Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
New Days for the New World
It’s of note that the kind of unflinching look Swamplandia! takes at the devastation wrought on the Americas and their people from 1492 until the present has, until now, been largely the realm of immigrant writers and writers of color. In Swamplandia!, an Anglo-American girl from Florida churns out brilliant, brutal passages like this one, in which narrator Ava waxes historical: “Prejudice was a kind of prehistoric arithmetic It meant white names on white headstones in the big cemetery on Cypress point, and black and brown bodies buried in swamp water.”
Pinch me. It’s been rare to hear such words from a mouth like Russell’s. It suits her, and the rest of us, so beautifully. If this book does not represent one of the first instances in recent literary memory where work of the mainstream Anglo-American tradition reaches to align itself with the richly evocative, distinctly immigrant aesthetic that has characterized many of the most notable books of the last few decades, then it is certainly among the best of those attempts.
Like some lost, ancient tribe, the family around whose Russell’s story centers is their own cosmos, the rulers and only permanent residents of an island in the Everglades they’ve named Swamplandia!. This, their clan’s adopted homeland, exists as a kind of rustic tourist park, where sun-burned Midwesterners can come to watch matriarch Hilola Bigtree wrestle live alligators in an arena twice a day.
Russell creates warm, lively characters whose interactions with one another are spontaneous and organic. And slyly, her work begins to approach the most good-natured among the goals of the eccentric members of the Bigtrees. It attempts to stake a place at the perimeter of certain expectations of class and race. In the context of today’s literature, the book finds its orientation among much of the fiction birthed out of the Western immigrant experience.
Readers will recognize in Swamplandia! the brilliant comic strategies of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, another first novel by a preternaturally talented young woman. We also see glimpses of the post-apocalyptic zaniness of Gary Shteyngart’s radiant latest novel, Super Sad True Love Story. In both its humor and its exploration of families writhing under the heavy grip of their own mythology and the myths of the land, it also suggests Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer-winning The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. All three works chronicle the immigrant experience. And like them all, Swamplandia! laughs, at times, to keep from crying. This book similarly reaches for core truths—even ugly ones—by pretending not to take itself seriously.
Also, any discussion of the dynamics shifted by emergent work like Swamplandia! is incomplete without mention of Dave Eggers. His genre-bending last two books, What is the What and Zeitoun, presented the respective accounts of a Sudanese Lost Boy and a Muslim family in Katrina-era New Orleans with groundbreaking cross-cultural creative effort. It is hard to imagine that Swamplandia! could have been created in a climate with waters untested by books like these—works by which mainstream advocates bring a marginalized experience to accepted literary notice.
If a road has been paved for Russell by these efforts, there is an important distinction to be made. Where Eggers pushed the envelope of convention by using novelistic techniques to tell the true stories of people whose cultural perspectives differed from his own, Russell uses a fictional narrative situated within her own culture to grapple with human dilemmas that have more commonly been explored using different cultural tools than she herself would seem to posses. Does Russell know the feeling of exile from a homeland? The rites of passage into the first world? Her book surely does.
In its exploration of life on the margins, Russell’s work has also drawn clear lines to the 20th century gothic Southern tradition. Women writers like Carson McCullers, Harper Lee, and Flannery O’Connor wrote from bastions of white privilege but viewed with horror the violence on which their comfort was predicated. The work of these writers, like Russell’s here, channeled the sense of alienation any highly sensitive soul coming of age in a brutal world inevitably comes to feel. They used this sensibility to tell the stories of characters marginalized by the world’s brutality: freaks, hunchbacks, children, and, in the Jim Crow South, even so-called Negroes. From the comfortable center, these women chose to write the edges.
We are reminded of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and the continuing public challenge that book raised in its direct confrontation of race—an interaction with ideas very much at issue in the day, but previously most often the territory of writers of color. We are also reminded of McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, a book about characters at the outskirts of their culture. Like these predecessors, Russell has carefully insisted upon her own inheritance, confounding expectations for a writer of her race and background.
Swamplandian siblings Ava, Kiwi, and Osceola Bigtree live in an insular world at the story’s onset. Their world comes complete with its own founding myths. The children pay visits to the museum on the isle of Swamplandia!, to view artifacts of their own family’s history—their mother’s wedding dress stands on display, alongside taxidermied alligators wrestled by their grandfather. Their father and the head of their tribe is Chief Bigtree, recently widowed. Their paternal Grandfather Sawtooth founded Swamplandia! during the Great Depression. They live in many ways as cultural outlaws, unaligned with the mores of the land.
