No-Shit Dinosaur

Jon Day

  • Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
    Chatto, 316 pp, £12.99, March 2011, ISBN 978 0 7011 8602 9

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.

There are other forms of artificiality behind the title. It has echoes of Henry Ford’s doomed ‘Fordlandia’, the utopian rubber-tapping city he attempted to establish in the Brazilian jungle to provide for his car factories. It also suggests ‘swampland in Florida’, a phrase synonymous with a real estate scam in which worthless plots are sold, site unseen, to unsuspecting buyers. Florida has always attracted carpetbaggers and charlatans, as well as tycoons whose land reclamation schemes are the creation myths of the Everglades: Hamilton Disston, a tool manufacturer who in 1881 bought four million acres of swamp which he then attempted to drain by digging endless canals, and Henry Flagler, sometime partner of J.D. Rockefeller, who ran a railroad down the eastern spine of the peninsula, leaving oases of civilisation in its wake. ‘The swamp was a waste,’ Russell writes, ‘and men had built the machines to fix it.’ Despite their best efforts it remains a largely featureless landscape composed of liminal zones and edgelands, bays, mangroves and sawgrass fields. Nowadays the artificiality is in the theme parks and amusement arcades, sub-Disneyland simulacra, scattered throughout the swamp. Florida has the highest concentration of golf courses in the world. Russell is enthralled by this alien landscape, describing it as ‘a separate universe from the rest of the country’, offering ‘all sorts of metaphoric seductions’.

Most of Swamplandia! is narrated by 13-year-old Ava Bigtree, who lives in the eponymous theme park on an island in the swamp with her family and 98 alligators. All of the gators in Swamplandia! are called Seth, in honour of one particularly magnificent specimen whose likeness was used for a billboard on the mainland. His legend lives on because, as Ava’s father the Chief comments, ‘tradition is as important … as promotional materials are expensive.’ The Bigtrees style themselves as swamp natives, but like everyone else they’re newcomers to the Everglades. No one is really from this part of the world. The Seminole Indians, a disparate group who fought three wars against the US Army here in the 19th century, were refugees chased off the map by development (they now own the Hard Rock Café chain). Miami’s Cuban émigrés are similarly displaced. Ava’s Grandpa Sawtooth became the first Bigtree after he was scammed into buying a 100-acre plot in what ‘the cheerful northern realtors were calling – with a greed that aspired to poetry – the American Eden’.

The attraction he founded, Swamplandia!, was once the ‘Number One Gator-Themed Park and Swamp Café’ in south Florida, but has fallen on hard times. Everything about the place seems worn and tired, even the displays of alligator ‘wrestling’. They are dances more than battles, dependent on a quirk of alligator anatomy. Though alligators’ mouths close with a force of around 2000 pounds per square inch, the muscles that open them are very weak. ‘This is the secret,’ Ava says, ‘a wrestler exploits to beat her adversaries – if you can get your Seth’s jaws shut up in your fist, it is next to impossible for the creature to open them again.’ ‘Wrestling is not a sport,’ Roland Barthes wrote in Mythologies, ‘it is a spectacle,’ and it’s a maxim the Chief heartily endorses. ‘You got to remind the mainlanders that your alligator is a no-shit dinosaur,’ he tells Ava, ‘prove to them that you can lose, so you can surprise people, honey, and win.’

Before she died of cancer, Ava’s mother Hilola was the star of the theme park, the Steve Irwin of the Everglades. She is the first ghostly presence in this haunted book, leaving her distracted husband to look after their three children. Without Hilola, the theme park falls apart. Melaeuca trees, planted in the 1940s in an attempt to dry out the swamp, march like Birnam Wood towards the centre of the island. On the mainland a slick new attraction called the World of Darkness – a Baudrillardian nightmare where visitors are referred to as ‘Lost Souls’ and offered ‘escalator tours of the rings of Hell’ along with ‘easy access to the mainland roads’ – lures visitors away from the folksy charm of Swamplandia! Threatened with repossession, Chief Bigtree goes to the mainland to instigate an expansion plan he calls ‘Carnival Darwinism’, leaving his children alone on the island. They embark on their own adventures. Ava’s sister Osceola discovers a book on spiritism and uses a Ouija board to make contact with her dead mother, with whom she converses in text-speak. Her brother Kiwi, a rather pompous 17-year-old, defects to the World of Darkness, where he’s exploited by the dark forces of capitalism. Meanwhile Osceola falls in love with the ghost of a dredgeman called Louis Thanksgiving and elopes with him to the underworld; Ava teams up with a wandering bird-charmer to rescue her sister. Here the novel splits into two uneven narratives. The first describes Kiwi’s assimilation into mainland society (he approaches the World of Darkness like an anthropologist, making field notes on teenage behaviour and studiously learning the names and functions of things like bongs and condoms). The other is the story of Ava’s fall.

