Saturday, April 09, 2011

Book Report: Swamplandia!

Swamplandia! is the story of a family unraveling. They just happen to do their unraveling in the deep swamp islands off the coast of Florida in the midst of an alligator pit.

Swamplandia! is a tourist attraction in the swamp. Their mother, Hilola Bigtree, is the star of the show. She dives into a writhing green pit of alligators from a diving board night after night, emerging unscathed each time, until cancer rears it's ugly head and snatches her away from all of them with a stunning ferocity in a few short months.

This sends her family into a vortex of grief that none of them have the ability to talk about or deal with, especially as a group. Their father, The Chief, pretends that the park is the same and does his best to ignore the thinning crowds until foreclosure is pounding on their door. The oldest son, Kiwi, retreats into books about everything and anything and plans a secret escape to the mainland. The middle daughter, Osceola, finds a book about spiritism and starts holding seances in the swamp in the middle of the night and falls in love with a ghost. The youngest, Ava, observes all of them carefully and plans to take her mother's place as Swamplandia's champion alligator wrestler as soon as she is old enough.

As events unfold, each member of the family is separated from the others to undergo a painful and dangerous ordeal in order to realize that they do still want to be a family after all.

As I was reading, I experienced the same thing that often happens when I read fiction- especially current fiction- at first, I enjoy the story and the characters' thoughts, but as things build to climax something inside of me starts to cry "rat. rat. RAT!!"

Suspending disbelief is no problem for me- I love magical realism (from which this seems to borrow heavily) because it seems to offer a version of the universe where metaphors are tangible and beautiful. But when a writer falls in love with their own cleverness, I start to loose patience. Karen Russel does exactly that.

I felt that Kiwi was poorly drawn as a character. I know people who have grown up sheltered from mass culture- who are smart, but unevenly educated and totally out of touch with the shared experience of their peers. After a while, Kiwi just didn't jive for me. Every single emotion he felt was described and analyzed in a way I just don't believe. In my experience, even the most sensitive teen aged boys don't think that way. It's how girls think, maybe. I didn't have any problems with Ava's thinking or perception of the world. It made sense.

Secondly, There was an awful lot of plot crammed into one little novel. There were many moving parts and you could see the train coming down the track way ahead of time. (Kiwi just happens to be completing his pilot's license at the same moment his sisters happen to be lost in the swamp? This is the thing with fiction- it could certainly happen that way in real life. Stranger things happen all the time. But when it is the linchpin to the climax of a novel, I can't help but cry RAT.)

Also, having two narrators- one omniscient and one first person, created an unnecessary drag on a story already bogged down with plot and heart wrenching subject matter; grief, loss, confusion, isolation. Things are not going well for the Bigtree family. I'm not saying that a story needs to be all cheer and goodwill for me to enjoy it, but even misery has a way out. The whole thing felt soft and heavy- much like a swamp! (Perhaps I owe Ms. Russel more credit for creating metaphor than I thought.)

I thought this book could have lost several subplots to it's great benefit. The entire section with the grandfather and the Swamp Witch both spring to mind. When a writer falls in love with her own writing, there tends to be extra material for the reader to wade through.

All told, this was an interesting read, full of vivid details about life in rural Florida, loss and a family's longing for something better. While parts of it felt sloppy, the story was compelling and the characters were rich and complex. But I think I'll return to non-fiction with my next read.

What are you reading lately? Any suggestions?

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