As numerous articles and news stories have pointed out, mainstream literary fiction has been lousy with writers who employ genre elements in their stories and novels. Back in the spring of last year, I wrote a piece for Clarkesworld Magazine highlighting some of the writers who are a part of this trend. But these writers are writing new books, and there are so many more than can be covered in one article!
“Genre in the Mainstream” will be a regular blog series which will highlight one author like this at a time. I’m not claiming these writers for the science fiction and fantasy camps, but rather asserting that if you like genre fiction, you’ll probably like these mainstream literary writers too.
Up first is every one’s favorite Miami sweetheart; the endearing and magical Karen Russell.
The title of Russell’s new novel, Swamplandia! refers to a fictional amusement park operated by a family called The Bigtrees. The primary attraction at Swamplandia! are shows that involve alligators, specifically alligator wrestling. At the start of the novel, the mother, Hilola Bigtree is lost to cancer, leaving the family and the future of Swamplandia! in serious peril. The story is told primarily through the eyes of Ava Bigtree the youngest of the three children as she tries to wrestle (alligator pun intended) not only with her families various crises, but also with the fact that one by one, members of her family depart, leaving her alienated and alone.
Without revealing too much of the plot, the world of Ava, her family, and the island of Swamplandia! is decidedly not our planet Earth. Like the Wes Anderson film,The Life Aquatic, this universe seems a little too outrageous to be taken completely seriously. When I made the Wes Anderson comparison while speaking to the author recently, Karen exclaimed, “I know right? And if there is a movie, Bill Murray can totally play Chief Bigtree!” Clearly, Karen Russell is hyper-aware of the magical realism that pervades her novel and how this style has pop-culture relatives like the aforementioned Anderson movies.
Whether you picture Billy Murray while reading or not, Chief Bigtree is the patriarch of the Bigtree brood, and is faced with the monstrous challenge of saving his home and livelihood from evil competition. Not only does the alligator laden Swamplandia! exist in this world, but also a RIVAL amusement park called The World of Darkness where visitors essentially experience a rollercoaster version of Hell. We learn about The World of Darkness through the experiences of Ava’s wayward brother Kiwi, who has secretly obtained a job there in order to save up money to refinance the struggling Swamplandia! Staff and management refer to patrons of the World of Darkness as “Lost Souls” while an air show attraction is called The Four Pilots of the Apocalypse.
Meanwhile, on Swamplandia!, Ava’s older sister, Ossie, is dating a ghost. Early on in the novel, Ossie and Ava discover a book called The Spiritist’s Telegraph, a tome that gives detailed instructions on how to commune with the dead. There’s a particularly adorable scene in which the two girls construct their own homemade Ouija board in an attempt to better speak to the ghosts. Soon however, Ossie is undergoing a variety of possessions, one that leads her to fall in love with a tragic character named Louis Thanksgiving. Russell makes sure the line between teenage angst and actual paranormal romance is seriously blurred here; Ossie gives a detailed account of the life of this long-dead man, something she could only know if she’d REALLY been possessed. (This particular section of the novel was excerpted in The New Yorker last summer.) Ossie eventually decides that she must go to the Underworld to live with Louis Thanksgiving, and departs on a mysterious barge away from Swamplandia! Because Ava’s father has also left on an equally mysterious “business trip” she is stranded and begins her own journey in search of her sister, which becomes a harrowing journey all of it’s own.
Because I would encourage a fan of horror, fantasy, magical realism or science fiction to read this novel, I’ll not tell you just how real or unreal all the ghosts and spooky stuff turns out to be. I’m not even sure myself yet what to make of exactly what happened to Ava and Ossie. But what is telling about this book is just how rooted Karen Russell is in her influences. She is a huge Stephen King fan, which is in evidence not only by the particularly original prose, but also by the uneasiness which pervades even the most innocuous and seemingly harmless scenes in the book. The novel also functions like a series of minor mysteries, and when one event is explained, another more odd and upsetting seems to take its place.
The world of Swamplandia! has ghost romances, a bear named Judy Garland, as spooky journey to the underworld, two bizarre amusement parks, and alligators which the family Bigtree have all named Seth. Oh, and did I mention, one of them is red? Red Seth (alligator). If you’re a reader that loves the fantastic, then this frighteningly charming alternate universe created by Karen Russell in her debut novel is definitely not to be missed.