Swamplandia!

Karen Russell’s debut novel, Swamplandia!, has been highly praised in the last year. Pulitzer finalist, optioned by HBO. You see what I mean.

It’s a good book. Though perhaps not for everyone. The tl;dr is:

Avoid if you can’t handle bad things happening to children, if you want to know whether an event is really happening or not, or if you want to know what the point of all of this was.

Read if you like narrators that do not know they are unreliable, if you want a complex story of poor judgement and failed consent, or if you love stories that understand the pervasive nature of failure.

Spoilers follow.

When I was entering college, my class was assigned to read the book Geek Love, so that we would have something to talk about during orientation. During the book discussion I said I didn’t really care for the book. I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, I said, and this book didn’t have a plot. The characters wandered around thinking about their feelings, and I found it boring. (One of my new classmates told me that I didn’t understand it because I was immature, and that reading literature at college would help me outgrow fantasy books.)

I see my point then, and I also see that I might like a book like Geek Love more these days. When I was 17, I wanted stories to have a plot. I wanted stories to lay tracks down for me, to be a guide and a path towards my future. I wanted the books I read to tell me how things might could be, who I might could be, where I might fit in, how I could belong. I did not want stories about failure, or despair, or futility, or uncertain insecurity. I wanted stories where people figured out what was right, where mistakes were mended and purpose achieved. I was going to be a knight when I grew up, possibly a superhero. I was going to save the world — or at least save my friends — and I didn’t need books about confused muddling failure to get in my way.

I appreciate confused muddling failure more, these days.

Swamplandia! offers no easy answers. Nothing works out as planned. People fail spectacularly, catastrophically. There are lies and deceptions and hideous errors in judgment.

I have made hideous errors in judgment since I was eighteen. And, like the characters in Swamplandia!, I didn’t know what to do afterwards.

There is a scene, towards the end of Swamplandia!. In this scene, a character has done something awful to another character. The reaction of the character who has been on the receiving end of this is horribly, horribly perfectly written. Sometimes bad things happen because other people are evil. But sometimes you can identify a moment of bad decision on your part. How, then, is the fault apportioned?

Swamplandia! asks this question over and over again. And it doesn’t give any answers.

At the end of the book huge events have occurred. Lies have been exposed. Things have been said and done that can’t be undone. But the mysteries are replaced with new mysteries, and the lies … well, now there are new lies. New silences to replace the silences of before. Swamplandia! is an amazingly well-written book. There is nothing precious or pretentious about it, it races along in vivid prose. I can’t swear that everyone who reads it will enjoy it, however. If you want answers delivered in a tidy package this book will disappoint.

I wasn’t disappointed. I knew what I was getting going in, and Swamplandia! delivered.

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