Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!
Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.

(Looking for a swallow rather than a full glass? ORANGE Squirt below.)

Loving an excerpt as much as I loved “The Dredgeman’s Revelation” brings a sense of trepidation alongside excitement when approaching the longer work.

Would Swamplandia! leave me with the same pressing desire to re-read, the same anticipation about Karen Russell’s next works?

Or would I simply want to return to the story to try to decipher what I’d thought was so amazing about it in the first place, a crestfallen reader who’d hoped too hard?

My nervousness swelled when I picked up the book. The single word title with exclamation point seemed to try too hard, and the stylized typeface and image did not draw me in. I’d planned to dive in right away — and here begin the not-so-subtle Swamplandia! references — but I put it off several times. I tidied up several other reads before I finally started in.

That was all about the idea of reading it — about my hesitation as a reader, nothing to do with the book itself — and that sank quickly beneath the surface of my resistance because  when I actually did pick up the book, when I actually had read the first page, I just kept reading.

But I’m getting ahead of myself because even before the first page, before you begin reading the novel proper, is an epigraph that sets the tone for the work. It’s from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass:

“I see nobody on the road,” said Alice.
“I only wish that I had such eyes,” the King remarked in a fretful tone.
“To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance too! Why, it’s as much as I can do to see real people, by this light!”

Even before Ava tells readers, in the novel’s first sentence, that “Our mother performed in starlight”, we know what will preoccupy our storytellers from this epigraph.

What is real and what is not.

What can be seen, what cannot be seen, what one might choose not to see.

What exists in the darkness and what requires the light.

The ways in which words can be used to obscure and illuminate meaning.

Our storytellers are, above all, performers. From the opening pages, when we meet the members of the Bigtree family, we recognize that they are creating a world for their audience. They have recognized themselves to be something Other, something which onlookers will pay to view, fostered that capacity, put an admission fee on it, and they’ve called it Swamplandia!

Ava realizes that she belongs in Swamplandia!. She believes she could not survive elsewhere: “I would vanish on the mainland, dry up in that crush of cars and strangers, of flesh hidden inside metallic colors, the salt white of the sky over the interstate highway, the strange pink-and-white apartment complexes where mainlanders lived like cutlery in drawers.”

And readers — who are likely mainlanders too — are immediately drawn into the world of Swamplandia! for how can you not be intrigued by Hilola Bigtree, the world-famous alligator wrestler? How can you not follow her, just as the spotlight follows her, when she dives and swims in the Gator Pit?

Sure, it’s dangerous. But that’s part of the appeal. It’s an amusement park. Readers can’t help but be entertained.

“Ask Chief Bigtree. Your father can tell you: the mainland authorities are no friends of ours. Swamp people are this country’s last outlaws, kid. We have to stick together.”

The Bigtrees live a life apart. And the initial appeal of Karen Russell’s cast of characters is the sense of an original setting and unusual inhabitants. A Florida theme park is certainly not an outlandish idea, but the Bigtree version of it is something else. It’s like the kind of history that you squint to read between the lines, the story that lies beneath the facts in the official record.

But beyond the initial interest, the lasting appeal of this story is not what sets the Bigtrees apart, but what draws them closer, to the reader and to each other: family ties.

In the sixth chapter of the novel, the narrative splits; now, in addition to Ava’s voice, readers have her brother’s, Kiwi’s, perspective to factor in. And even though the folks he meets on the mainland think that Kiwi is a bit odd, it’s nothing compared to the kind of madness that seems to characterize the rest of the family.

Having the second narrative voice is essential. Kiwi’s experience of the world is — in comparison — very material. His world is not terribly removed from Swamplandia! but it’s 40 miles west and south of it, past the Army Corps levees and drainage canals, past the triangle of new highways.

It offers a vitally important perspective, though still in keeping with the book’s themes. Kiwi is, like Ava, preoccupied with survival (on a variety of levels). But her concern operates at a more metaphysical level at times, partly rooted in her close relationship with her older sister, Osceola.

“Madness, as I understood it from books, meant a person who was open to the high white whine of everything.”

It runs throughout Swamplandia!: the thread of the high white whine of everything. But stronger still is the Bigtree line. The connections between members of the family, the connection between the Bigtrees and the swamp: these are the universals that draw the reader into the novel and secure an engagement. Maybe you bought the ticket because it was a novelty, but you stay in your seat because it feels true.