The novel tells the Bigtree story with the warped surrealism of childhood memory. The level of the language gives us Russell at her most luminous, though this is also where she makes a few of the book’s rare pitfalls. Her sentence-level metaphor at times seems to spill onto the page beyond her control. Yet it can also illuminate her prose with an effortless kind of otherworldly strangeness, as in this passage where Ava drifts on the river:
“The sun glittered behind what sounded like the roar of the surf, as if the twisted pines hid a long seabed, a tidal hum so convincing that you could almost make out the Gulf foaming behind the trees—mosquitoes, the ocean’s tiniest mimics. I swabbed their iridescent green-and-silver corpses out of ear and crusted nose and continued to peer into the scrub, my heart pounding.”
If Russell sometimes strains too hard to reach the unreachable, with metaphorical language falling flat, we nevertheless remain captive to the current of her language. It seems enchanted with itself, and full of joy in its unfolding.
Ironically, the book’s dreamy child-language is of a depth and richness rarely lavished by adults on actual children. If not for this, Swamplandia!, with its teenage protagonists, could easily be a book written for young adults. Like a true fairy tale, this one is grotesque, morbid, and grim in its simple beauty.
But Swamplandia! is no fantasy. It goes hard after the distinction between fantasy and the ‘real’ world, even as it straddles that line as deftly as the Bigtrees once did their gators. Ava goes into a traumatized frenzy to learn what is true and what is not after their mother Hilola’s death. Her search forces the Bigtree children to awaken from the elaborate dream world their parents had built around them—a militantly constructed defiance of ‘real world’ 20th-century America.
In The Crack Up, F. Scott Fitzgerald famously told us that “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." (The cynic in me would add that this skill is also the test of a first-rate liar.) Here for the Bigtree siblings, who struggle to reconcile the bizarre world of Swamplandia! with the even stranger world outside it, the ability to maintain conflicting realities becomes tantamount to survival.
We don’t always know whether all of the siblings will make it. Possibly, big sister Osceola, spun out of orbit by Hilola’s passing, will succumb to madness. But eldest brother Kiwi provides his sisters with a courageous example of how to begin learning the ways of the world when he leaves to find a job on Florida’s mainland after a disagreement with their father over Swamplandia! debt. And where else would Kiwi find his first job than at The World of Darkness, a Leviathan-themed recreation park competitor on the mainland? And where would Kiwi, a first-generation immigrant to the real world, find his first friends, if not among Florida’s first- and second-generation Caribbean and Latin American immigrants making their own adjustments to life on continental North America?
Swamplandia! crawls with dark, explicitly hellish imagery. While Kiwi explores the bizarre underworld-themed campiness of the World of Darkness, we simultaneously journey with Ava on her own exodus from Swamplandia!, led by the Bird Man, a pied piper of sorts. In her state of grief, Ava (she with a name suggesting birds) believes the Bird Man’s canoe will ferry her to the Underworld. Ava hopes to retrieve her missing sister Osceola and perhaps even their dead mother. They row down the Caloosahatchee River, here re-imagined as the River Styx, toward the story’s climax.
Swamplandia! deals responsibly with questions of cultural appropriation raised by the Bigtrees’ elaborate construction of themselves as a lost tribe of Indians. They’re not—the family is Euro-American. By poking fun at them, and by bearing compassionate witness to their trauma, Russell never allows these faux-Indians to take comfort forever in a stolen identity. The book also explores issues of authenticity when it asks us to compare and contrast the two models of kitsch: the World of Darkness, an amusement park owned by a greedy mega-corporation, and Swamplandia!, the hokey tourist trap run by this family of gator-wrestlers.
Swamplandia! is a Camelot story, a tale of longing for a lost world. And in its heart-wrenching treatment of the nascent sexualities of its three pubescent protagonists, it also stands as a story of lost innocence—here it recalls yet another immigrant voice, in Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat. Danticat’s first novel Breath, Eyes, Memory presented a young girl’s painful initiation into an adult sexuality as it parallels her initiation to life in America. Swamplandia! is a Paradise Lost story too, its characters toppled from their personal Eden and left struggling to gain a foothold post-Fall. It is apocalyptic in the classical sense that Diaz suggested in a recent Boston Review essay. The apocalypse “is a disruptive event that provokes revelation,” he writes. Hilola Bigtree’s death, for her husband and children, delivers apocalypse. Its revelations are for us all.
Russell was already an accepted member of the literary establishment before the release of Swamplandia! this year. Her short story collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, met with wide acclaim, and she made The New Yorker’s 2010 list of 20 fiction writers under age 40. She joins a wave of many talented immigrant writers in showcasing a refreshing and necessary new trend for our country’s literature, one marked by a newly committed willingness to come to honest terms with responsibility for some of the darkness of America’s history.
Welcome one and all to this new world. Step right this way.