On the surface Swamplandia! is a novel in magical realist mode about the transition from innocence to experience. There are Márquez-like dynastic intrigues, and Angela Carter-esque tropes of pantomime and performance. Another influence is Carl Hiaasen, the de facto laureate of the Everglades. Hiaasen has kind words for Swamplandia!, which is reminiscent of Native Tongue, his hard-boiled eco-thriller set in the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills, a tacky Florida theme park run by a Disneyland-baiting gangster. It is a gloriously macabre novel, full of maimings and deaths. One character is fed to a killer whale, which chokes on the body. Another is forced to chew off his own foot when it gets trapped under the wheels of a car. Russell has also acknowledged a debt to Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, a novel about a travelling carnival which, like Swamplandia!, falls on hard times. In an attempt to attract more customers its owners engage in their own form of Carnival Darwinism, using radioactive waste to breed a litter of freaks. They create a boy with flippers for hands and feet, a hunchbacked albino dwarf, Siamese twins and a baby with telekinetic powers.

Carnivals and theme parks are attractive spaces for fiction, and Russell has visited this sort of territory before. Many of the stories in her first book, St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, were set in summer camps and amusement parks: the Potemkin institutions of American adolescence. In ‘Z.Z.’s Sleep-Away Camp for Disordered Dreamers’, narcoleptics, somnambulists and incubus-sufferers attend summer camp to be cured of their sleep problems. ‘Lady Yeti and the Palace of Artificial Snows’ is a Peeping Tom parable about two boys who hide under a table to watch an adults-only night at an ice skating rink, which descends into an orgy masked by swirls of fake snow. The stories are about the limits of allegory, about what happens when the language of childhood can no longer describe the world. They focus on the strangeness of the everyday, on the ‘perverse, fairy-tale logic’ of such prosaic activities as ice-skating and growing old. Ordinary sorts of meaning aren’t available here but Swamplandia! demonstrates concern for the ‘correct’ interpretation of the facts and above all for the inherent obfuscation of storytelling.

Russell is a young writer drawn to the voices of adolescents. ‘A lot of my protagonists are stuck between worlds … coming alive to certain adult truths but lacking the perspective to make sense of them,’ she said in an interview with Book Browse. All but one of the ten stories in St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves are narrated by children, generally in the throes of adolescence. As in much Young Adult fiction parents are often distant or absent, and friends or siblings are left to puzzle out the world on their own. She has a good line in literalism, and many of her best jokes depend on reimagining the myths of childhood with respectful credulity. In another of her stories, ‘From a Child’s Reminiscences of the Westward Migration’, a family of settlers sets off for the Wild West led by their father, a minotaur. She takes euphemisms equally seriously. A teenage affair that takes place at Z.Z.’s Sleep-Away Camp is charmingly straightforward: ‘sleeping’ with someone means precisely that. ‘Being unconscious with somebody, that’s a big deal,’ Elijah, the narrator, confesses, while worrying that his ‘sleep latency period is going to be eye-blink brief’. (When it comes to the moment itself, his girlfriend fakes it.) Something similar happens during Osceola’s ‘love possessions’ in Swamplandia!, which involve a lot of moaning and shaking, causing Ava to wonder: ‘What was being shown to her? It was weird detective work, like trying to guess the plot of a movie from the twitching of a smile in the audience.’ It’s quite clear to Kiwi what is going on when Ossie gets possessed: ‘She moans?’ he says. ‘I’ll tell you a secret, Ava. When she’s tossing and turning that way? You are probably watching a good dream.’

Ava’s narrative occupies fertile territory half-way between realism and fantasy, innocence and experience. She’s caught between registers too. Though she talks like a teenager (Ava is fond of ‘humungous’, ‘gross’ and ‘awesome’, and uses ‘super’ as a prefix), she has little trouble making her thoughts vivid. There are endless examples of linguistic resourcefulness in Swamplandia!; Ava describes a shoal of bass swimming ‘in a thick circle, a clock of gloating life’; she notes the ‘icicle overbites’ of alligators, or describes a word as ‘just a container for feeling, or a little matchstick that you strike against yourself – a tiny, fiery, summons’. It’s testament to Russell’s skill that we remain engaged with Ava’s story despite this authorial ventriloquism. Indeed, the power of Swamplandia! depends on the tension between what we think we know about Ava’s experiences and what she tells us about them, on the extent to which we trust her as a credible narrator. It’s a provocative novel precisely because of the many ambiguities and possible readings it sustains. Russell leaves just enough for us to question our reading of events, so that when the scales fall from Ava’s eyes we are implicated in her naivety.