Karen Russell’s debut novel, Swamplandia!, opens with a quote from Alice in Wonderland. The King exclaims to Alice, “I only wish I had such eyes. To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance, too! Why, it’s as much as I can do to see real people, by this light!” It seems appropriate that she would invite such a comparison. Like Lewis Carroll, Russell follows her adolescent characters as they attempt to mature into adulthood while confronting a world full of the allegorically fantastic.
When the book opens, Hilola Bigtree — also known by her stage name, Swamp Centaur — has just prematurely died of cancer, leaving her family of alligator wrestlers to take over the eponymous business. Unfortunately, a new theme park, World of Darkness, has opened nearby, and without their star attraction, the Bigtrees are suddenly plunged into an economic depression. The father flees to find new investors, leaving his three children helpless: Ossie, the oldest daughter, soon elopes with a ghost named Louis Thanksgiving, and her younger, skeptical sister, Ava, follows to save her form the underworld. Kiwi, in full big-brother mode, decides to pursue his GED (and BA, and MA and PhD) in order to make enough money to save the family. With “all the little umbilicals to the world collapsed,” the three find themselves suddenly thrust out of their respective wombs and into the exotic land of “corn and car accidents.”
It is clear that Russell views her Bigtree family as a quirky bunch, and she gets a great deal of mileage out of juxtaposing them with the banal reality of adult or “mainland” life. Kiwi, for example, soon learns that his adolescent peers frown upon eloquence, that he should always end sentences with “bro” and that you can’t “take jokes about your own asshole personally.” Similarly, Ava, who, like Orpheus, must quest to the underworld in order to save someone she loves, discovers that the lack of the supernatural is easily made up by the number of people willing to use her: The Bird Man, at first a mythic ally on her journey, quickly turns out to be a sleazy rapist. In one of Swamplandia!’s rare, quietly insightful moments, she thinks to herself, “Oh this,” as he first heaves himself on top of her — and while he is committing the act, she, in her naïveté, is more worried that he will realize she doesn’t wear a bra (and is therefore not a woman) than she is about the violation of her body.
But ultimately, Swamplandia! fails because it overestimates the eccentricity of its characters. For all the alligator wrestling, homeschooling and isolation from regular society, the Bigtrees aren’t all that interesting or different from what we’re used to; indeed, it only takes Kiwi a couple of weeks before he acts and sounds like the rest of his teenage friends. The point of the novel, then — that “there were witches everywhere in the world,” but instead of magical witches, they are “witches lining up for free grocery bags of battered tuna cans” — falls limp. Similarly, Russell’s final, profound and ghastly revelation has no power to convince us because she never made us believe in ghosts in the first place.
The next time Karen Russell aspires to the level of Lewis Carroll, she must first succeed in leading us down the rabbit hole.