ArtsATL > Books > Book review & interview: Karen Russell’s imaginative “Swamplandia!” and the enigma of mourning

Book review & interview: Karen Russell’s imaginative “Swamplandia!” and the enigma of mourning

“Swamplandia!”

By Karen Russell. Vintage Contemporaries, 397 pages.

Ava Bigtree, 13-year-old apprentice alligator wrestler, is the chief storyteller of this wondrous book of the dead. Until her mother Hilola’s death from cancer, Ava and the Bigtree clan lead a charmed existence of make-believe. Masquerading as Indians in buckskin on highway billboards, they are the proprietors of Swamplandia!, an alligator theme park located on their private island in the Everglades. Hilola dazzles tourists nightly by diving into a lagoon full of alligators, and the children are free to run amok when they aren’t busy with chores around the park. Schooling consists of filching old books from an abandoned library boat. Society is made up of a transient stream of tourists brought in by ferry.

Russell’s writing has dazzle and pop. “Swamplandia!” comes alive through her tremendous powers of description: “Nights in the swamp were dark and star-lepered — our island was thirty-odd miles off the grid of mainland lights — and although your naked eye could easily find the ball of Venus and the sapphire hairs of the Pleiades, our mother’s body was just lines, a smudge against the palm trees.”

In this magical-kitschy paradise, the specter of death abruptly brings the curtain down on childhood happiness. All adult authority quickly dissipates. The Bigtree father — “Chief” to his three children — leaves on a mysterious business trip to the mainland. This follows the departure of the eldest child, 17-year-old Kiwi, a serious-minded boy who runs away, hoping to earn money to save the debt-ridden family business. With the rise of a rival amusement park, the World of Darkness, and the demise of their star performer, the Bigtrees are forced to shut down Swamplandia!

Left alone on the island are the two Bigtree daughters, precocious yet naïve Ava and her older sister Ossie, 16, a hazy figment of a girl obsessed with ghosts. A Ouija board and a book of spells, “The Spiritist’s Telegraph” — a fanciful invention of Russell’s — keep her in communication with her mother and assorted ghost boyfriends. Russell displayed a delicate wizardry in portraying the inner lives of children in her 2006 debut collection of stories, “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” whose opening story, “Ava Wrestles the Alligator,” grew into the present novel. Here, too, she quickly clears the deck of pesky adults to fathom the dread of motherless girls.

Karen Russell

Russell’s literary talents are indisputable and unique. The New Yorker named her to its “20 Under 40 Authors” list, Granta chose her as one of its “Best Young American Novelists,” and the National Book Foundation selected her for its “5 Under 35.” All this for a writer who doesn’t address contemporary issues or the globalized world, or even examine difficult subjects such as death in an “adult” manner. Instead, Russell writes like the dreaming mind, inventing a narrative of potent symbols — a predatory Bird Man who befriends solitary Ava, the Hades-like precincts of the mangrove swamp — that describe unconscious terrors, distress and needs.

Like mad Ophelia, Ossie is so unmoored by grief for a dead parent that she loses touch with reality. In horror and amazement, Ava watches her sister succumb to hallucinations, possession by spirits and nocturnal wanderings on supposed dates with ghosts. Russell ingeniously captures a child’s double thinking, both recognizing trouble and helplessly pretending that things are all right. And so Ava tries to snap her sister out of her fantasies, even as part of her decides that there might actually be a spirit called “the Dredgeman” whom Ossie is madly in love with.

“Swamplandia!” inhabits a nebulous realm between fantasy and reality, frequently reading like an allegory. This is both its enchantment and weakness, because just as we draw away from the story in disbelief, the vibrant writing pulls us back in. But what are we to make, for instance, of Ossie’s disappearance along with a decrepit old dredge barge that has washed up on the shore of the island? In a farewell note to Ava, she explains that she is sailing to the underworld to marry the Dredgeman. In some way, the story of the sisters appears to be an outward dramatization of the inner experience of intense mourning, of torment, anguish, yearning and the wish for relief.

