Friday, March 18, 2011

Swamplandia! (Book)

Heaven, Kiwi thought, would be the reading room of a great library. But it would be private. Cozy….Heaven would be a comfy armchair….You’d get a great, private phonograph, and all of eternity to listen to your life’s melody. You could isolate your one life out of the cacophonous galaxy—the a cappella version—or you could play it back with its accompaniment, embedded in the brass and strings of mothers, fathers, sisters, windfalls and failures, percussion cities of strangers. You could play it forward or backward, back and back, and listen to the future of your past. You could lift the needle at whim, defeating Time.
Reading Swamplandia! reminded me of the times when my family returned home after a vacation and one of us would turn over a bag filled with the souvenirs we had collected. Postcards, matchbooks, key chains, brochures and assorted other mementos would tumble out. What makes the recently released Swamplandia! by Karen Russell such a memorable story are the vivid scenes.

The basic plot is a common one. The mother and wife, the gravitational center of the family of five, passes away and the family starts to drift apart. In this case, the family consists of the Bigtrees, who have been running an amusement park called Swamplandia! on an island in the swamp lands of Florida. Since birth, all the children have been actively involved in the running of the amusement park. The mom, the featured act, would dive into a pool filled with seths, alligators. After her death, the amusement park rapidly loses its ability to attract tourists.

As the story unfolds, the oldest daughter drifts away, obsessed with a book called the Spiritist’s Telegraph, sneaking away at night to rendezvous with ghost lovers. The son is the first to physically leave the family, convinced that the future lies in the everyday world. He takes a job at a competing amusement park, The World of Darkness, where his home-schooled naiveté is worn away. In order to deal with mounting debt, the father goes away for a few weeks “on a business trip,” leaving the two daughters alone with the seths on the island. The oldest daughter leaves the island to marry a ghost lover, and the younger daughter tries to find her with the assistance of a stranger.

I found the book surreal and poignant. I thought Russell’s writing was skillful. In one chapter Russell describes the youngest daughter searching for the entrance to the underworld in order to find the oldest sister. In the next chapter Russell describes the son taking a class in order to receive his GED and go to college. I serendipitously found out about Swamplandia!—our library system mistakenly listed it as a new science fiction release—and I am glad I was able to read such a memorable story.

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