In her short story collection, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (2006), Karen Russell demonstrated an affinity for absurdity and myth. She explored a cast of characters marooned between opposites (lonely vampires, wolfish girls, and monstrous fathers), by doling out equal doses of exceeding silliness, poetic prose, and true-blooded legend. It was a style reminiscent of Kelly Link and George Saunders (seasoned with a large handful of Jonathan Safran Foer-esque open hearted earnestness), and it garnered her terrible amounts of praise. Ben Marcus called it a "miracle." The New Yorker included Russell in their list of twenty best writers under forty. The National Book Foundation, using a slightly different formula, said she was one of the five best writers under thirty-five.
In her first novel, Swamplandia!, Russell has done nothing to disprove these critics. She has taken something not exactly unrealistic—a traditional Bildungsroman of two siblings set amidst a pair of dueling amusement parks that feature different sorts of ancient terror: alligators and leviathans—and blown it up into something wonderful and not exactly impossible—a coming-of-age story filled with what might be ghosts, what definitely are bird-like men, and a journey into a Floridian underworld that revels in that region's particular brand of wild and beautiful horror: swamps, sawgrass, and pre-historic reptiles.
Our story begins with Ava, the youngest daughter of the Bigtree tribe—as Ava's father likes to call them, despite not having a drop of Native American blood—who lives on one of the Ten Thousand Islands located off the coast of southwest Florida. The tribe consists of Ava, her sister Osceola, their brother, Kiwi, their father "The Chief," and a grandpa named Sawtooth, who resides in an assisted living facility near the mainland called the "Out to Sea Retirement Community." Ava’s mother, Hilola, has very recently died from ovarian cancer. This, among other things, has proven bad for business, as Hilola was the star attraction of the family business: the titular gator-themed amusement park and swamp cafe, Swamplandia! Hilola, in the main event, dove from a dizzying height into a dark lake broiling with alligators and then proceeded to swim across it, emerging at the other end unscathed and spotlit by the light and love of the Chief.
In these initial chapters, Ava maps out the make-up of the Bigtrees: their home, their enemies, and their varied reactions to grief and impending doom. Soon after Hilola's death, we hear of the coming World of Darkness, a new mainland theme park featuring "The Tongue of the Leviathan!"—a ride consisting of a tongue-like "thirty-foot electric-traction escalating slide, covered in sponge and pink mesh" which could gulp "whole grades of kids" down into the belly of a giant whale (p. 10). The Chief's reaction to these events is to offer an occasional "Christ Jesus" and to mock up a posterboard entitled "Carnival Darwinism," in which he lays out their financial situation: "Revenue for March: $1,230; Outstanding Debt: $52,560*"—the asterisk indicating that this figure represented "only the best part of the truth" (p. 28). Osceola, for her part, delves into the dark arts of The Spiritist's Telegraph, a spell book purporting to possess the secrets of transforming your body into a medium for communication with the dead. Russell offers us shimmering, spooky glimpses of this book, such as a chapter entitled "The Corporeal Orchard" which depicts the "aortas and ventricles of a human heart" bursting into flowering trees (p. 39). Osceola uses this book to hold séances in search of her mother. She discovers, instead, the love of a ghost—a seventeen year old dredgeman—who leads her to his abandoned dredge in the swamp (a relic of the U.S. government's abandoned attempt to civilize and map the hellish labyrinth of Florida's swamplands). Naturally, and to Ava's chagrin, Osceola elopes with this ghost to the underworld.
After the first four chapters, Russell splits her narrative in two, maintaining Ava's point of view, but adding that of her brother. Kiwi's mindset refutes all manner of mysticism, and yet it is no less illuminated by illusion than that of his siblings. In a noble but rather naïve plan to earn money to pay off the family debt, he ventures into the belly of the beast itself, allowing himself to be swallowed as a minimum wage drone of The World of Darkness. He wears a dehumanizing costume (there are hat and over-heating issues), performs dehumanizing duties (flossing out gum, cigarette butts, and the like from between the Leviathan's teeth), and receives a dehumanizing wage. His first week's paycheck says that he owes The World of Darkness $182.57—mostly for the costume. On his family's island, Kiwi felt embarrassed at the hyperbolic mythologizing practiced by his father and the seeming embrace of the occult by his sisters, but here, on the mainland, Kiwi feels embarrassed only at himself and his island-incubated dorkiness—his unfamiliarity with bongs and payroll managers; his misconstrued recitations of Greek poems; his impoverished delight in peeling the cheese off microwaved pizza in slow ribbons. It is a difficult transition for Kiwi, but a fruitful one for Russell, as it allows her both a mundane counterpoint to Swamplandia!’s more otherworldly aspects, and an alien viewpoint on the weirdness of Florida's mainlanders and the surrealism of working in an amusement park.
