“Quiet rode outward like wildfire”

I am not a book reviewer, but I finished Swamplandia! and several people have asked me what I thought, so here’s what I came up with (you know I love lists):

*I didn’t love it as much as I hoped or thought I would (Swamplandia! was on several best-of lists and was short listed for the Pulitzer Prize, which it neither won nor lost because no fiction award was given this year). In her comment Dr. T says she was underwhelmed; that’s a good word for it.
*I’m glad I read it.
*Karen Russell works magic with the English language; she is downright lyrical.
*The book requires (or required for me) a significant investment of hope that I’m not sure was justified by the return, e.g. I kept hoping that the next page would be the one that really drew me in, and it never was.
*The suspense did not really begin to build until the last hundred pages or so, and then (this is the technical part of my review) I was like, wait, that’s it?
*I haven’t read her collection of short stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, so I’m not sure how much of Swamplandia! grew out of that collection (actually, this NPR review indicates that it included a story called “Ava Wrestles the Alligator” that was the novel’s genesis). Reading several chapters in the novel I kept thinking, hmmm, it seems like maybe this was something she’d already written and needed a longer story to attach it to. My money was actually on the Dredgeman rather than Ava. I also kept wishing she’d put as much energy into fleshing out the Bird Man as she did fleshing out Louis Thanksgiving. I’m all for unanswered questions in novels, but the Bird Man raised too many.
*The ghost story never really satisfied – it was neither truly frightening nor truly otherworldly.
*Karen Russell could guest lecture on the art of painting a scene with words or the importance of finding a voice for your characters. But she should teach the Master Class – and I’m talking about the one in which everyone else should just sit down and take notes – about how to craft a simile. Her comparisons were often as phantasmagorical as the setting of the novel itself. There were times when I felt like she was flinging similes at me like so many darts at a board, but the more I read the less I could resist their magic or fault her for it. The language was often so beautiful, imaginative, and compelling that not only did I give her a pass, but I began to love her for it. Such as:

-The Chief’s follow spot cast a light like a rime of ice onto the murk
-I didn’t realize that one tragedy can beget another, and another – bright-eyed disasters flooding out of a death hole like bats out of a cave
-His voice was like a shell with something oozing and alive inside it
-laughter as joyless as flat cola
-frantic clucks rose from the chicken coop like rainfall reversing itself
-like freezing a lake into ice and skating quickly over it
-like a school of fishes needling into a strong current
-His judgments are like green fruit
-like staring into a radiance I’d swallowed
-floating in the blue eye of the island like a speck in jelly
-the sun, beaming down at us like a dim-witted aunt
-the lights went white as a screech

And this is just in the first hundred pages or so.

What drew my attention to Swamplandia! in the first place was, ironically, its failure to capture the Pulitzer. Had there been a recipient and had Swamplandia! not been it, it’s likely I would have missed it altogether. In part, therefore, I helped fulfill Pulitzer fiction juror Susan Larson’s wish that the Board’s refusal to confer a fiction prize this year would draw attention to three books instead of just one. And at the end of the day the question that I ask myself is whether or not I’ll read whatever comes next from Karen Russell – and the answer is a resounding yes. At the very least I’ll start it.

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5 Responses to “Quiet rode outward like wildfire”

  1. chris says:

    I was so conflicted about this book. I absolutely LOVED it until the plot twist w/the Bird Man, and then it just lost me. And the story within a story, about the Dredgeman (my favorite part), was so amazingly and thoroughly written, but I kept thinking it belonged in a whole other book. Still, this book has stuck around in my head far more than most others, for whatever reason. I’m with you — I’ll read her next work too.

  2. tracy says:

    I was conflicted too. I loved the premise, I loved the *idea* of it, but the execution of the story, particularly in the last third, took me away from everything I was initially attracted to. However, you’re absolutely right that the execution on a sentence level was masterful. She writes like a friggin’ dream.

  3. randasfans says:

    I really did want to love it more than I did, but I still appreciate the book – it’s a good piece of writing. I too thought the Dredgeman sections were some of the most wonderfully rendered, but those sections also felt so disconnected from the rest of the story that I never knew quite what to do with them. And the Bird Man. Oh, the Bird Man. Again, the writing was sublime, but what happened there? Like I said, too many unanswered questions. It almost felt like reading three different novellas.

    Today’s wish is that the three of us could be in a book club together.

  4. Keri Cole says:

    A review of your whisky glasses, please!

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