Karen Russell is one of my favorite newish writers. She’s a magician that can make the everyday seem super strange and the strange seem extremely plausible. When her short story collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves came out in 2006, I was thrilled to see a young North American woman pulling off a collection that is informed by magical realism, a genre that many people have noted North Americans have a hard time pulling off. Take for instance the title story about a pack of young half-wolves attending a religious boarding school/orphanage. These werewolf girls are trying to learn a new culture, a culture that they are taught is a better culture, a culture that insists it is much more humane. They stop peeing on the floor and howling, and then, well, who are they? And how will they ever communicate again with their werewolf parents? The story is wildly inventive and heartbreaking. The first story in the collection, “Ava Wrestles the Alligator” is every bit as good. It takes place in the Everglades and is narrated by Ava Bigtree, a young girl whose family owns a crappy theme park called Swamplandia! They live on a small isolating island and most of Ava’s day consists of perfecting alligator wrestling moves, walking around the swamp by herself, and trying to understand her older sister, Ossie, who is close to illiterate and believes that she is dating a ghost. The power of this story comes in part from the disconnection between what Ava reveals to the reader and what Ava herself understands. Is Ossie really having sex with a ghost? Can Ava really control alligators? To what extent can Ava control her own life? The girls in these stories are so strong and spirited and yet are faced with such overwhelming challenges. The short story form works incredibly well to show us this without taking us on the whole journey of their lives. As readers we know these are girls who are accustomed to transformations, and so we also know that whatever overwhelming odds they face, it is possible they can keep discovering alternatives.
Russell’s first novel Swamplandia! came out a few months ago and is based on the story “Ava Wrestles the Alligator.” It follows the same Bigtree family and the majority of the narrative is still Ava’s captivating first person narration. Her older brother, Kiwi, who is only briefly mentioned in the short story has several chapters devoted to him. Kiwi’s chapters are written in third person and aren’t nearly as magical. After the death of their mother and the father’s very inept handling of the three children, Kiwi leaves the island to try and be a benefactor for his sisters. As one might expect, he isn’t very successful and runs into many difficulties on the mainland. Kiwi’s sections have more straightforward political critique than anything Russell has written yet, and while I found that interesting, I was also missing the delightful mystery that governs Russell’s short stories: what do the characters voluntarily reveal about themselves that they might not understand themselves. Moreover, what assumptions are readers making as they interact with these characters? Russell’s third person approach to Kiwi lessens the reader’s ability to maneuver through the complicated socioeconomic terrain of Swamplandia. It is clear when Kiwi is being swindled, and though Kiwi doesn’t always immediately understand this, he always arrives at the same conclusion as readers do.
The sections in Ava’s point of view are, for the majority of the novel, immensely satisfying. Ava still has the strength and vibrancy she had in the short story, and her ways of seeing and describing the swamp are surprising and precise:
“On Swamplandia!, the crickets sang to announce the day’s transition to evening, the flash of pink to black time that meant: deep summer. Vernal currents, an air as lushly populated as seawater, deer flies and damselflies, a whole cosmos of mosquitoes: all this iridescent life rose out of the solution holes at dusk” (164).
“A huge hole in the middle of the ceiling opened onto a clear night sky: it looked as if some great predator had peeled the thatched roof back, sniffed once, and lost interest” (174).
“We were traveling so slowly through the mangrove keys. The bark on the trunks here wove together brilliant magentas and silvers, which reminded me for some reason of the old tourist women’s dye jobs, that funny mix of rubies and milk, age and vanity” (199).
Ava’s observations are so keen and captivating that she becomes the guide for the reader, taking them through the swamps of the Everglades and allowing them to see the uncontrollable power of the place. Everything feeds off of something else—the mosquitoes on people, predator birds on houses, tourists on the mangroves. Ava’s way of seeing the Everglades is one of an infinite system of predators and prey, where one position can easily turn into the other, a completely believable point of view coming from a young girl who wrestles alligators and whose family has been torn apart by the ravages of cancer, an economic collapse, ghosts, and a Bird Man.
Many readers and critics have been reacting to the Bird Man’s place in Russell’s novel, some charge that the last third of the book takes such a dark, disturbing turn that it abandons the original spirit of the book and the short story. A few readers have even gone as far to say that the Bird Man’s place in the novel is irresponsible. This criticism really interests me, especially because the Bird Man in the short story clearly does much the same thing as the Bird Man in the novel, though in the short story when Ava meets him in the swamp, the encounter is inferred rather than stated explicitly:
“What bird are you calling?” I ask, finally, when I can’t stand it any longer.
The Bird Man stops whistling. He grins, so that I can see all his pebbly teeth. He holds out a hand to me over the broth-thin water.
“Much later, I slink into the empty house, feeling skunked and lousy . . .”
“Mom,” I say, “I did a pretty bad thing.” (“Ava Wrestles the Alligator” 13).
Clearly, if the Bird Man molests Ava in both the short story and in the novel then reader’s issues with the Bird Man reside not in the plot, but rather, in something else. Do some readers choose to just ignore what happens in the short story because it is not stated outright? If so, how does that affect our sense of what magical realism is? Are contemporary readers, particularly North American contemporary readers, currently thinking about magical realism in a sanitized way that removes it from real conflict? Then, whenever they are no longer able to sufficiently remove it from reality, find the work flawed? Is that why Karen Russell’s works have often been labeled as “North American magic realism” even though very few of her works have features that directly fall into that slippery category? So they can more comfortably pick and choose what to see/not see in her writing?
I hope not, though I fear this is often the case. The power of literature informed by magical realism comes from the very tricky mystery of how to identify what seems real from what seems fantastic, not from labeling reality as disturbing and magic as harmless fun. Swamplandia! isn’t a perfect novel, primarily because Kiwi’s sections veer away from this mystery. But Ava’s sections are wedded to this mystery all the way through. They are both delightful and disturbing. Venezuelan writer Arturo Uslar Pietri described magical realism as “the mystery of human living amongst the reality of life,” and Ava’s journey through the swamps with and without the Bird Man, uphold that important power.