If, in Kiwi's point of view, Russell indulges her more satirical and absurdist tendencies, in Ava's, she displays her love and knowledge of myth. As Kiwi attempts to adapt successfully to the mainland culture, Ava journeys in a small canoe further south, into the mostly unchartered canals snaking through the lower portions of the thousand islands, in search of Osceola and the entrance to the underworld. Her guide—Russell's twist on the ferryman of Hades—is the Bird Man, a gypsy in a "heavy, tussocked coat" whose job is to clear the swamps of vultures and other aviary pests (p. 129). On their first meeting, he calls to Ava with a noise not unlike "an alligator bellow"—a "braided, rainbow sound" which finishes with a single note "held in an amber suspension of time, like a charcoal drawing of Icarus falling . . . sad and fierce all at once, alive with a lonely purity” (p. 130). When Ava asks him if the buzzards will follow them all the way to the underworld he tells her that the vultures are their map, "alive and legible" above them. "Nobody can get to the underworld without assistance," he says (p. 160). Ava, for better and worse, believes in him in much the way that, for so many years, she believed in her father. That her beliefs may prove unfounded, that there may, in fact, be no such thing as an all-knowing father, a ghostly mother, or an entrance to the underworld, but only a bunch of sawgrass, spooky wind, and a thin, bony, very human man pretending, for whatever reason, to be something he's not, is at the heart of Ava's journey and Russell’s book.
One of the delights of Swamplandia! is how Russell folds within her narrative countless treasures of history and description. Passages sparkle with the bright and terrible tangle of the Floridian landscape: hairy kiwis, oak toads, seashell islands, mud-men. As well, much of the magic and menace that pervades Ava's search for Osceola and the underworld is seeded within a middle chapter Russell devotes to the history of Florida and, in particular, Louis Thanksgiving Auschenbliss, the Depression-era orphan with whom whose ghost Osceola has fallen in love. This chapter, entitled "The Dredgeman's Revelation," contains much in the way of hopeless humidity, rag-tag ne'er-do-wells, and a kind of perfunctory derring-do. Louis comes to the enterprise of dredging Florida's swamps weary and wide-eyed for adventure, eager to delve into the peninsula’s murky depths. "He was in love," Russell writes, "with the crushed oyster beds and the uprooted trees . . . with the heat and stink and the foul teakettle dredge that had cut a channel so far from his childhood" (p. 106). At its conclusion, something horrible happens to the crew and to the dredgeman, as you might expect—something involving ghosts and giant vultures. As she does throughout the rest of the novel, Russell writes of her characters and their monsters with care, the "huge birds, black and wattled," whose wings folded so that they looked like "funeral umbrellas dripping rain along the stone walls of the St. Agnes Church in Clarinda" (p. 115).
By their stories' end, Ava and Kiwi will, of course, face their own horrible somethings, as well as many truths about their world, their family, and themselves. They will encounter sex, get lost in something not exactly like the underworld, and discover the cost and worth of their father's lies. That is how these things go. If not necessarily the most inventive thematic ground, it remains a fertile one, and Russell delivers these revelatory moments with a deft touch, often humourous, occasionally sharp and clean. By splitting her narrative into two viewpoints—one more concerned with payrolls and one with Stygian Rivers—and allowing the mythic terror of the one and the adult onset disillusionment of the other to flow back and forth, Russell manages the neat trick of writing a fantastic and realistically weird ghost story of childlike maturity; one that captures the best and worst parts of the truth: that of course ghosts don't exist, but then again, of course they do.
Chris Kammerud is a writer and teacher living in Seoul, South Korea. He enjoys believing in things. Previous work has appeared in The Interstitial Arts Online Annex, Fiction Weekly, and Strange Horizons (see our archive). For more, visit his blog, The Magnelephant Review, or follow him on Twitter.