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Swamplandia!, You Broke My Heart


Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! has been getting a lot of buzz (they’re even going to make an HBO miniseries from it). And for the first 83% of the book, I was on board, I was loving it. The premise (the dissolution of the Bigtree family of alligator wrestles following the death of their matriarch) is amazing; the writing is great (orate, lush, and surprising); the characters are intriguing. The rival Hell-themed amusement park is inspired in its details.

But there is a scene 83% of the way through the book that almost made me want to give up, and the book never recovered from this moment.

Spoilers ahoy:

That scene is the rape of the 13-year-old narrator by the seedy “Obi-Wan” of the novel, the Bird Man. I understand that powerful literature deals with dramatic, often profoundly repulsive moments. These moments change the lives of their participants forever. But the scene seems to have very little emotional weight for Ava, the narrator / victim. Her takeaway is “Huh, he raped me, so maybe I shouldn’t trust him anymore.” But maybe that’s the point? That’s how a tough-as-nails 13-year-old from the Florida swamp would deal with the situation? Somehow, I don’t think so. The language that Russell uses for the scene is unpleasant — almost voyeuristic, and I didn’t want to read it.

And then, the plot of the novel goes to pieces. Ava’s familiar, a red baby alligator, who has been an important symbol through the whole novel, is sacrificed uselessly. The quest narrative that had been driving half the book peters into nothingness. Ava doesn’t complete her mission to save her sister; that’s done by accident, when her brother accidentally lands his sea plane and happens to find her.

There is no resolution for the story of the Bigtree clan; no monumental showdown between father and son, children and parents, bank and alligator farm, dream and reality.The denouement plays out too quickly, in just a few pages. The farm is lost, the girls dress up in school uniforms and wrestle no more alligators forever.

The resolution doesn’t seem motivated by the forgoing story. We were acquainted with exceptional characters; they never learn that they aren’t exceptional, but they become ordinary anyway. This basic plot movement, though dark and dispiriting, could be very powerful. And Russell doesn’t deliver on it at all. I can see how it is supposed to work from Ava’s victimization, sacrifice, and ineffectuality, but it just doesn’t come together.

Read Swamplandia! 83% of it is amazing. Stop before the end and imagine a better one.

Written by timwestover

October 22nd, 2011 at 7:56 am

Posted in Reviews

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