There aren’t many novels with exclamation marks in their titles. Used without irony – as in Charles Kingsley’s Westward Ho! – they strive too hard, leaving us no room for manoeuvre. Absalom, Absalom! by Faulkner and Look at the Harlequins! by Nabokov, on the other hand, are more subtle, creating some distance between us and their tellers, if not their tales. Karen Russell’s exclamation marks reveal varying degrees of insincerity, but they are always employed with a Nabokovian lightness of touch. Swamplandia! – her second book and first novel – wears its exhortation nonchalantly. Lottery tickets are branded ‘Win This Lotto!’, a pilot’s course is called ‘Reach for the Skies!’ and a home-school textbook is titled ‘Teach Your Child … in the Wild!’ For F. Scott Fitzgerald using exclamation marks is like ‘laughing at your own jokes’, but Russell uses them to puncture advertising cant, and you can usually laugh along with her. She is herself a hotly promoted commodity – one of Granta’s best young American novelists, the New Yorker’s ‘20 under 40’, the National Book Foundation’s ‘5 under 35’ and New York magazine’s ‘25 people to watch under 25’ – but has not been overpraised.
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