There’s also a flip side to the story, one of sensible, practical effort. Chapters devoted to Kiwi Bigtree’s experiences working at the World of Darkness amusement park, in order to pay off his father’s debts, intercut with those of his sisters adrift on their island. Russell manages to wring some social comedy out of the misfit boy trying to befriend savvy mainland youth. But these sections, useful in shifting the gears of the plot, come off as comparatively bloodless, and we itch to be whisked back to the lost girls in Swamplandia!

Ava’s voyage through the labyrinthine wilderness of the Ten Thousand Islands in search of her sister is the novel’s long tour de force. She is ferried toward “the edge of the universe” by a strange character called the Bird Man, an indigenous tenant of the swamp who claims that his job is to drive away buzzards and other menacing birds from peoples’ property. Anxious to save Ossie from the underworld, and needy of adult protection, Ava sets off for the remote swamp with this creepy gypsy-guide. Russell’s formidable powers to enchant are on full display throughout this surreal journey:

We’d been poling the leafy catacombs of the mangrove tunnels for hours. Any changes — palings of the sun that dropped the temperature a degree or two, or a brilliant lizard hugging the bark — felt like progress. More than once I’d think a tunnel was truly impenetrable. We’d pole into a green cone of water lapping at the trees’ wickery roots: the end of our journey! I’d think. And then we’d slide through a stew of crimson propagules, duck through a wishbone like mangrove root, pop out.

The author intensifies the narrative by building, for the first time really, a charged and compelling relationship between her characters as Ava delivers herself into the Bird Man’s hands, both trusting and slightly wary. Until this point, intimate relationships have paled beside the ferocity of Ava’s individual sensibility. Even the sisters’ bond, despite its tender moments, has felt static because Ossie floats in a bubble of hallucinations.

But as the outwardly cheery Bird Man poles Ava farther away from human habitation, Russell calibrates every disturbing shift in their friendship until Ava fills with wrenching fear of this agitated man who “looked as though every wire were coming disconnected in his brain.” The story of Ava and the Bird Man seems to flawlessly encompass multiple readings at the same time: an incident of a deranged man kidnapping a pubescent girl, like the kind we hear about frequently in the news. Or, perhaps, more symbolically, the mourner’s seduction by the black force of self-destruction, and her need to guard against following after the dead beloved in her despair.

I met up with Karen Russell recently when she was in Atlanta for a reading at the Savannah College of Art and Design. She is a friendly, thoughtful woman who wears her literary acclaim lightly — you realize, chatting with her, that her beguiling openness, humor and youth are also the sharper lenses of her poetic vision. Below is an edited excerpt from our conversation.

Parul Kapur Hinzen: Your writing has been highly praised as imaginative, phantasmic, surreal, magical realist. How does the imaginative process work for you? What makes you want to tell a particular story?

Karen Russell: I think I get false credit for being very imaginative. The further south I go, the closer to my home state [Florida], the less people ever [say these things]. When I was on the West Coast, people would be like, “Oh, it’s amazing. How did you invent all this?” In Florida people would be like, “This guy [in the novel] is Jungle Larry, right? … Oh, yeah, I’ve been to that place.”

Part of it, I think, is my home itself. When people talk about magical realism, Florida is what I think they mean by magical realism, where everything is narrated in the same register. You have the supermarket, the bank, the Miami Seaquarim, Disney World — you receive it all in the same manner as a kid. In some way I was predisposed to write really weird, because the landscape I grew up in isn’t making any stark distinctions between fantasy and reality. You walk through the mouth of a big fiberglass dolphin and then there’s the real dolphin. [Later, Russell tells a funny story about artificial snow being trucked in to her Miami elementary school to give the children a taste of winter.]

And the swamp, too, I was thinking, it is like Freud’s definition of the uncanny. It’s neither land nor water; you can’t get your bearings. You’re stuck in this prolonged period of uncanny hesitation.

