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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Swamplandia!: A Murky Mess

Karen Russell's Swamplandia! was one of three finalists for this year's Pulitzer (the Prize, which, ultimately, was not awarded). But, for the life of me, I can't figure out why this novel was even in consideration. Russell writes elegant, often very clever sentences. However, these sentences add up to a story that leaves the reader wondering the age-old question: "Is this a story that really needed to be told?"

It's a story that's as slow-moving and dense as the swamp the characters inhabit. Frankly, it's just dull — perhaps you have to be a Floridian to make sense of the "swamp legends" that form the cornerstone of this novel. Perhaps it's just a bad book.

Anyhow, the story is about the Bigtree family who run an alligator-wrestling amusement park on an island in the swamps of south-west Florida. When the mother dies of cancer, and a new theme park called the World of Darkness opens nearby, Swamplandia! slowly fades, throwing the remaining Bigtrees — father, Chief; son Kiwi (17), daughter Osceola (16), and our narrator, daughter Ava (13) — into chaos. Chief disappears to the mainland for an indeterminate period of time — apparently, this is normal. And then, Ossie disappears to chase a ghost lover  who died in the 1930s on a dredging ship (it's as nonsensical as it sounds). Kiwi goes off to work at World of Darkness in the hope of earning enough money to save Swamplandia!, and Ava goes off into the swamp with a creepy guy called the Bird Man to try to find and save Ossie.

The narrative alternates between Ava's story (told in the first person) and Kiwi's (told in the third). Part of the point, I think, is that none of these kids are adequately prepared for the challenges of the real world, and therefore, they do things like go off with ghosts and strange men. The supposed drama of the story (though I could not convince myself to care) is the impending conflict between Chief and Kiwi, who is sure Chief has mismanaged Swamplandia!, and only he (Kiwi) can save it. At once, we're supposed to follow along breathlessly with Ava to find out if she'll locate and save Ossie in (from?) the swamp.

I haven't had such a viscerally negative reaction to a book in a long time. Much of that reaction stems from some silly, too-convenient, and then just sickening, plotting in the second half of the novel. I'm honestly perplexed what people who like this novel saw in it (with the possible exception of Russell's sentences). Please tell me! What did I miss here?

40 comments:

  1. I have no idea what you missed here. The best part of this book is the cover, which includes my affection for the !. Other than that, it should've been 200 pages shorter, included Ossies' POV or limited itself to one POV, and been totally replotted. It was very, very bad.

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    1. You tried to warn me, I know. Ossie's POV would've been interesting, yes - but limiting to one POV should've been an absolute no-brainer. Very bad. You're right, cool cover.

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  2. I was surprised by its inclusion in the top three for the Pulitzer, although I had it as among the top 10 books I read in 2011. The novel is a mash-up between a serious story of abuse and danger in the swamp and a satire of theme parks (a particularly popular theme in fin de siecle American literature -- see George Saunders, Cory Doctorow and James K. Morrow). I liked the two main characters (Ava and Kiwi) quite a bit, as well as the theme of the disconnect between the dreams of family and the crueler, larger world that we leave families to inhabit. In some ways, I felt my family was like that, although in a completely different context.The parts don't fit seamlessly, however -- half the book borders on magic realism, the other in Tom Jones-like comedy. Although I may not agree with your reaction, I can certainly see where it comes from.

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    1. I read about all Russell's "influences" before starting the novel, but that didn't help - it felt, then, like a long inside reference that you couldn't possible understand unless you were well-versed in those other authors. I do agree that Kiwi was a fascinating character, and I enjoyed his parts more than anything else - but dreaded having to go back to Ava. She's almost TOO observant!

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  3. I'm really at a loss for positive things to say about Karen Russell. The only story of hers I enjoyed was the piece that ended up in the New Yorker a few years back when she was named among the top 20 writers under 40 years old. I read the interestingly titled "St. Lucy's Home For Girls Raised By Wolves" and found it to be really lacking in substance across the board. Russell seems like a tremendous stylist but I feel like that's the effect, she hoodwinks her audience with her amazing writerly talent and says very little of interest in the process. She is among my least favorite young writers active today. Read Amelia Gray, who for my money, is 1000 thousand times the writer Russell is, and was far more deserving of the New Yorker's honor a few year back.

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    1. Yes, some of her sentences are just brilliant - she's a great turn-of-phraser. But as you say, not much interesting ever happens. I remember writing like that when I was in college - you know, overusing the thesaurus and underusing the outline or plot map or anything else that let's you put all your big, fancy words together coherently.

      Thanks for the tip on Amelia Gray - will definitely check her out.

