Literary Arcadia Literature and other things

Swamplandia! (<—the exclamation point is part of the title)

Swamplandia! has made a splash in literature.  Because it is a first novel.  Because the author has been on the “Best 30 under 30″ or some such list.  Because it has been touted as “fresh” and “unique”.  All of these things are true.  So that means I should have really liked it, right?

Warning:  This review contains spoilers.  I can say what I liked about the book by being vague.  However I cannot say why I do not like the book without citing examples.  So if you haven’t read it and want to be surprised, don’t read further.

What I liked: The writing.  Karen Russell writes very well.  When she describes the swamp you can almost feel the humid air and smell the dark, damp dirt and the dripping leaves.  She has many good ideas.

What I didn’t like: The story.  Russell sets up an unlikely, although interesting premise.  A family owns an alligator farm on an island in Florida, where they eke out an existence as a tourist destination with their theme park and alligator thrill show.  The mother and star of the show dies of cancer, leaving the father (self-dubbed as the “Chief”), a son, and two teenaged daughters.  The family is struggling, both emotionally and financially.  The son, Kiwi, runs off to the mainland and gets a crap job at a rival theme park to earn money for the family.

This is the point where the book begins to go “off the rails” so to speak.  The father decides to go on a business trip to find investors for the park and leaves his daughters alone on the island.  Seriously?!  Horrible and completely preventable things happen to these girls.  They both get lost in the swamp- Ossie runs off into the swamp with her “ghost lover”.  The younger sister Ava tries to find her sister with the help of a wandering vagrant who for some reason she completely trusts so, of course, he rapes her.  Then she runs away and is also lost in the swamp.

The narrative becomes even more ridiculous.  Kiwi (who in a completely obvious plot device) is learning to fly and magically finds both of his sisters in the swamp and saves them, even though he did not even know they were missing.  Tied up in a nice little bow there, right?

Oh yeah, and the father is working at a casino and is too proud to admit that this is how he is making money and there are no investors for their alligator park.  After Kiwi finds his sisters they all decide to live on the mainland, find an apartment to live in, and the girls go to school.  Nicely tied up.

Did I mention how nicely it all ends?  The family is all together again, hooray!  Ava never tells anyone she was raped, and even seems not to care at all and blocks it from her mind – I foresee a lot of therapy for her after her mental breakdown in a few years.  Ossie is finally diagnosed with some “mental disorder” (never named or described) and sees a counselor – which is good because she’ll need it after all that crap.  Despite basically abandoning his teenaged daughters on an island with very little food for an indeterminate time period the father sees no repercussions for his neglect.  In real life child services would have been all over him.

Although I did not at all enjoy the plot of Swamplandia! I feel that Karen Russell’s writing style is superior.  That’s what makes it frustrating.  It could be that a full-length novel is a bit much.  I may try her short story collection coming out soon if only because of its quirky title – something about vampires in a lemon grove.  What are the vampires doing in a lemon grove?  Do they like lemons?  Were they orchardist’s before they were turned?  Possibilities.

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