I feel much more comfortable as a writer if [I’m writing about] a universe I’m the arbiter of. I could never do a historical novel, a sweeping epic of the Civil War or something, because then it’s immediately deadening to me. Or I get really panicky. I think I have to get it right, I have to be really faithful to the historical truth. It becomes like some kind of C-plus-student anxiety. All my energy goes in that direction. So if it’s already almost like a joke, if [I’m] off the hook about feeling like [I’m] going to be taken to court for getting the facts wrong, then I have more fun as a writer and it’s easier to be honest about the emotional part.

Hinzen: Your words bring a whole world to life very forcefully. What allows you to tap into your tremendous power of language? Does it come spilling out of you because you’re having fun writing?

Russell: [Laughs.] So many days it’s actually just like an oil derrick that’s broken. I can generate too much. My revision is trying to find the structure. I think some of that [excess] happens because I really do love sentence-level work and making things micropulse. It’s just nerdy pleasure for me. If the thing is working at all, then very slowly something will be revealed to me…. It’s scary, because you’re trusting so much that your unconscious is scaffolding something.

Hinzen: Place is such a vivid character in your writing. In some ways, to me, it’s the strongest part of your writing. Is it the seed you begin with?

Russell: Yeah, usually. I have friends who say they always start with character. I’m so jealous of these friends. They say they just start taking dictation [from their characters], which just sounds like a really profitable schizophrenia. I will start with an idea of the setting or landscape, which maybe is the same as saying you start with character, because it’s [about] the people that live there. Whatever’s possible or impossible in that place sets up your expectations.

Hinzen: And does it have to be some kind of extreme landscape? There’s the swamp in “Swamplandia!”; there’s the story you set on a glacier [in her story collection “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves”].

Russell: That was the most exotic landscape I could imagine, you know, a world of ice. As a kid I really fetishized snow. I didn’t see snow till I was 18, 19. To me the stories in “St. Lucy’s” are almost little diorama stories or snow globes. The setting is extreme in the sense that it is somehow off kilter. That made me feel safe, because you entered the story with these constraints in place. I was already bound, so I felt free to imagine some really weird stuff or just play around with the language. It’s like you’ve already made your corral.

I think the reason I ended up revising the “Ava Wrestles the Alligator” story [which turned into “Swamplandia!”] was that all the other stories felt penned in, but Swamplandia!, that park, felt so vast. The geographic landscape, [Ava’s] home, felt vast in my head. It also felt really connected, had an umbilical, to contemporary South Florida. That landscape was really closer than any other to my actual childhood home, and that’s why it felt like such a big world inside of me.

Hinzen: How did you make the shift from story to novel? Did you start the novel while you were at Columbia [in the MFA writing program]?

Russell: I don’t think I really understood the form [of a novel] at all, that it wasn’t just a really long story. But I was excited because a lot of my classmates in graduate school were writing novels. You’ve been trained in these workshops to think about complete arcs [of short stories] and not to have multiple worlds spinning at once. I thought that was a big challenge.… Now that I’m doing it again [writing a second novel], I’m like, “Where’s the book? I want the paint-by-numbers book!”

Sometimes my pleasures as a writer are so focused on description or metaphor, and less so on plot, on momentum, that it was big [to realize] that even if a thing gets to be really long, you still can’t skimp on suspense.

Hinzen: Is there a lot of research behind your fantasies?

Russell: In the stories less so. I probably just Googled “What do wolves eat?” Or probably I went snorkeling as a kid [for the “St. Lucy’s” stories]. I didn’t feel that anxiety. But with this book I really did. I think it’s because some of the questions that ended up feeling important to me were about the nature of reality or how [Florida] history is created and retrofitted to the expectations of tourists. How history gets rewritten and what gets paved over.

I honestly didn’t know so much about the Everglades, which I thought I knew — it’s in my back yard, 30 minutes down the road. I didn’t know about how vast it actually is. I didn’t understand there was this amazing original land scam where pioneers were drawn down to purchase farms [that were parcels of swampland]. It was eerie to be learning that at the time of the mortgage crisis. I was reading about the real estate sharks who would get these Midwesterners to come down. So there were open secrets like that, and I was really shocked.