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  4. Ok, I'm glad that I'm not the only one who did not LOVE LOVE LOVE this book. (Is it terrible that when I saw your two-star review on goodreads I wanted to give you a high-five?) I can't look at my review for Swamplandia! because there is just so much hate in the comments - some people really love this book and Karen Russell, and I don't understand why. Like you say, Russell writes some gorgeous sentences, and because of that and because I loved some of her imagery and some of the stories she threw into this novel, I want to read her story collection. This novel, though, was a mess - the second section, as you say, and especially the last pages. When I finished reading I had the sense that Russell had just thrown her hands up and given up trying to make any of the stories come to any believable conclusion, and had gone for what was convenient and wrapped things up fastest. I'm curious to see what Russell writes in the future, and I hope she gets a better editor who will push her to not just write pretty sentences but to have REAL PLOTS, but I don't get the amount of love this novel got, either from the blogosphere or from award givers the world over.

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    1. High-five, back atchya! ;) Like you, I really did hate this book - as I said, I haven't reacted so negatively to a novel in a long time. But, like you, I didn't want to sound like a jerk in reviewing it. Yeah, I hated the ending most of all. It almost feels like the first part of a sequel. But I sure don't care what happens next...

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  5. I haven't read the book, but the reactions I've heard and read about are very similar to yours. Roxane Gay said it was probably a good book, but she didn't enjoy it at all. Everything about it rubs me the wrong way, so I'll listen to my gut (and to you) and stay away.

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    1. Skip it, for sure. You know, parts of it are a good book, and as I said, she writes well, but I just didn't care. A lot of times, it's as much the reader's fault as the writer's if the characters and plot are uninteresting - not here, though. It's just. so. dull.

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  6. I agree with Richard's assessment. The hooks were Ava and Kiwi. I read this for one of my book clubs or probably wouldn't have picked it up. After reading some reader reviews I was prepared to be disappointed by "Swamplandia!" but I was not. In fact, I was surprised by how much I actually enjoyed this book. Yes, Russell's writing is breathtaking at times (also confusing and convoluted at times), but I found myself carried along by the narrative. The central event is the death of the mother Hilola, who had been the star performer at Swamplandia! She "wrestles" alligators at the family "attraction" in Florida. At first, I was fighting the sadness and the unbelieveable father who would leave his grieving kids on a swampy island and go "traveling" on the mainland. Russell creates an unpleasant sense of forboding. Plus, I really don't like books where the mom has died. The kids are so heartbreakingly sad. But at some point I suspended disbelief and went with Ava and Kiwi. I loved the descriptions of the flora and fauna in the swamp. The oppressive heat, the insects, and the vegetation. I found Ava's behavior realistic, given the circumstances and her social and physical isolation. She doesn't have much experience with adults who are not her relatives. Her instincts regardng human nature are not well-honed. I didn't know how Russell would wrap it all up, but I found the ending to be oddly satisfying. The dad needed a kick in the pants, but he was grieving, too...

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    1. Kiwi, yes. Ava, no. Ava's narration felt like a conversation with someone who is talking to you and doesn't care whether or not you're listening, and just continues to spit out every single detail, whether or not it's relevant or, more important, interesting.

      The narrative itself, to me, was where the whole thing fell apart - especially the narrative tactic of alternative Ava's first-person with Kiwi's third-person. That makes no sense. Why would Russell do that?!

      But we do agree on the notion that these kids not being at all exposed to the adult world leaves them at a huge disadvantage and helps explain why they did what they did. Still doesn't make it interesting, though. :)

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    2. Actually, Ava's narration style is perfectly in character, that's the way she talks. Look at how she ceaselessly chatters at Bird Man. I'm not convinced Russell is going to make it as a novelist, but she has a knack for characterization and will always have an audience for her short stories.

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  7. I totally agree with your assessment, but I do have to say, perhaps with Amanda, that the cover art is some of the best ever. However, I would never extend the "best ever" evaluation to the inside...

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  8. I tried reading that book when it was first released, and gave up very quickly. It just didn't seem at all interesting. Glad to see so many agree.

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    1. No, it's not interesting. I kept hoping it would get better - but I certainly didn't care what happened in the end.

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  9. I tried the audio and put it down after a while. I didn't get why this book was so popular and was planning on trying the print version to see if I liked it any better. Now I'm rethinking that.

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    1. I'd advise skipping it - unless you're a glutton for punishment. ;)

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  10. Here, here! Found it to be very overrated and couldn't follow it with any shred of interest.

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    1. It was one of those novels which I kept spacing out and find myself halfway down a page and have had no idea what I was reading - and have to start over (mostly, I started over - sometimes, I just kept going)...

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  11. Hi, Greg. I haven't encountered this particular work, and given your enlightening review, I don't think I will...

