The first story in Karen Russell‘s debut collection, 2006′s St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, is “Ava Wrestles the Alligator,” a tale set in Swamplandia!, a down-on-its-heels Florida amusement park. The surface of the story is gothic—dead mom, absent father, abduction, dreams of ghostly possession—but its essence is a simple tale about sisterhood. Ava and Ossie Bigtree, 12 and 16 respectively, separate and connect over men, and much of what makes their experience so compelling is its otherworldly setting—a fairy-tale land with everything twee and magical erased. Swamplandia! feels not just like a different place but a different planet, normalized only by the unsettling sibling rivalry within it.
Russell’s debut novel, Swamplandia!, expands the Bigtree saga, and it preserves many of the peculiar elements of the original story—the beautiful but intimidating fecundity of the Florida swamps and the tales of possession especially. But it’s also a conventional novel for all that: Swamplandia! has the familiar structure of an immigrant narrative or assimilation novel. Russell has to diminish the strangeness of Swamplandia! to make it fit that shape; the park is now feels less like a netherworld and more like a peculiar, debt-struck foreign country. And as its characters leave the park they call home, they chase the same question that frames a lot of assimilation novels: Is it better, in an new land, to chase spirituality or money?
Russell brings a lot of imagination to setting up the question. Ava’s initial spiritual journey is more eerie than churchy, in keeping with the novel’s Through the Looking-Glass epigraph: She travels deep into the swamp to find Ossie, who she believes has eloped with the ghost of Louis Thanksgiving, a young man who died during the Great Depression on a dredging ship. “This would be a different kind of voyage, I thought, and felt a little yellow slurry of excitement,” Ava writes. “Sister hunting. Ghost seeking.” As for money: Their brother, Kiwi (nonexistent in the short story), has shoved off for the mainland in an attempt to earn enough to save Swamplandia! He botches it at first, doing scutwork at the World of Darkness, a hell-themed, anti-Disney amusement park. He’s scorned by his colleagues (who nickname him Margaret Mead, as if his role as anthropologist/interloper weren’t clear enough), and he routinely proves himself inept at grasping basic social norms.
You feel for Kiwi, but for much of the novel there’s little doubt which path Russell thinks is more worth taking. Ava, who makes the most direct pleas for the reader’s sympathy, is contemptuous of any effort to become a part of the commercial mainstream. Mainlanders “lived like cutlery in drawers,” she says. When Kiwi expresses an early interest in moving to the mainland and attending high school, she thinks he “wanted to give up our whole future for—what? A sack of cafeteria fries? A school locker?” The World of Darkness is an “exotic invasive species of business.” Better to be in Swamplandia!, run-down as it is, because the place is full of charm and drama (and memories of the siblings’ late mother), not to mention feisty alligators. “THE ALLIGATOR IS AN ANACHRONISM THAT CAN EAT YOU,” says a sign appealing to tourists at the park.
Russell only takes her critique so far, though. What ensues isn’t a study of Kiwi’s defeat at the hands of capitalism, or of the consequences of succeeding within it, but a split-the-difference cop-out: Kiwi’s tale evokes a Horatio Alger story. Those books are often thought of as fables about how you succeed by pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, but they don’t quite work that way; as Russell Nye writes in The Unembarrassed Muse: The Popular Arts in America, they’re about young men who pull themselves up by their bootstraps and climb the ladder, sure, but who ultimately succeed thanks to a chance opportunity. Alger’s notion of fiction as a moral guide doesn’t seem especially appealing to Russell (or any 21st century fiction writer), so it’s hard to figure what she wants to say when the story takes an Algerish twist and (spoiler) Kiwi saves the life of a young girl who just happens to be the daughter of the CEO of the corporation that runs the World of Darkness. Maybe it’s that success in a foreign land is too rare to bother addressing honestly, which would be fine if mainland society were the only thing in Swamplandia! getting satirized. But Kiwi becomes the butt of the joke too, and that’s odd: For all his ineptitude, Kiwi is a sympathetic character, somebody who enters mainland society because he clearly sees the decrepitude of where he’s being raised. Ultimately he feels like little more than a comic bungler, which gets problematic when Russell wants us to feel genuine disappointment as Kiwi discovers what his father has been doing on the mainland to save the family park.
Ultimately, Kiwi seems leveraged for the sake of plot mechanics, as a way to legitimize the way he winds up reconnecting with both her sisters. And as for them, the spiritual questions Russell raises (What would it mean to inhabit a life with a ghost? Where can you actually connect with them? How much of that connection is in our heads? If the siblings could bond with their mother, would that be a good or a bad thing? What do you believe in, if not the underworld?) get short shrift. Ava and Ossie become disillusioned; they are rescued; they reunite with family. That these last points are rushed through feels like a missed opportunity: Russell renders Swamplandia!, the World of Darkness, and the crises they represent so clearly in the opening that it’s frustrating to watch them dissipate in the final pages. “The show really must go on,” Ava tells us in the closing paragraph, but there’s no show left to perform; just a mainland limbo the Bigtrees are left to muddle through.