Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
We don't really need another three-star review of Karen Russell's Swamplandia! Most of what I have to say about the book has been said wittily and well by other reviewers. But after mulling over my reaction to this critically acclaimed but, for many ordinary readers, disappointing book, I feel it epitomizes the problem of today's publishing world. The explosion of e-books and self-published books is giving voice to so many good and not-half-bad writers--and a few excellent ones--none of whom have the literary credentials of an MFA, a job in the dwindling mainstream publishing industry or a stint at a creative writing program or writers' workshop. As the beleaguered and dwindling world of "literary fiction" circles the wagons against the marauding hordes of newcomers, it sometimes looks as if those on the inside are so desperate to retain their privileged status that they are drawing the lines between good and not-as-good writing in some peculiar, gerrymandered shapes in order to reward their own.
Swamplandia! is a difficult book for many readers; readers like me who want a story, not a poem, a language exercise or an experiment. While there are many elements of a story in Swamplandia! the pace is glacial and most of the main plot, the narrator's search for her sister, is overwritten. What this means is that action that would take an old-fashioned plain novelist a chapter or two to relate bloats into what feels like an eternity of images and metaphors and similes. And I did I mention images? Oh, God, if I wanted fifty million different poetic ways to describe the Everglades swamp and its plants and birds and insects I would probably not read a novel.
Yes, it's "beautiful" writing. And so what? The Iliad has beautiful poetic writing because--it's a *poem.* It was sung, out loud, by bards who had to memorize it, and many of the repetitive images are mnemonic devices to help the narrator keep his mental place in a huge work. But when I read something that is called a novel, I want a different kind of storytelling.
I've noticed recently that a number of novels that have driven me crazy: Swamplandia!; Julian Barnes's The Sense of an Ending; and to a lesser extent, The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje, have won high praise among more "sophisticated" readers and reviewers who value the authors' attempts to, in effect, do something different. Don't just tell us an interesting story using, as Jane Austen expressed it two hundred years ago, "the best-chosen language." Anyone can do that. Instead, parcel out fragments that we have to read through twice in order to know if we "got" it (Barnes); or make us wade through pages and pages of images going nowhere and then hit us with the most tired, depressing, overused plot point in recent novels (Russell); or give us vignettes of a vaguely autobiographical episode in the author/narrator's life that work to distance us from the character (Ondaatje). At least you're not just telling a straightforward story in a straightforward way.
Swamplandia! does have an interesting story to tell, especially the secondary story, told in a far more traditional style, featuring the narrator's brother. The satire of Florida theme-park culture is brilliant and hilarious, although I imagine readers who are familiar with what is being satirized will get more out of it. Still, even this provincial New Yorker appreciated the general concept, and wished that the rest of the book had employed the same narrative drive, humor and wit.
And that's the problem: over the English novel's brief, three-hundred-year or so life, many writers have mastered the art of telling a good story well. It's possible, for all I know, that MFA programs and workshops teach that that's not enough, that to be a topnotch novelist you have to do something more. Even Jonathan Franzen, who writes excellent "old-fashioned" novels, is (so I've heard) looked down on within the literary establishment as a writer of "women's fiction." Horrors!
Anyway, bottom line on Swamplandia!: There's a good story here, or two or three, an unusual family and setting, and a clever, most unreliable narrator, but much of it is buried under too much "beautiful writing." If you're the sort of reader that likes description you may like the book a lot more than I did. But if you're looking for a good story that you can't put down, you could do a lot worse than another book I read recently, one that didn't win any awards, that isn't blurbed by top writers or even "really" published: Pennance, an e-book by Clare Ashton. You'll thank me later.