In the virtuoso opening pages of Swamplandia!, in which Ava remembers her mother's famous alligator-wrestling act, Karen Russell finds five different ways to describe the spotlight that Ava's father trains on his wife as she swims across the alligator pit. First, it is the "huge unseeing eye of the follow spot" that "twisted through the palm fronds until it found Hilola." Then, it casts "a light like a rime of ice onto the murk, and Mom swam inside this circle across the entire length of the lake." The audience would scream when an alligator swam into the spotlight alongside her, "a plump and switching tail cutting suddenly into its margarine wavelengths," and "now and then a pair of coal-red eyes snagged at the white net of the spotlight as the Chief rolled it over the Pit," but Hilola would keep swimming, "brushing at the spotlight's perimeter as if she were testing the gate of a floating corral," until finally she'd reach the distant wall. Only the second page, and already I was in awe. This is a flat-out terrific novel.
The elements of Swamplandia!'s world do not sound promising. They sound, admittedly, rather random and outlandish, as cheesy as the Bigtrees' amusement park itself: alligators, a Ouija board, a Depression-era ghost, buzzards by the dozens, a "bird man" who whistles to lure the buzzards away, another amusement park modeled on Hell. But if this sounds over the top to you, it doesn't to Ava Bigtree, and the wise earnestness with which she narrates her life will seduce you into listening.
Ava's world is crumbling into the swamp around her. Her mother's death has loosened the ties that have bound their quirky family together. For all of Ava's life, they have lived in seclusion on their island, isolated even by the tourists who come daily to peer at them. Now, with their amusement park in decline since they've lost their star attraction, Ava's brother and father have disappeared on the mainland. Ava has intensified her training to wrestle alligators like her mother. Ava's sister, Ossie, has begun talking to ghosts and believes she is engaged to marry a man who died in the 1930s. Ossie tells Ava that her fiancé has divulged the location of a door to the underworld, and she is going to travel through it so that she can consummate their union. When Ossie disappears during an assignation with her fiancé, Ava must chase after her, ever deeper into the uninhabited mangrove islands.
This is deadly serious stuff. Her sister could die out there, or - perhaps worse - she could find and open that door. Ava doesn't know what to believe. "I was thinking that we might find our mother in this place, and I was also thinking that my sister was officially nuts."
The suspense that powers this novel comes from the fact that neither Ava nor the reader know the rules to this world. Are there ghosts? Is it possible to communicate with the dead? Will the sisters find their mother and will she say something to soothe their insupportable grief? Will Russell pull off whatever it is that Ava finds out there in the swamp? The only way for Ava to answer these questions is to suspend disbelief and plunge in after her sister, exactly mirroring the way Russell compels her readers to dive into this strange, uncategorizable world. She brings her heroine into a literary state of mind, just as she takes her readers back to an adolescent worldview. "Faith was a power that arose from inside you," Ava thinks, "and doubt was exogenous, a speck in your eye. A black mote from the sad world of adults."
Every few chapters, Russell gives Ava a break from her first-person narration, and hands the book over to a third-person narrator who tells of her brother Kiwi's adventures on the mainland, working for their family's competitor, the World of Darkness amusement park. These sections are light, almost cheap comedy, where Kiwi's homeschooled oddness rather predictably runs up against consumer and corporate culture. These chapters moved me very rarely, and I was always anxious to return to Ava's quest. But when the book swirls toward its breathtaking end and each member of the family gets caught in the whirlpool, I couldn't stop reading.
As anyone who follows contemporary fiction knows by now, Karen Russell is a much-lauded member of The New Yorker's "20 Under 40" club, and the accolades for Swamplandia! have come thick and fast. I'm here to tell you that Russell earns them all. She imagines a word as "a container for feeling, or a little matchstick that you strike against yourself - a tiny, fiery summons," a near-holy notion of language, one of privacy and maybe even privation. Yet she herself uses words as if they are inexhaustible, as if they brim up within her like the water table of a swamp. A rag, for instance, is "something the last century used to wipe its lips," while someone's rage is "wonderful, like cake icing in his mouth," and dawn is "an orange light thinking its way across the darkness over the swamp." If I cited every worthwhile example of Russell's prose, this review would be exactly as long as the book itself. Her gorgeous phrasing is at once so surprising and so right.
Yet it is difficult to truly convey the mood or tone of the book, which is immersive, like all of the dives and swims that its characters take throughout the story. Long after Swamplandia! is over, it is the alligators who lurk in the mind's eye, just as they do in the water above Ava when she dives into Swamplandia!'s Gator Pit (her family calls them Seths): "When I opened my eyes, I could see the Seths' dim shapes from below, their great bellies that look like prehistoric pinecones and their dinosaur feet. I could see the glint of a Seth's claws, curled motionless at the mountains of its sides - an alligator's tail does all the work of swimming. Little starbursts of teeth, pebbles over lips." And there is no better symbol of the weirdness, ersatz elegance, and faint menace of this novel than those gators.
About the Author
Karen Russell's first book, a collection of short stories, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, was published in September 2006, for which she was named a National Book Foundation "5 Under 35" young writer honoree. Swamplandia expands on one of the short stories from this collection: "Ava Wrestles the Alligator" which is available in full at Scribd.
This review was originally published in March 2011, and has been updated for the July 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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