Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Review: Swamplandia! by Karen Russel

If you haven’t heard by now, Karen Russel’s Swamplandia!  was one of three finalists for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, in a year when no prize was ultimately awarded (for the first time in 35 years, no less.) It was the outcry of dissenting voices, more than anything else, that prompted me to pick up Swamplandia!  and see what all the hullaballoo was about.

Let me start off by saying that this is a book I generally liked. Yet I’m still processing how I feel about it.

It starts off with an interesting premise. A family of alligator wrestlers falls on hard times when their star attraction dies and a Hell-themed amusement park siphons off their remaining visitors. The story then traces how each member of the crumbling Bigtree family tries to save Swamplandia!, their beloved homestead and swamp tourist attraction.

Russel transports the reader to an off-kilter reality where the unbelievable is presented as mundane. As a fan of Wes Anderson’s films, I actually had no problem with this. And just when the various plotlines roll right up to the border of the fantastical and magical, and you thought she was ready to jump the shark, Russel dumps a cooler of ice-cold Gatorade on your head and brings you back to reality. I’ll be honest, the story loosened its hold on me a little bit in the middle, and I was about to lament how low the “Pulitzer bar” had fallen, but she managed to tie the loose ends together and turn the book into a pretty memorable statement about family relationships.

Sounds decent, right? Then why am I still hesitant to sing its praises from the rooftops? It’s pretty simple: Editing. More specifically, the lack thereof.

There were more questionable question marks in this book than I could even count. Declarative statements with question mark endings. It was a little weird, to be honest, and I couldn’t tell if she was doing it on purpose- adding some sort of voice inflection in the best way she knew how- or if they were just missed by the three different editors who are credited in the acknowledgements.

Since the book was published by Alfred A. Knopf, I obviously assumed it was intentional. Publishing imprints don’t really get any more prestigious than Knopf. But then I noticed other typos, as well. Things ‘stared’ instead of ‘started,’ they ‘careered’ instead of ‘careened,’ they even ‘flap-flap-flaped’ instead of ‘flap-flap-flapped.’ There was an omitted word that made one sentence incomprehensible, and a pronoun in another that referred back to exactly zero previously mentioned objects. Then came an entire paragraph that was repeated word for word, a page and a half after it was printed the first time- and this was clearly not done for effect. It was just another oversight.

I wish that were all, though. In addition to some pretty clunky metaphors (a sky that looked like it was having its stitches removed after an operation?!), There were a whole host of pretty persistent continuity errors: Were the skies cloudy or were they clear? Was the sawgrass nine-feet tall, or could the child narrator see how it stretched for miles and miles all round (both wouldn’t be possible, given her height) A portion of the book takes place in the dead of night, yet there were descriptions of vividly-colored blue and red fish, cider-colored water and the licorice-like striations of a scarlet kingsnake. (I’ve seen some bright moons, but none that would allow for that kind of visual detail.)

Did any of this ruin the book for me? Ehhh, not exactly. The excellent passages outnumbered the awkward ones by a good bit. But I’m still bothered enough by all the bad to spend half my review enumerating my hang-ups. And even though I enjoyed watching this world come to life, I’m back to asking myself, “Really? This is what a Pulitzer finalist looks like?”

I don’t know. Read it for yourself, but get the paperback version- with any luck they’ve cleaned up all my nit-picks from the hard-cover edition.


  1. I...could not make it past the first ten pages of this. Something about the writing style/content just didn't click with me.

    1. I hear you.

      I think there's a point, a few pages in, where the reader has to grapple with the fact that they're about to read a 300+ page book about white-trash tourist attractions and the rednecks who make them happen. Not really my cup of tea.

      I could just as easily have put the book down at that point, but the Pulitzer buzz kept me wondering what lay ahead.

  2. Your review is so timely for me, as a friend just told me that her book club selected this as their next read; she asked me if I knew anything about it, and I didn't, so I have directed her to your review :)