sneer at it and say, “This book is going to be exactly like Geek Love.” And I REALLY couldn’t stand Geek Love. It was about thirteen or fourteen years ago that I tried to read it, and I still haven’t gotten over the trauma. I feel about Geek Love the same way I feel about red wine and Scotch ever since THAT AWFUL NIGHT in June of 1997. And then when I read the Acknowledgements page in Swamplandia!, I saw that Karen Russell noted that she “owes a huge debt” to Katherine Dunn – the author of Geek Love. And I felt somewhat vindicated. If nothing else, my instincts are still on target.
But in all seriousness – I didn’t end up hating this book, and I don’t think I’ll start retching up bile if I happen to see it on a shelf in Barnes and Noble. Russell is a skilled crafter of sentences, and often her lively prose carried the novel through patches where its silly plot made me wish I was illiterate. It has clear strengths. But my initial reaction was right – it is most definitely not my sort of book.
Here’s the premise: the Bigtree family lives on the very fringes of Florida society, operating an alligator-themed amusement park in a Florida swamp. Mom Hilola, who has recently died of cancer, was both the park’s headliner as an alligator wrestler and the emotional anchor of the family. “Chief” Sam Bigtree, whose desperate series of lies and coverups in an attempt to keep the park from bankruptcy prompts much of the novel’s conflict – is perhaps the most pathetic father ever depicted in literature. His own father, Sawtooth Bigtree, was the original founder of Swamplandia! but has recently been remanded to a retirement home (a floating retirement home, in the swamp) after he bit a guest. The children are seventeen year-old Kiwi, who defects from Swamplandia! and goes to work at a hell-themed amusement park on the mainland that provides most of Swamplandia!’s competition; sixteen year-old Osceola, an albino who has sex with ghosts; and thirteen year-old Ava, an alligator wrestler-in-training and pathetic lost soul who would be much better off with social services than in the company of any of her family members.
Oh, and they call alligators “Seths.” For reasons that are never explained.
So in other words, this is a novel that is weird for weird’s sake. And it was this quality that so put me off about Geek Love and about my earliest forays into this novel. In my experience, the world is a deeply, profoundly weird place, but most of this weirdness exists under what appears to be a nondescript surface. We become acquainted with the weirdness of the world by paying close attention to the apparently mundane. For that reason, most human attempts to be deliberately weird or to create art that is weird for weird’s sake seem to me to miss the point. While I’ll reiterate that I see many strengths to this novel and absolutely recognize Russell’s talent, I would like and respect this novel more if the Bigtrees ran a Mom and Pop General Store or some other small business. Hilola could still die of cancer, Kiwi could defect for a job at the local Wal-Mart and Osceola could run off with a local motorcycle thug instead of the ghost of a Depression-era swamp dredger. The focus of the novel, then, would be the inner intricacies of its characters, not their surface eccentricities.
I imagine Russell’s thought process going something like this: I want to write a coming-of-age novel about a young girl who feels (and is) totally abandoned – physically, emotionally, psychologically – by her family. But no one will want to read it if it’s set in Chicago or some such place. So where can I set it so it will be ‘unique’? I know! A swamp! To be fair, even great, world-class authors have gotten stuck in this trap – or has no one else read John Steinbeck’s absolutely terrible short novel Burning Bright – about male infertility among circus performers? Except that halfway through the novel there is some magical transformation and they’re not circus performers any more, but farmers? I’m dead serious.
All of that said, this novel is strikingly emotionally accurate in its depiction of human reactions to trauma, and the alligators – while ultimately part of the self-conscious weirdness that I don’t like – are used effectively for symbolic ends. While coaching Ava to replace her mother as the headliner of the wrestling show, the Chief tells her, “It was never a fair fight..: even taped and flipped, even ‘sleeping,’ its legs churning toward an ultimate befuddlement and stillness, the alligator had all the real advantages; an alligator can hoard its violence for millions and millions of years” and that “weakness was the feather with which you tickled your tourists; it was your weakness that pinned the tourists to their seats.” The alligators, then become symbols for all the terrible things that we “wrestle” in our lives – like the deaths of mothers and – ultimately – our own deaths. There is something horrifying, of course, about a father giving this advice to his child, but, of course, what he’s saying is true – and it’s sadly ironic that this advice about the need to expose one’s weakness and vulnerability in order to attract tourists is really the only true thing the Chief ever teaches Ava.