    I've just run across your site, like it a lot, and will signing on to follow as soon as I'm done here. I run a general interest blog, which contains literary items among other things, and I'm definitely putting up a link to you, because my readers deserve to see this. I love your wit, your insight, and your willingness to call out crap for what it is. Brilliant work.

    Of course, I'd like to invite you to visit me at www.jackshideout.com. I've just moved in from my little apartment at Blogger, so a lot of the furniture isn't in yet, but drop by sometime if you get chance. Take a load off. See what I'm like, and visit some of my friends. You may be glad you did...

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  12. I started reading Swamplandia! with high hopes, but actually gave up half-way through - such a disappointment. The author does write well, I found the characters to be memorable, and as a Floridian, I find the "old Florida" attractions like Swamplandia to be fascinating places. But it seems to me that Russell couldn't decide what sort of story she wanted to tell and that frustrated me.

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  13. Hmm, I've heard some good things about this book but it just didn't sound that intriguing. Sure, the plot is pretty unique but it almost seems too over the top, especially some of the character names. After reading your review, I think I'm no longer on the fence and won't be picking it up.

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  14. Well, I guess I can be the lone dissenter here - I actually kinda loved it. I thought she pulled off the tricky narrated-by-a-kid thing well and felt I was truly seeing the situation through Ava's eyes. As an adult reader, I could see that something wasn't right with the skeevy Birdman, but because Ava (as the narrator) was a naive, innocent 13-year old, she had me convinced that something magical might actually happening out there in the swamp. NOT that she was being escorted through the Everglades by a child molestor. Oh wait, maybe that's it! You all hate child molestors! Now I get it.

    I can see how it's not for everyone - and I don't think it was actually Pulitzer material - but I don't think that there's any denying that Russell is a talent. But hey, to each their own. Who am I to convince someone that they did in fact like a book that they only think they hated? Well, I guess that's what I am doing... Plus it was funny as hell most of the time - didn't anyone else think that? (Maybe it was just the alligators named Seth...)

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    1. Seth, thanks for your input. I have reluctantly agreed to lead a book club discussion on this book. I agree that I was convinced something magical might actually be happening in the swamp. And the story fell apart for me when I realized she was being escorted by a "child molester." I felt cheated when the sister's strangeness turned out be be mental illness.

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  15. I think I've been holding a subconscious grudge against this book ever since the third person who told me it was better than The Sisters Brothers. I just refused to believe such a thing was possible. I MAY still read it at some point, because I grew up in Florida, and people there are WEIRD and delightful.

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    1. UGH no, it is NOT better than The Sisters Brothers, which I loved. There is plot in that book, whereas Swamplandia! has none.

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  16. I just finished this book and literally searched in google "am I the only one that hated Swamplandia!" and stumbled across your review. I started reading this at the beginning of the semester, but to due heavy reading lists, I just finished it at the pool and man did this book leave a sick feeling in my stomach. First off, I completely agree that Russell has immense talent, but at times the metaphor and the description was so dense it really left me skimming over much off it. Secondly, I felt very deceived with the ending. Maybe it was due to all my skimming or just burnt out from a tough semester, but I'm pretty good at detecting sinister plot twists and, to me, the ending came out of nowhere. I trusted Eva as a character and I thought this novel was going to turn into true magical realism and the scene with the birdman left me stunned and not in a good way. To me it was gratuitous and cheap. Besides turning Eva into a victim instead of a hero that Russell seemed to be hinting at for 300 pages, it didn't have a point and thats what bothered me the most. Obviously Russell is not a subtle writer and if child rape was a subject she was going to include, especially in the graphic manner in which she did, it should have been dealt with responsibly, like I don't know not 20 pages from the end with the victim simply shrugging her shoulders about it. Ugh still feel queasy over it.

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  17. Dullest. Book. Ever. I had to read it for my book club and gave up about 200 pages in. I went to book club anyway and was REALLY glad I didn't make it to the end. Most of the women in my group were pretty shocked at how unnecessary it was to include Eva's rape. Yuck.

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  18. "Kiwi, yes. Ava, no. Ava's narration felt like a conversation with someone who is talking to you and doesn't care whether or not you're listening, and just continues to spit out every single detail, whether or not it's relevant or, more important, interesting. "

    Um, have you ever had a conversation with a 13 year old girl?

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  19. Tale of a naive 13 year old girl that gets led deeply into a swamp only to be raped and stripped of her magical ,imaginative innocence?The Chief was a sham artist, irresponsible father, and complete failure to his children. This spineless nut dissapears on his family for months at a time? Structural train wreck with bits of beauty within only to make it a more tragic mess.

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  20. In the end I liked this book, and find myself thinking about it even after I've finished.

    While, for me, the plot had potential that the ending simply couldn't deliver on, the language (once I got used to it) was clever, inventive and constantly surprising.

