Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Review: Swamplandia!

First, a rant: last week, the winners of the prestigious Pulitzer Prize were announced. For the first time since 1974, there was no winner for fiction. Of the three finalists - Swamplandia!, Train Dreams, and The Pale King - none were considered quite good enough to nab the award. Obviously, this is bullshit. To say that none of the books published in the last year were good enough for the Pulitzer is an insult to readers and writers everywhere. I was not the only one who felt this way, and the backlash on Twitter (which is where I watched the drama unfold) was impressive. Ann Patchett writes about the disappointment better than I could, and her article is worth a read. Here's my favorite part:
Let me underscore the obvious here: Reading fiction is important. It is a vital means of imagining a life other than our own, which in turn makes us more empathetic beings. Following complex story lines stretches our brains beyond the 140 characters of sound-bite thinking, and staying within the world of a novel gives us the ability to be quiet and alone, two skills that are disappearing faster than the polar icecaps. 

Unfortunately, the world of literature lacks the scandal, hype and pretty dresses that draw people to the Academy Awards, which, by the way, is not an institution devoted to choosing the best movie every year as much as it is an institution designed to get people excited about going to the movies. The Pulitzer Prize is our best chance as writers and readers and booksellers to celebrate fiction. This was the year we all lost.
Ann Patchett, you are amazing.

Now, for my review of the book that was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize, Swamplandia!  

Swamplandia! tells the story of the Bigtree family, who own and operate a park on an island in the Florida swamp, which was once famous for it's alligator wrestling shows. The mother of the family, Hilola, had been the main attraction and the backbone of the family, so when she dies of cancer, things for the Bigtrees quickly fall apart. Their father, Chief, goes to the mainland to find investors. The oldest brother, Kiwi, goes to the mainland in search of a job and a proper education, to keep Swamplandia! and himself alive, respectively. Osceola, the middle sister, is delusional (or not?), falling in love and having relationships with ghosts from the underworld. And the youngest daughter, and our narrator, Ava, is trying to hone her alligator wrestling skills so she can take Hilola's place, while saving her sister from the underworld. Clearly, there's a lot going on in this book, and for the most part Russell handles it deftly. 

Reading this book was an interesting experience, because my opinion changed each time I finished about 100 pages. Here is an approximation of my thoughts as I read:
  • Pages 1-100: This book is so weird and gorgeous and the language is so good and oh, god, I love this world and these characters!  
  • Pages 101-200: It's slowing down a bit, which is understandable. You can't sustain that beauty for 400 pages - no one could! Still, I'm intrigued and the high from the those first pages hasn't yet faded. Take me deeper into the swamp, Karen!  
  • Pages 201-300: Is this book over yet? Are they still in the swamp? This is kind of dragging. Maybe I'll catch up on Glee.  
So, yes. The book ended on a high note, as far as literature goes.

The writing in Swamplania! is it's greatest strength - the descriptions are so interesting and fresh, and I often paused after reading a line, only to read it a second or third time, trying to figure out how she did that, and how I could do it, too. While the middle section of the book lagged - the plot slowed down, we were mostly focused on two characters, and there were some chapters that shifted to third person close on Kiwi, which I wasn't in love with - the beginning and the ending were so great that it's hard for me to even remember why I was less impressed with other parts. The feeling I am left with is one of admiration and affection - for Ava Bigtree, for the swamp, for the tragic ways that even the weirdest families can fall apart. It was sadder than I expected, but in a good way.

Do I think Swamplandia! deserved to win the Pulitzer? No, not quite. It was good, but it wasn't great, and I can understand why the judges hesitated to give it the award. Do I think that there was a book published in the last year that did deserve to win? Absolutely. And I will keep reading until I find it.


  1. Wow, I had no clue that that all went down (I'm in a mental cave lately). I think its really a reflection of where we are today. People take themselves far too seriously, and I think perceive fiction as less sophisticated, much in the same way the Oscars reward serious dramatic performances over comedy and light-heartedness. I just downloaded this book, excited to give it a read!

  2. Ooh, this sounds like a really cool book. To be honest, I don't read a ton of fiction, but I've been trying to be better about it just for the sake of broadening my horizons. What you describe about the use of language is one of my favorite things about reading and writing--when the language really works, it's like magic. I just love that. (That's one of the reasons why Edith Wharton is one of my favorite novelists.)

    About the Pulitzer Prize: this is a fly-over analysis, as I don't follow anything in the way of awards, but it seems like such an insult to the finalists that the judges didn't pick a winner. Why were they willing to go so far as to pick finalists--FINALISTS!--but not a winner? That smells fishy to me.

    1. The Pulitzer is kind of weird. There is a first round, where a number of people choose ten or so books to go the judges, who then choose a winner and two finalists from those books. So there could be a book that was overlooked and not sent to the judges at all, and it could be that the judges can't agree on a winner out of the ten they get to vote on. (This is what happens if they can't reach a consensus - no winner!) It's definitely a convoluted and weird system, which clearly does not work well.

  3. Love Ann Patchett & love her comments on the prize--there wasn't anything awarded to newspaper Editorial Writing either, which I think is a total shame. Can't wait to add Swamplandia to my stack of books though!

    1. Definitely a shame. I was mad about Editorial Writing, but directed most of my rage at Fiction, since that's what I'm most invested in. Let me know what you think of Swamplanida!

  4. Hmm. I think I'll read that.

  5. I really enjoyed Swamplandia! (gave it 4/5 on GoodReads) and was curious to know what you'd think of it. The book never dragged for me, probably because I also liked reading Kiwi's point of view. I completely agree with you that Karen Russell's writing is awesome! Dig her style.

    And wow, I had no idea what was going on with this year's Pulitzer awards. I'm bummed not to have a fiction winner to read this year. Speaking of Ann Patchett, I also gave State of Wonder 4/5, although both the premise and characters in Swamplandia! are more memorable.

    Thanks for posting your review!

  6. I'm up to Chapter 18. Karen writes in a flowery way and explains things in detail yet I can't say I find myself engrossed and I am having truble relating to the characters. I really don't feel much for any of them. I really do hope there is some point to this book and the ends get tied together. I found myself skimming the paragraphs becuase the level of adjectives, deatials, etc to the stupidest things truly makes me want to gag. I guess this style of writing or story line is just not for me. SHould be interesting to her what the book club has to say.