The emotional center of this novel is Ava’s deceased mother. Ava and Osceola attempt to contact her by Ouija Board. Ava tries to summon her spirit and her courage in the wrestling pit and eventually hears her voice giving instructions at a moment of crisis. Kiwi hangs a promotional poster of her in her alligator-wrestling costume above his locker at the amusement park where he works after he leaves Swamplandia! The entire family conspires to keep her death a secret from Grandpa Sawtooth, for reasons no one can articulate. Reflecting late in the novel on her mother’s death as a precipitating event for the many catastrophes and near-catastrophes that happen, Ava remarks that she “didn’t realize that one tragedy can beget another, and another – bright-eyed disasters flooding out of a death hole like bats in a cave.”
The pairing of Kiwi’s stint at the World of Darkness (a bizarre hell-themed park on which Chief Bigtree blames Swamplandia!’s fiscal failures) with Ava’s determination to find Osceola after she and her most recent spectral fiancé elope to “the underworld” suggest the portion of the hero’s journey known as “the belly of the whale,” which sometimes in mythic stories takes the form of a literal descent into hell. The idea is that a hero can gain important wisdom and self-knowledge if he or she looks death directly in the face. This “belly of the whale” experience can also serve as a form of cocooning, in which the hero distances himself from the world for a while in order to facilitate an important metamorphosis from within. Both Kiwi’s story and Ava’s story follow this pattern: Kiwi’s time at the World of Darkness teaches him how to function in the larger world outside his family’s insular swamp, teaches him to manage money, teaches him that he is not the genius he thought he was when he lived in isolation, allows him to become a ‘hero’ (if an ironic one) after bystanders perceive that he saved the life of a visiting heiress, and gives him the courage to confront his father about the lies he has been telling. For Ava – who is truly harmed by her time in the belly of the whale in ways that Kiwi isn’t – it is at the moment that she feels closest to the literal mouth of the underworld that she hears her mother’s voice telling her to trust her own senses and observations instead of the lies being fed to her by the creepy ‘bird man’ who is serving as Charon as she journeys down the Styx. After investigating this archetype, I do think Russell has structured her novel to adhere relatively closely to Joseph Campbell’s monomyth or hero’s journey – and this structure does help give order to a fictional world that is truly chaotic and frightening.
This novel’s greatest strength, though, is Russell’s writing. She is not afraid to coin words (“the tourists moved sproingily from buttock to buttock in the stands” – italics mine), and she is a master of the unusual simile and striking visual image: “dozens of alligators pushed their icicle overbites and the awesome diamonds of their heads through…water”; “the strange pink-and-white apartment complexes where mainlanders lived like cutlery in drawers”; “ghosts silked into our bedroom like cold water”; “the rag looked as powdery and dry as the last century, something the last century had used to wipe its lips”; “his eyes [were] a colorless sizzle like grease in a pan.” I don’t usually get too excited by excellent sentences – I notice them and admire them, but they are rarely the reason that I admire a book. I often dislike a book because of bad writing, but for the most part I consider good writing to be a basic requirement of a published novel and not something to congratulate an author for too effusively. In this case, though, I make an exception: the quality of Russell’s sentences kept me reading when the plot, characters, and setting made me cringe.
I think I might be in the minority in my negative reactions to this novel (as I said, I more or less knew from the beginning that it wouldn’t be my sort of thing), and I do recommend that you read it and am curious to know what others think. I admire the artfulness of Russell’s sentences but wish she had trusted the ordinary human potential for absurdity and kept the story out of the swamp. There are plenty of figurative ghosts in the real world.