To warp Tolstoy’s famous line: “Sane families are allalike; every crazy family is crazy in its own way.”
The literary tropeof a tightly bound family or pseudo-family of grotesque, outré and outcastindividuals operating as performers, or denizens of some cloistered Gothicenvironment, who serve in their eccentric manner as a symbolic commentary onsociety at large, has a long and prestigious lineage. Today the tradition ishandsomely capped by Karen Russell’s gonzo debut novel, Swamplandia!
We might peg the first truly modernsuch instance to Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks, with its cast ofpinheads, little people, and amputees, all allied against the”normal” world. Three years later Charles Finney’s The Circus ofDr. Lao, introduced the supernatural elements which often appear insubsequent treatments of the theme. Our next landmark, from 1946,WilliamLindsay Gresham’s Nightmare Alley, proved that a trashcan mimesis was quite sufficient toproduce free-floating weirdness. This same era saw the uncanny flourishing, intheir original New Yorker cartoon form, of The Addams Family. Adecade later, Robert Bloch’s Psycho, from 1959, offered the most stripped-down version of thecrazed nuclear family, a one-member (or is it a two-member?) clan, whose motelis after all an entertainment facility of sorts.
Inspired by Addams, Ray Bradburydelivered his own tales of the similar Elliott family, starting with 1946’s“The Homecoming,” and pursued the pure circus form of the theme in his1962 novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. Coincidentally that same year, Shirley Jackson reassertedthe creepiness of twisted and demented naturalism with We Have Always Livedin the Castle. From that definitive milestone, it was a fairly long leapto Ian McEwan’s 1978 upping of the ante with The Cement Garden, and a comparable stretch before Carolyn Chute’s TheBeans of Egypt, Maine in 1985 and Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love in 1989.
Perhaps discouraged by the hefty andexhaustive accomplishments of this majestic honor roll, authors have notventured into this territory recently in great numbers. But two major admirableexceptions exist: the 1997 novel Dogland by Will Shetterly, in which the narrator recounts hisadolescent years helping to run a Florida roadside tourist attraction dedicatedto exhibiting every dog breed in creation; and Jeffrey Ford’s 2008 book, TheShadow Year, where a set of off-kilter siblings must deal not only withparental ineptitude but also murderous supernatural intrusions into theirBradburyesque town.
Sharing this noble literarybloodline of familial battiness, Karen Russell’s exotic Bigtree clan comes outat the top of the weirdo heap. They operate a shabby gator-wrestlingestablishment on an island mired in Florida’s swampy backwaters—carnies of asort, united against rubes and “mainlander” types. The paterfamilias,Chief Bigtree, has his heart and soul sunk into the ancestral place, as did hislate wife, Hilola. (Her spectral presence, more imagined than real, haunts thecharacters and the book.) The teenage children, naturally, exhibit mixedfeelings about their quirky destiny. Older daughter Ossie is a dreamy type,frustrated enough in her budding carnality to fall in love with ghosts. SonKiwi is all naïve practicality and has a desire to engage with the largerworld. And youngest daughter Ava—well, she’s the most complex one of them all,befitting her status as our lush-voiced narrator, layering her adultsensibilities and vocabulary over this account of a few pivotal months in thehistory of Swamplandia! (the exclamation point is an inextricable element oftheir attraction’s name).
Russell’s zany density of setting,action, and characterization had obviously been steeping for some time. In2006, she appeared in Zoetrope All-Story magazine with “AvaWrestles the Alligator,” a vignette involving Ava and Ossie temporarily ontheir own. (The tale now serves as a kind of alternate history to the events ofthe novel.) This story prominently opened Russell’s collection, St. Lucy’sHome for Girls Raised by Wolves. Two other pieces—”Lady Yeti and the Palace ofArtificial Snows” and “Out to Sea”—also figured at leasttangentially in the Bigtree mythos. Overall, the wild-eyed fables heregleefully illustrate youthful strainings against the limits of society andconsensus normality. At times Russell’s work echoes that of George Saunders,though with a brighter, less mordant affect. (In fact, Saunders gets ashout-out on the acknowledgment page.)
Russell is no miniaturist orminimalist, but rather the opposite, heir to a Southern tradition of talltales, thick descriptions, deep backstories, and contrary cusses asanti-heroes. (Think of A Confederacy of Dunces as the template for such outrageous saintly fools.) Hertheme of the onerous weight of a family’s destiny would not be out of place inany Faulkner production. Neither is she shy about heaping on the plot. By theend of Chapter One, we’ve already been introduced to all the family dynamicsand much of its history, and seen the threat on the horizon, which is a rivalamusement park on the mainland called the “World of Darkness.”
After grounding us brilliantly andintimately in the geography of the place known as Swamplandia!—both itscontemporary physical and psychological terrain, nuanced with some fascinatingFlorida history—Russell makes the brave move of fragmenting the gestalt. Ossieand Kiwi run away separately, the Chief goes missing, and Ava is left alone onthe island. Then arrives a mysterious figure, the Bird Man, who Ava isconvinced can help track down her specter-misled sister, and the pair set offon a creepy odyssey whose mythic elements recall such larger-than-life questsas the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, Frodo’s wanderings, and Conrad’s Heartof Darkness.
Meanwhile, half the narrative is nowconcerned with Kiwi’s misadventures on the mainland while working at World ofDarkness. This portion of the book, while highly amusing in a satirical mannerthat rags on many modern absurdities, lacks the epic and feverish derangementof Ava’s adventures—although, to be fair, Russell unites the two strands at theend very satisfactorily.
By expelling the characters from thesafety of their shell, their self-constructed refuge or paradise or Eden,however shabby, Russell calls to mind another classic novel of familialinsanity in a Gothic setting: Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy. Herexpulsion of Ava and Kiwi into the “real world” has much the sameforce and flavor as the final volume in Peake’s cycle, Titus Alone.
Russell privileges a kind ofidioglossia, the special language and set of associations known only to theBigtree clan, fabulators all. (The very American trait of creating one’s ownidentity is an explicit riff in the book as well.) For instance, the Bigtreesdub all gators “Seth,” resulting in quite a few surreal sentences,such as: “A tiny, fiery Seth. Her skull was the exact shape and shininghue of a large halved strawberry.” Ava’s juicy, poetic voice, assembledthrough sheer willpower and joie de vivre and desperation from a self-taughtyoung genius’s love of language, is what carries this book even more so thanthe bizarre events. Without rendering Ava as some sort of impossible freak,Russell nonetheless employs subtle craft to highlight her uniqueness born ofisolation and dreaminess. In a way, Ava is kin to the “girls raised bywolves” from the title story in Russell’s collection.
If you were to take the exuberantlyfecund tropical paintings of Martin Johnson Heade and commission the ghost ofAngela Carter to write a story based on them, you might very well end up withsomething approaching the garish and fierce beauty of Swamplandia!