April 14, 2011

Book review: "Swamplandia!," by Karen Russell

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Swamplandia, by Karen Russell

Swamplandia!
By Karen Russell
Knopf
Reviewed by Oriana Leckert

Perhaps Swamplandia! is a case of being careful what you wish for. Perhaps it was a back-handed slap against wish-fulfillment. Perhaps it should force me to reexamine deeply held prejudices, or at least preferences, which would make me grow as a reader and a person, ultimately making me more open-minded, forgiving, and calm.

Or maybe it's just a bad book.

Let's start with this: I hate short stories. They're such a letdown! Why go to the trouble of setting a scene, peopling it with interesting characters, working up momentum, and then... ending it? Just when things were starting to get good? This drives me totally crazy. And Karen Russell's debut collection, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, was a perfect example. The stories were so great! Her spooky ambiance, her weird haunting language, her creepy ideas and wonderful stories... I was so disappointed that they were over so quickly, just when I was getting into her strange worlds.

So I hope you see why I was super excited for Swamplandia!. Here was, finally, what I'd always been so sure I wanted: a writer whose stories I'd loved, not only writing a novel, but taking as its kernel one of the very stories I'd wanted expanded! But it turns out that I was totally wrong. Be careful what you wish for; you could wind up with a big sprawling messy novel, filled with inconsistent characters, a terribly paced plot arc, a horribly disappointing ending, and very little reward for the long slog. Even the atmospherics, which had been so taut and engrossing in her short stories, grew so diffuse and lackluster over a few hundred pages that they lost all their power.

Look, the plot? Pretty original. A family who lives in an amusement park in a swamp, wrestling alligators and entertaining fat tourists -- that's fun. Mom, the star of the show, recently passed away. Ossie, the waifish older sister, is having an affair with a ghost. Dad is pretty delusional about the family's prospects. Which leaves twelve-year-old Ava and sixteen-year-old Kiwi to try to salvage the bankrupt wreck the family park has become. The plot splits when Kiwi runs away from home, following he and Ava on their own adventures, Kiwi into the "real" world on the mainland, and Ava deep into the swamp in search of her runaway sister, with a Birdman as her guide.

That wasn't too spoilery, I promise; you'd get most of it on the book's back cover. So the plot's not the problem, at least not completely. It did feel unwieldy sometimes, and overly meandering. It could have used a lot of tightening. And the language, which in St. Lucy's Home was so consistently stunning, is here only lovely, and only rarely, and the few times when she nails it only serves to highlight how flat and lifeless everything else is. But generally the big picture wasn't the issue. It was the myriad little things that got me more. Like Ava and Ossie sitting in the kitchen with bare cupboards, complaining about how hungry they are, and then a few pages later they pack for a trip, stuffing backpacks full of the suddenly plentiful food in the house. Lazy. Or like an emphatically described cloudless sky, which two paragraphs later begins to rain. Lazy. Or conversations that have huge gaps, or other ones where a character thinks something but then the other character responds as if the thought had been spoken. Lazy. Important or even trivial plot points revealed in the wrong order, or tossed haphazardly in the middle of the next scene. Lazy. Bizarre and poorly done accents and patois and (shudder) street slang. Lazy. Banging us over the head with overly obvious truths, rather than letting us infer them. Lazy. Terrible character inconsistencies. Lazy.

Lazy, lazy, lazy. I know that as a copyeditor I've become a much closer reader than I used to be, and probably most people wouldn't notice all these piddling little things, but I don't think that's a good excuse. And maybe I'm being petty, but so what? Sure I'm a reviewer, but more importantly I'm a reader, and if a book has so many tiny problems that I am constantly taken out of the reading experience to roll my eyes at them, then that's a poorly done book. I don't even blame Karen completely for all of this; there's a huge team of publishing people who could have caught these things. And this book wasn't put out by some shoestring indie press that's stretched too thin to afford a second proofreader; this is Knopf! Arguably the most revered literary press in the world! How could they have failed to reign in this mess? In fact, how could they have failed to notice that this book is simply not up to par with the high level of literary prowess that they represent?

And I haven't even gotten to the worst part. In fact I kind of can't, because it's a big reveal and I don't want to ruin anyone's reading experience. But I can't write this review without commenting on it, so apologies if this is cryptic or weird. Suffice it to say that something very awful and very unexpected happens about 260 pages into a 300-page book. Now first of all, that is way too late, especially in such a slow-moving and long book, to deliver that kind of authorial kick in the nuts. Secondly, it is a pretty horrifying thing, which is dealt with barely at all, and mostly in even more horrifying thoughts and ways. It also signals the beginning of the end of the book, where Karen tries frantically to pull everything together, resulting in lots of dropped threads and unanswered questions, and an overly maudlin and utterly unfulfilling closing scene. It's just all so fucking lazy.

So what's the lesson I've learned from this? Sometimes a short story is its own kind of great. There is an art to the short story, and it's selfish and short-sighted of me to assume that short stories are short because the author is lazy. Sometimes it's lazier for them to write a novel.

Out of 10: 4.0

Read even more about Swamplandia!: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari

Filed by Jason Pettus at 9:49 AM, April 14, 2011. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |