Cover to Cover is the book review for the busy student. She takes the time to let you know if a book is really worth yours. You’ll get an average time it takes to get through the book, and whether or not you should invest those precious reading week hours, actually reading.
In the name of full disclosure, Karen Russell is my favorite author. Period. I was 17 when I first read her collection of short stories, 19 when I realized that Karen Russell was a graduate of Northwestern’s own creative writing program and 20 when I stalkerishly got her to sign my dog-eared copy of St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. Below my name and above her signature is the word “Grawr.” I like to believe that this word represents a kindred spirit between us, an innate love of growling animals, perhaps, or some deeper thought about writing (i.e. writing is Grawr). But perhaps, and this is what I hope, it has more to do with a shared love of the odd: a love for the random, the weird, the strangely appropriate.
When I read Karen Russell’s newest book, Swamplandia!, I thought immediately of her strange signature. Swamplandia! is one of the oddest and most beautiful books I have read in a long time. Set in the hot, bug-infested swamps of south Florida, the novel is, in its own words, the story of a fall. Swamplandia! follows the slow demise of the Bigtree family and their alligator wrestling theme park of the same name, after the death of their matriarch and main attraction, Hilola Bigtree.
The novel splits into two narratives when Ava, Osceola and Kiwi Bigtree, heirs to the Bigtree dynasty, are left to fend for themselves on their island themepark when their father leaves for a business trip to the mainland under the pretense of finding investors. Kiwi, frustrated with his father and sisters’ refusal to accept their doomed reality, leaves to go work at the opposing theme park, The World of Darkness, and get his GED. His story makes up the lesser half of the novel. Through him we see the outside world and all its cruel irony. Out in the “real world,” no-one knows the Bigtree legacy, and Kiwi is forced to clean up after “Lost Souls” in the belly of a giant plastic “Leviathan.” His reality is a stark contrast to the implied glory of Swamplandia’s heyday, and creates a tone of cruel irony when contrasted with Ava’s struggles in the other half of the novel.
Kiwi’s poverty and humiliation is nothing when compared to Ava’s harrowing narrative. Her half, ostensibly the better one, takes place entirely within the swamp. After Kiwi’s abandonment, Osceola becomes possessed by a ghost, Louise Thanksgiving, and leaves for the underworld to become his bride. Half believing this story, 14-year-old Ava, the only true gator wrestler left in the family, takes up with the unbearably creepy and mysterious Bird Man to go find her. Her story is reminiscent of Orpheus’s descent into the underworld and becomes a catalyst for her journey into adulthood. Their travel through the swamp is both exciting and terrifying. Each mile is torturously difficult, slowed down by bugs, animals, and the dark maze of trees, and Bird Man’s questionable motives made my stomach clench whenever I read through Ava’s chapters.
What makes Swamplandia! truly wonderful, however, is not the knot I got in my stomach, or the sad story of the Bigtree family, but the language with which that sadness was conveyed. Karen Russell has the magical ability to write every sentence as if there was no other way to write that sentence in the world. Everything seems perfectly in its place, so perfectly odd and at the same time appropriate, so beautiful and true, that there could be no other way of expressing it. In Russell’s world, memories “wink on and off with the weird, erratic energy of a lightbulb in torment,” “whole islands catch fire from lighting strikes,” people can “manufacture laughter as joyless and flat as cola,” and the asterisk becomes “the special punctuation that God gave us for neutralizing lies.” Words like “starfish-lipped,” “sky-flood,” and “vacant, sticky violence” are strung together like mismatched beads on the coolest metaphorical necklace ever. I could go on, but then this would be a very long review.
A word of caution, however: Magical realism is not for everybody, and even its most loving fanatic (i.e. me) found it difficult to suspend belief sometimes. The story feels a little draggy and forced in places, magical where no magic was necessary, like a short story that had been stretched a little thin (On that note, it actually did start out as a short story so I guess that makes sense). And, the frequent allusions to Greek mythology came on a little heavy for my liking. Despite these minor issues, Karen Russell remains the queen of North American magical realism, and I adored every minute of it.
My writing professor, who incidentally taught Karen Russell as well, often tells a story where Russell comes into his office and asks him for permission to “make the chicken talk.” He tells us about how hesitant she was and how confident he was in her, laughing good-naturedly at his role in the story. The best part, however, is the end; my professor throws up his hands and says “Of course!’ I told her. ‘If you can make the chicken talk, make the chicken talk!’ So, she did!” Whenever he tells this story, all I can think is: Thank goodness for talking chickens.
Time taken: 9 hours (it was midterms week)
Worth it? YES