The Bigtrees themselves have a really confused identity. They want authenticity but they’ve gone about trying to get it in the most bogus, ridiculous way.… This book ends up being about this child [Ava] trying to figure out what’s the true story, what’s her relationship going to be to this landscape and her home — who is she really? To foreground those questions you’d want to know a lot of background about the state.

Hinzen: Did you travel through this landscape — the swamps Ava goes through?

Russell: My uncle, who’s this big outdoors guy, took my siblings and I. We went to the Watson Place and camped out there. The part of the Everglades that’s closest to me is sawgrass prairie; it’s a 40-mile bend. It changes really radically on the Gulf side. There’s blue water and big mangrove sea labyrinths. So we took a little boat around there. It’s beautiful.

Hinzen: Can you talk at all about the new novel you’re working on?

Russell: [Demurs.] It’s another kind of extreme landscape. It’s [set] during the Dust Bowl drought. I think what’s attractive to me about it is the same thing that was fun about the swamp. It’s a literal landscape, it’s a concrete place, but it’s so apocalyptic and fantastic. There were dust clouds that blocked out the sun, sometimes for days.

It’s interesting to me [what] the Army Corps of Engineers [did] in the swamp and how our relationship to nature has changed. In a generation it went from “The national consensus is the swamp is a total wasteland, we have to drain it, we have to get rid of it, we have to conquer it,” to now “The national consensus is that it’s one of the world’s wonders and we have to protect it.”

The Dust Bowl is an interesting moment because suddenly we have the technology to destroy a prairie ecosystem that’s been around for millennia. In one generation we destroyed it. It’s a really dramatic story. I’m reading these diaries where … people are trying to figure out what’s happened to them. It reads as almost a romantic failure. They’ve been faithful to all these American ideals, they’ve persevered, they’ve worked hard — they’re breaking their backs with their plows — and they don’t understand why the land is literally rising against them. There’s something haunting about that to me.

Hinzen: So it seems you are going back to write about the past.

Russell: Well, but it’s an imaginary town. I have to change the rules a little so it feels almost like an alternate history. Like sci-fi history. [Laughs.] Otherwise I feel like — aah! — the Farm Securities people are going to come after me.

Hinzen: In “Swamplandia!” the Bigtree children are mourning the loss of their mother, and in some of your short stories too, children have to contend with the death of someone beloved. It’s a very powerful emotional core of your stories. What draws you to this theme?

Russell: I start out thinking, ‘This will be a hilarious tale about.…” And it happens like that time and again. It’s like that “Amityville Horror” movie — did you ever watch it? This woman moves into a haunted house. Everybody knows the house is haunted. The Realtor’s like, “I’m selling you a haunted house,” and she’s just vacuuming. The walls are literally seeping blood, and she’s like, “Hmm, hmm, hmm.” She’s the last person in the movie [to know]. Sometimes I really feel like that woman, where [I’m] just sort of writing forward and not quite aware that the story is once again going to be a vessel to talk about this [loss].

Hinzen: So what draws you to write about loss?

Russell: My family’s super private. But there is some early childhood loss. [Her expression softens in sorrow and other unsettling emotions.] But, really, both my siblings are alive. With “Swamplandia!” there’s some kind of dual thing happening. I was really close with my grandmother and we lost her — and watching my mother mourning for her mother.…

Also, somehow, this is conflated in my mind with the setting itself. All of Florida was in mourning a little bit when I was growing up in the 1980s. It was a dawning ecological consciousness. It’s happening now in a serious way. Everyone has the sense that we’ve destroyed the climate — you know, that kind of sadness. The whole city [of Miami] was dealing with that, because the skyline had changed overnight. There was all this development. My dad would be like, “I’ll take you to the fishing hole,” and there’d be a Wal-Mart there.

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