God, Money, Gators

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.

5 thoughts on “God, Money, Gators

  1. 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?

    Must we trot out Updike’s Rules for Reviewing yet again? Once again, you remain so determined to categorize a fantastic novel into your convenient taxonomy and you trot out empty phrases like “the beautiful but intimidating fecundity” that you fail to grasp the rudimentary needs for these characters to survive. When one needs to pay the rent and when is being exploited and ridiculed as one is trying to help the family, larger pursuits of spirituality and money aren’t necessarily one’s raison d’etre. Or if they do arrive, it is through serendipity. (That, by the way, is the key to appreciating Russell’s novel, which is very much a tale of survival. That you see this book as a “critique” demonstrates just how out to lunch you are as a critic.) Have you ever been poor, Mark? Or are you once again letting your overanalytical bullshit get in the way of feeling the book? You talk a lot about how you’re all about working-class fiction. Yet here is a novel that explores the same feeling — quite unconventionally (see the subtle construction of the chapter with the park ranger, among many other moments) — but that you want to dismiss because it’s simply beyond your myopic station in life. That you see the amusement park as a foreign land, rather than perceiving the American nation as an unforgiving purlieu for misfits, is a significant problem with your stunning misread. Christ, Mark, the real missed opportunity here exists within your glorified skimming.

  2. The most disappointing book of the year.

    Wait, maybe I was just doing more of my “glorified skimming.” What you need to do, Mark, is ask Ed Champion for a guide to successful criticism and just follow the steps and watch the book contracts and paid jobs pile in. Oh, wait.

    How Ed can defend Russell’s book AND Pittard’s (second in line as most disappointing, first in most derivative) while attacking the “stunning misread” of another reader is yet more proof that I want nothing to do with Reading Like Champion.

    And just to beat you to the “who are you and what have you written?!” button, I’m a high school teacher who stopped writing because I couldn’t hack it. So now I read and avoid raging, impotent Jason Compsons like you.

  3. A high school teacher who stopped writing because you couldn’t hack it? What fortuitous coincidence! For Mr. Champion, as it is widely known, is a seedy cyber-vagrant who keeps writing because he can’t hack it. He has nothing to say, but much seething rage spurring him to say it.

    Mr. Athitakis enjoys the respect of his peers, while Mr. Champion is, of course, pitied when not mocked or reviled. Each time he returns to secrete his little droppings here, it is testimony to the passion of envy, and the despair of pluperfect mediocrity, that is Mr. Champion’s sad (but alas! for so many, laughable) lot in this life.

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