Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

In the Swamp with Karen Russell

Last night I finished Karen Russell's first novel, Swamplandia!--a book that earned wonderful reviews and was a Pulitzer finalist (though, as we know, the Pulitzer judges copped out this year and awarded no fiction prize).

Last spring, when I retired, my English Department colleagues at Western Reserve Academy gave me Russell's first book (yes, a first printing!), a collection of stories, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, a book that, well, dazzled me.  Story after story had me muttering, But you can't do that in a story!  But, of course, you can--or, at least, Karen Russell can.  In sentence after sentence she found new ways of saying old things--new ways that made me realize that the old things were, well, not so old.

In one story (even her titles are worth the cover price), "Z. Z.'s Sleep-Away Camp for Disordered Dreamers," the narrator tells us, "This year, we've got a New Kid, this Eastern European lycanthrope.  He is redolent of tubers and Old World damp.  New Kid's face is a pituitary horror, a patchwork of runny sores and sebaceous dips.  Ginger fur sprouts from weird places, his chin, his ears" (55).

I don't know really where to stop quoting: Her writing just rolls on like this, with me bouncing along behind like a happy caboose.

In St. Lucy's we meet some characters and see some places that appear in Swamplandia!  Her novel is a story of a failed Florida wildlife park--a spot where a family entertains ever-smaller crowds with alligator wrestling and other treats.  But a bigger, newer, flashier park has emerged not all that far away.  And weird things start to happen.  An older sister falls in love with a ghost.  A little sister goes off to find the land of the dead.  A brother goes to work for the competition to see if he can raise money to save Swamplandia!

It is a novel, in one way, about a family rediscovering itself.  Early in the novel, the family fractures with death and disappearance and madness.  We lose track of a couple of characters for a long time and focus on a brother and sister who, separately, are trying to figure out the world beyond Swamplandia!

I liked Russell's stories better than the novel--though in the final fifty pages or so I was really swept up in the events as the scattered lives began to reassemble, with the centripital forces of hope and chance and desperation and resignation all playing important roles.

Karen Russell is a talent--a major one. The effusiveness and novelty of her language remind me of early Updike, although she has very different interests and agendas.

And I will read every word she publishes from now on.  The reason?  For the chance that  I'll get to read another sentence like this one: "Incredibly, Mom stayed dead but the sky changed" (Swamplandia! 18).

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