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Beyond Bizarre: Karen Russell and the Swamplandish Style

July 27, 2011

From the cover of SWAMPLANDIA!

Breaking my tradition, I’ve celebrated my return from two months of overwork by reading a best-selling novel less than five years after its publication date. The book is Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, and it’s inspired me to coin a new word for personal use, swamplandish, meaning outlandish/bizarre/wacky in an interesting way.

For those who haven’t read the book, here’s Donna Seaman’s description from Booklist, courtesy of Amazon:

Swamplandia! is a shabby tourist attraction deep in the Everglades, owned by the Bigtree clan of alligator wrestlers. When Hilola, their star performer, dies, her husband and children lose their moorings, and Swamplandia! itself is endangered as audiences dwindle. The Chief leaves. Brother Kiwi, 17, sneaks off to work at the World of Darkness, a new mainland amusement park featuring the “rings of hell.” Otherworldly sister Osceola, 16, vanishes after falling in love with the ghost of a young man who died while working for the ill-fated Dredge and Fill Campaign in the 1930s. It’s up to Ava, 13, to find her sister, and her odyssey to the Underworld is mythic, spellbinding, and terrifying. Russell’s powers reside in her profound knowledge of the great imperiled swamp, from its alligators and insects, floating orchids and invasive “strangler” melaleuca trees to the tragic history of its massacred indigenous people and wildlife. Ravishing, elegiac, funny, and brilliantly inquisitive, Russell’s archetypal swamp saga tells a mystical yet rooted tale of three innocents who come of age through trials of water, fire, and air.

Normally I’d be turned off by the first sentence. I like reading about the world I know, which has never included alligator wrestlers. Normally, too, if I dipped into the book itself, I’d be annoyed by the extreme degree of exaggeration. The book’s literal story line does involve that so-called amusement park named the World of Darkness, where a popular attraction for the Lost Souls (as the customers are called) is a slide down the intestinal tract of the Leviathan. The jingle, sung happily by the Lost Souls, goes like this: “The Leviathan, the Leviathan, what a bargain! All that pain in a single afternoon!” Since it’s not quite satire—or far beyond satire—the tone often strikes me as camp, way-out-there for the amused smirk of being way-out-there.

Yet something kept me going with this novel. Part of it was the verve of the writing. Russell has vast buckets of energy, some of which she splashes into swamplandish metaphors. Here are some examples from early in the book:

Nights in the swamp were dark and star-lepered

dozens of alligators pushed their icicle overbites and the awesome diamonds of their heads through over three hundred thousand gallons of filtered water

I started to miss the same tourists I’d always claimed to despise: the translucent seniors from Michigan. The ice-blond foreign couples yoked into thick black camera straps like teams of oxen. The fathers, sweating everywhere, with their trembling dew mustaches. The young mothers humping up and down the elevated walkway to the Swamp Café, holding their babies aloft like blaring radios.

This style is both brilliant and fraught with contradictions that keep the reader off balance. The brilliance speaks for itself—trembling dew mustaches! But an actual leper doesn’t look at all like a star-spotted sky, and the allusion to a leper in a romantic descriptive passage adds a tonal jolt. An alligator’s teeth have the sharpness and slickness of an icicle but not the coldness or fragility. If the couples are “yoked” like oxen, they are attached to each other by those camera straps, but surely that’s not right. Babies are indeed like blaring radios, but nobody holds radios “aloft”; for that matter, how many mothers hold their babies “aloft”?

It may seem silly to analyze the logic of metaphors, but my point is that Russell must be deliberately keeping us off terra firma. The very style is swampy and ever-shifting underfoot, with beauty and ugliness and romance and weirdness jumbled together, sucking us toward the bottom of solid reality, if not beyond.

And the plot proceeds in a similar way. One could write an outline that would seem simple and realistic; as Janet Maslin said in her New York Times review (2/16/11), “Take away the wall-to-wall literary embellishments, and this is a recognizable story, if not a familiar one.” Yet the tone often verges on the magical. In fact, my favorite part of the novel was 13-year-old Ava’s expedition to Hell to rescue her sister, who has supposedly eloped with a ghost. Ava is accompanied by a strange adult known as the Bird Man, and for a good while, as they approached the doors of Hell in the lonely midst of the incredible wild swamp, I supposed we were heading off into magical realism.

(SPOILER ALERT.) I was rather disappointed, then, when the story crashed back to earth and the magic disappeared. The end, lepered with impossible coincidences, is rather sentimental in its reunion of the splintered family. Yet exactly none of the family’s problems have been solved, and we leave them in a dreary mainland apartment “carpeted and wallpapered in rusty browns, a palette that reminded me of dead squirrels.” It’s a peculiar and off-kilter happy ending.

Maybe that, too—optimism in the face of death, madness and depressing decor—deserves the adjective swamplandish. Thanks to Karen Russell for adding to my vocabulary such a potentially useful word.

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