A good chunk into the novel, Ava admits that she sometimes sees things that others don’t see. “I was a fairy-minded kid, a comic book kid, and I had a bad habit of looking for augurs and protectors where there were none.” She says it in parentheses but readers are prepared to grant Ava extra skills. She can tell an alligator’s age by its battlescars and the girth of its tail. That’s not far from the pages of comic books in my experience.

Which is not to undercut the vital importance of fantasy. Sometimes real life demands it. Each of the novel’s characters, to varying degrees, accepts this reality. The real need to invent. The Bigtrees are rooted in this deliberate fantastical art of survival.

“Every time Ossie was funny or mean it surprised me; it was like your skiff hitting an intricate reef, all those delicate white fans that wouldn’t yield, or like your foot scraping a rock in the middle of a deep empty lake. Even her fantasies had such rocks in them.”

But what is authentic in Swamplandia! is the human element, the fundamental tie between the family members, alive or not, seen or not, in the light or in the dark. This theme folds in upon itself like the complicated tree roots and branches in the swamp.

One of my favourite aspects of Ava’s story was the tangent about the baby alligator. Her love for it (which is rooted in an oddity) is overwhelming, but the plot surrounding their relationship is complex.

“Later I had to raise the baby rats she ate, and why I thought one creature was my beloved pet while the other creatures were food is still a mystery to me. That was my first clue that love can warp a hierarchy; the whole pyramid got flipped on its head.”

There are only so many places in which a character can have a baby alligator, but the Bigtree story could have been set anywhere. It wouldn’t have to unfold in the Everglades, in the Ten Thousand Islands, in Florida. But the fact that it does — with all the uncertainties of swamp life — fits perfectly. It’s murky and amorphous there.

“Distance turned all the tree islands into identical green teardrop shapes — at this altitude you could see how the current’s hand had shaped them. You could also see the melaleuca stands, which looked like mildew on bread, gray trees groups so thickly there was not a breath between them.”

“The insects had been a chronic irritation on the CCC barge, but out here on the marshy open prairie they felt pestilential, their sawing sound filling the air like a cruel ventriloquy of the men’s own thirst. Their dense bodies put a fur on the steel hull of the Model Land dredge.”

It’s tactile. It’s evocative. And the metaphors work. (Sometimes they don’t work for me. There are times when the prose seems restless, with a lot of dynamic words and images that won’t settle for me. Some paragraphs felt too full, some metaphors strained. But I was engaged in the story of the Bigtrees and I steered my skiff around those rocks and read on.)

The swamp might be beautiful, but it’s not a comfortable place to be. And Karen Russell’s novel is much the same. There is a point in the story where some readers might be a bit overwhelmed. It is overwhelming and I think it’s meant to be.

At that point the reader begins to shift on the question of what is real and what is fantasy. A couple hundred pages into the novel, the situation begins to take a new shape. Readers who were caught up in the story of the two sisters have probably already adjusted their acceptance of fantastical elements, and another slip along the spectrum is decidedly disorienting.

And, just as the tourists will bypass the tragic elements in the amusement park’s museum, will choose to focus on photographs of happy babies instead, some readers will resist the uncomfortable parts of Ava’s story. (And I can’t say much about that because I very nearly resisted reading the whole thing because the idea of it got in my way.)

Nonetheless — thinking back to the Lewis Carroll epigraph — as much as the King might lament his inability to see Nothing, seeing the people in this light is a strain too. The tragic elements of this narrative are what will keep it afloat in the reader’s memory.

At first it might have seemed that I’d be one of those tourists who clamoured for their money back, after arriving at Swamplandia! and learning that Hilola Bigtree was no longer performing. But no. In fact, I’m thinking of buying out the giftshop.

ORANGE Squirt 2011: Book 1 of 20 (Karen Russell)
Originality Amusement park setting in Everglades, Florida: Swamplandia!
Readability Character-driven, moderate amount of detail, little dialogue
Author’s voice Dynamic and ambitious
Narrative structure Mostly chronological and dual voice, but a bit meander-y
Gaffes Cover art overlooks the story’s playfulness
Expectations One of The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40, much-anticipated