The Short Version: A collection of stories set mostly in the wilds of Florida – but not quite the Florida we know. This is Russell’s fantastic version of the state: where lycanthropes are real, ghost fish can be seen with special diving goggles, and giant mollusks once roamed the seas.
The Review: I’ve had rather a tumultuous time with Swamplandia! since reading it. At the time, I felt betrayed by the way Russell pulled the magical-realism rug out from under the reader in shocking fashion. But that book has stuck with me quite vividly in ways that few books in the intervening year have done. With her new collection of stories just hitting shelves, I thought I ought to go and see where it all got started.
Quite literally, as it turns out. The first story, “Ava Wrestles the Alligator” introduces us to Swamplandia! the theme park and the Bigtree family. Ava and Ossie are there, Grandpa Sawtooth (who gets his own story, delightfully, a little later) too – Chief Bigtree puts in an appearance a few stories later as well. But its clearly a nacent version of the tale she’d spin out into the much larger (and better) novel. In terms of the legacy, it is like a demo track – I’m much more interested in the songs that didn’t make the cut and languished in the vaults, to awkwardly draw out the metaphor.
All but one of these stories takes place in Florida – that outlier, interestingly, takes place somewhere up in the Arctic on a glacier… but it’s also maybe my least favorite, being a bit derivative of the other themes and incidents in this very collection. So I will say no more about it and focus the rest of the while on the Floridian stories.
The prevailing feeling I get from these stories – and, upon reflection, that I had after reading Swamplandia! – is of sadness. A certain melancholy that I cannot quite place. The stories themselves are often left ambiguously resolved and perhaps it has something to do with that: the sense that we’ll never quite know what happened to the sea turtle babies or where Olivia (or her ghost) is. But for all the complaints (and I have seen plenty on Goodreads, heard plenty from friends), I couldn’t find it in me to dislike the unresolved stories. It fits, I think, with what she’s trying to accomplish and evoke. These characters, they are all unresolved. Even Grandpa Sawtooth, old and one-legged and heading slowly towards death, doesn’t have everything he might want. The younger characters, the ones who shouldn’t have any cares… they are burdened by things they didn’t even know they were worried about. In some cases, they don’t even realize they’re burdened – but the reader sees it, thanks to Russell’s insightful writing and that accumulated knowledge that can only come from living life.
The other wondrous thing – and I do mean truly wondrous, because the sadness is also wondrous – about these stories is the world Karen Russell creates for us. Again, this may be why I was so aggravated at the end of Swamplandia! – because she is so good at creating an almost child-like sense of the fantastic that it’s crushing to be brought back to Earth and reality. And I’ll even give you that some of the stories, the fantastic elements could in fact not be fantastic – the ghost fish are the leading example but even the Blizzard… we see it from a child’s eyes, a child trying to comprehend what it is they’re seeing and so they create a sort of semi-fantasy that allows them to better rationalize it. But there are also trained ice-skating apes – that’s pretty magically real, you know?
Of course, children growing up – learning about the world, trying to comprehend it, etc – is not new territory. And when told correctly, it can often be beautifully sad. Sure, a book like The Fault in Our Stars is bawl-your-eyes-out-on-the-subway sad and it does, indeed, deal with kids having to grow up ‘before their time’. But I’m thinking of another author, one who was famous for his short stories but also his few beautiful novels: Ray Bradbury. Bradbury’s work was more fantastic than these tales, which are magical but not fantastic (here is a difference, I’d be happy to expound on it more some other time if you’d like), but the feeling I get finishing this book is not unlike the feeling I had finishing Something Wicked This Way Comes. Bradbury had the October Country (my preferred locale, I’ll admit) – Ms. Russell has Florida.
This feels like how short stories should be, if I’m being bombastic about it. I want my own writing to work like this and it astonishes me to see these delights unfold before me again and again. I like using the puzzle-box metaphor but here I’d like to go with something else – something more magical, as perhaps befits the subject matter. You want to know what it’s like to read one of these stories, especially the truly exceptional ones? Imagine seeing a piece of paper flat on the table in front of you that, before your eyes and without anyone touching it, folds itself into a beautiful origami flower and comes to rest in the palm of your hand. It is short, beautiful in motion, and remains in memory quite portably.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. If anything, I found this collection to be pitch-perfect. If I didn’t love the Arctic story, I also didn’t dislike it. I was thrilled to return to the wilds of the Everglades and the uniquely crafted universe Ms. Russell is developing, in general. It’s a beautiful melancholy – one not untinged by happiness – and I do not know how else to say it: believe the hype. Karen Russell is the real deal.