A few years ago, a Karen Russell story satisfied a very particular desire of mine: a thirst for vampire literature. Her short story, “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” collected by Salman Rushdie in 2008 Best American Short Stories, offered just the right amount of bats and bloodsucking so as to save me from an itch to read any of the other vampire-laced novels that were then flooding the marketplace. Moreover, Russell wowed me with her cosmic perspective, quirky humor, and knack for folding the fantastic into the quotidian. Though her literary forbearers were fairly obvious—George Saunders or Joy Williams, for example—I’d seen nothing quite like her brand of storytelling before.
“There is a loneliness that must be particular to monsters, I think, the feeling that each is the only child of a species,” muses the narrator-vampire in the story. This monster loneliness is the central conceit of Russell’s work. We are not merely alone, rather, we are so utterly and completely alone that only fantastic metaphors can convey the breadth and depth of our loneliness. In her enchanting short story collection, St. Lucy’s Home For Girls Raised By Wolves, Russell expands on this conceit, using surreal metaphors for everyday situations. In the title story, growing up and assimilating into civilized society is equated to attending a refining school for the ostracized human offspring of wolves.
In Swamplandia!, her eagerly anticipated first novel, Russell gives us a portrait of the Loneliest Girl Ever, Ava Bigtree. Ava’s mother, a famous alligator wrestler, has died of cancer. Her grandfather is shuffled off to a retirement home. Her father, proud proprietor of the declining Swamplandia!, a gator-themed amusement park, inexplicably disappears for months at a time. Her brother Kiwi runs away from home, as does her sister Osceola who has eloped with her ethereal lover, the ghost of an Army Corps engineer. Even within the family unit, Russell’s characters are all intensely isolated and alone. So what’s a poor, lonely girl to do? Journey to find her sister, of course.
Ava embarks upon her trek with the requisite sidekick, a mysterious character named Bird Man. As they traverse the everglades in search of Osceola, Ava’s narrative alternates with that of her brother Kiwi, who has defected to the area’s other amusement park, the World of Darkness. What results is a loose, unwieldy story that doesn’t deliver the same emotional punch as Russell’s short fiction. As Ava meanders deeper and deeper in a real world of darkness, through a veritable River Styx and into the underworld, the various plotlines—those of Kiwi, Osceola, the father, and Ava herself—never quite merge in any satisfying fashion. Terrible things happen to Ava, though neither she nor the reader understands why. In the end, Ava is saved by her brother, and Osceola just turns up back at home. While Russell’s terse fantasies clicked so well in her short stories, here in the long form, Ava’s journey drags on without purposeful direction or revelatory twists. There is still enchantment here, but it’s as if we’ve stayed in the haunted house too long; the halls and mirrors have lost their spell.
While there are flashes of brilliant, taut prose throughout—particularly the sharp adolescent dialogue between Kiwi and his friends on the mainland—much of the narration is marred by Ava’s prolix musings.
The bulk of the narrative is told from Ava’s perspective and the stream-of-consciousness prose is too often loose and lazy. When Ava says, “I felt pretty solidly that I was going to die out here,” I just don’t feel the trepidation in “pretty solidly.” Nevertheless, I did love Ava. She may be garrulous, but she’s also a dynamic and incredibly sympathetic character. In her journey to the ends of the Everglades, she suffers from the singular monster loneliness that is Russell’s signature. Even though this novel had its flaws, after I put it down, I remembered Ava and I can still see her now: a young girl out in the swamplands, lost and alone in a dark and dangerous world.