    It took me several chapters to get into Swamplandia! - initially I found the language dense and bombarding, and not having read anything taxing for some time my brain took a while to adjust.

    However, once I got into it, I accepted the voice of the narrator - a fictional 13-year-old from realm of magic realism. I believed the voice enough to buy into the story. I usually detest changes in POV, but found Kiwi's sections just as engaging.

    The direction of the plot didn't disturb me - from the moment the Bird Man appears there are enough ominous signs to suspect the story will take a bad turn - working out just how bad that turn will be was part of the tension.

    But, for me, that tension never got a satisfying release. I was disappointed in part by the resolution - not where the characters end up ultimately - but by the tying up of various plot strands, which felt far too pat.

    While I thought the plot action was unremarkable (and predictable in a way) at the end, Ava's voice/character did a curious thing for me ... she seemed to grew older and more grounded in reality. I was left with the unsettling feeling that Ava has not revealed the extent of her adventure to anyone and her suffering will continue beyond the book. Which to me felt horribly realistic.

    I found the imagery of the swamp and its legends, and descriptions of the theme parks wonderfully drawn. I'm not from Florida but I found myself wanting to visit ...

    The plot couldn't hold its end of the bargain for me, but I cared enough for the characters to keep reading to the final page - and to still find myself thinking about the story days later.

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  21. Only in Florida ... I live down here right on the edge of the Everglades. The book lacks most of the humor of a Carl Hiaasen novel, but reflects the same types of individuals and situations that you run into down here in real life. I wish it were all a joke, but it isn't.

    I don't see it as a masterpiece by any stretch, but I think a lot of people missed the point of the work. Hilola Bigtree, the matriarch of the Bigtree 'Tribe' dies before the story begins; it is as Ava points out, 'the beginning of the end'. In spite of her death, Hilola is present from the beginning of the novel to the very end. In life she was the glue holding together a family living at the edge of the 'real world'. With her death, each member of the 'tribe' struggles to come to terms with loss, not only of mother/wife, but with the dissolution of family beliefs and traditions.

    The Everglades is - in many ways - the edge of the real world here in South Florida, the fantasy world imposed upon the children is easier to understand against the backdrop of the vast forces of nature at their doorstep. I won't say I loved the novel, and again not a masterpiece - but I will say that it is moving in that it provides a realization of the role one individual can play in the dynamics of a family. For this alone it is worth reading.

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  22. Sorry that you all did not enjoy this book. I thought it was amazing. Her writing is fantastic. Yes, the story has some agony, but so does life. Ever read the morning paper?

    The experience of reading is highly personal and deeply affected by our personal lives and experiences. I support anyone's right not to like a particular work, but I think alot of the comments here are rather harsh. Just say you didn't like it.
    What I like about being in a book club is reading books I might not find on my own. I don't love all of them but I read and discuss them as I would have in a class. No need to insult the author as a person. At least they manged to get a book published- what about you?

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    1. I never insulted her as a person. Indeed, I often complimented her: "Russell writes elegant, often very clever sentences."

      I just didn't like her book. Thanks for your anonymous comment. Brave of you.

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  23. I feel that you think the author is biased against Native Americans in her book. Truth is, she's just trying to show characterization, and your ruining the book with your comments, just leave the author alone. She never meant it how you try to make it look.

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  24. Dear Greg,

    After reading the New York Times's 2 rave reviews of this book, I thought I would be safe to order it from audible. I am now in the middle of listening to it and your opening question is spot-on, although the obvious answer is that this was a story that needed to be told in order for Ms. Russell to achieve even more fame and fortune than she had achieved before its publication. Perhaps the real tricky question is: "Is this a story that is worthwhile reading?" and here the answer is definitely "no." The truth is that I'll admit that I'm a bit biased against 13-year-old narrators (perhaps because I raised 5 kids?). A 13-year-old is going to have to be super witty, funny, and clever in order for me to think that it's worth my time to listen to her. Ava is, I'm afraid, nothing special. Plus, for some odd reason she acts like a 6-year-old concerning her mother's death. Grief, mourning in response to your mother's death, yes--but Ava puts question marks around her mother's death. I can only surmise that the rape at the end of the book (and because the book is so bad I am not sorry that this site has spoiled the ending for me--this book cannot be spoiled more than it is) added to the positive reviews. I have been a feminist for over 30 years, but being a feminist does not mean that a poor book becomes a good book by virtue of the fact that sexual violence has been committed against the young female protagonist. Shalom from a suburb of Jerusalem, Teddy Weinberger

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  25. I am Elaine benis and I hated the English patient and I hated swamplandia. How can this author turn this whimsical subject into a boring read? The ghost back story was lyrical and engaging.

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