Exclamation Points!

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

I first heard of Karen Russell in my Fiction I class last semester. Actually, we read one of her short stories selected for the Best American Short Stories 2010 anthology. It was something like “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach”. I was one of the few in the class who liked it (or maybe actually did the assigned reading before class… either way…) but even in liking it I felt like reading her words spent time I could never get back and not necessarily in a good way.

Our professor talked about Karen Russell and this book that had only just released very briefly in class that day. And I remember my friend Michael commenting that he wanted to read Swamplandia! but didn’t realize that it was the same author. I think some of his enthusiasm deflated a bit that day.

Here’s the thing: Karen Russell writes some absolutely, thrillingly, heart-achingly beautiful sentences and descriptions. Her stories have just enough eerie weirdness that they keep you hooked. Her universe looks and behaves just like ours, until suddenly, it doesn’t anymore. And we, the readers, are left scrambling, trying to figure out when she pulled the rug out from underneath our feet. When, Karen, did you decide that this world you’ve created no longer behaves like the one I know and understand?

In your reeling recovery you are forced to decide how you feel about the rules suddenly changing, at least in appearance. Russell writes about such bizarre circumstances I guess it’s obvious to some that there will be strange things afoot in her stories. But each time I’m overwhelmingly flabbergasted.

I’m most conflicted about this novel. More so than any other book I read in 2011. For one thing Karen’s excitement about writing practically leaps off the page and slaps you with a fish (and that’s kind of refreshing). Her word choice and prose are FASCINATING. And like I said heart-achingly beautiful. One scene in particular replaces the mindless destruction of a Hurricane with that of a curious giant monster merely peeling a roof back to sniff what was cooking inside a house. I mean the woman generates some really cool stuff.

Yet, in the midst of this quirky family of alligator wrestlers Karen’s enthusiasm and bizarre story get lost in the swamp along with her readers. There were moments in this book that I absolutely adored. I felt like I needed to be listening to Bright Eyes’ Cassadaga the whole time I was reading. And more times than not I wanted to throw the book against a wall. There in the midst of this carefully crafted story Karen switched around narrators on us, but not until halfway into the story! And don’t even get me started on the exclamation points!

And here the “if you don’t have anything good to say don’t say anything at all” rule is slapping me over the head with a fish. So, I’ll cut it off here. I guess my best advice is for you to read it for yourself so you can develop your own opinion. But I don’t endorse it with my usual fervor. Try it out with Bright Eyes though… that might have been the missing ingredient.

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