Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! (Exclamation point, sic) has a had a great run for itself, winning both popular and critical acclaim enough to end up on the New York Time’s top ten for 2011. I resisted getting into it because it sounded like a gimmick novel. Then I read the opening pages–one of the most captivating beginnings to a novel I’ve ever seen–and decided to give it a try. I should have quit after the first chapter.
The setting–an alligator farm amusement park in the swampy wilderness of islands off southern Florida–the novel is little more than a beefed up piece of juvenile fiction with some sex and mysticism thrown in for seasoning.
I admit to learning a fair amount about the history and geography of Florida and its native people as well as about alligators in general and alligator wrestling in particular, but much of that material was gratuitous to the action and the character–a 13-year-old wouldn’t know so much, and the telling (not showing) bogged things down. Furthermore, the endless speculation about the afterlife and/or spirit world grew tedious and weighed heavily on an already shaky narrative bridge.
I wish Karen Russell well and am happy for her success. Not her fault the acclaim doesn’t match the achievement. Nor is it Luis Urrea’s fault that the acclaim not accorded to his The Hummingbird’s Daughter and The Queen of America didn’t match his considerably superior achievement. She didn’t write the Times best list. But somebody (somebodies) did, and they put the likes of Swamplandia! and A Visit from the Good Squad (to mention a couple) on higher ground than much better books. But has it not always been thus?
Thank the universe that some of us are possessed of better taste and discrimination.