Avid readers rarely question their job requirements. The endeavor of entering and acquainting oneself with a fictional world seldom seems odd. Not only is it fun and natural, but morally and intellectually justifiable, too. Made-up stories teach us the formal qualities of narrative; they encourage us to tell ourselves about ourselves-and each other. They provide tools for empathy and ply us with the ability to imagine the inner lives of anonymous strangers. But sometimes, this project of reading about fake people doing fake things in a fake world seems ridiculous. Why wouldn’t I read about real people? Real things? The real world? Good fiction, even the most implausible, makes such questions not only irrelevant but unthinkable.
Karen Russell’s first novel, Swamplandia!, is one of those books that pushes these questions to the front of your mind while you read it. Her creative impulses seduce at first, but soon after, they bewilder. Ms. Russell’s virtues come at the peril of her vices. She constructs compact, gemlike images that you hoard with your pen-starring adjective-noun pairings, underlining glittery little phrases. Ms. Russell turns you into a magpie, a reader with a greedy eye for shiny sentences. Buzzards are “tumor-headed,” palms are “toothy,” knees are “small and white as clams.” It’s a lush life she depicts-a mythologized Florida of gnarled mangroves, swamp violets, orchids and dinosaur weather. Ms. Russell’s verbal ground is loamy and fragrant, but like the tropical soil of her setting, it’s nutrient-poor, leached of minerals by the neon flowers and superfoods that grow there. Her specificity is sometimes exhausting, her quirkiness (that exclamation point!) tiresome. The particulars she deals in are inconceivably weird, like those of an anime plot, but they come embedded in a matrix that lacks real characters with whom we might empathize.
Swamplandia! is narrated by Ava Bigtree, a teenage girl whose family owns the novel’s eponymous theme park on a remote island where her deceased mother was an alligator wrestler. The extended family lives in esoteric isolation, weather-proofing the tourist attractions and training for their theatrical battles with the alligators. Ava, her sister, Ossie, and her brother, Kiwi, don’t go to school, but she and her siblings know the intricacies of their local ecosystem and how to pacify ferocious reptiles. The family business is barely sustainable, and the children live in a state of constant half-mourning for their mother. When Ossie falls in love with a ghost, Louis Thanksgiving, and follows him to the underworld, Ava sets off to track her down, meeting a menagerie of eccentrics on her way.
Ms. Russell remains astute to the necessity of balancing the phantom lovers and surreal names with concrete banalities and doses of verisimilitude. Ms. Russell writes a sort of dirty magic realism; the details are fey and fantastical, but her narrative solutions are hardboiled. We learn that Ava’s mother died not of some occult ailment or by some supernatural disaster, but of plain old cancer: “Her head got soft and bald like a baby’s head. We had to watch her sink into her own face. Hilola Jane Bigtree, world-class alligator wrestler, terrible cook, mother of three, died in a dryland hospital bed in West Davey on an overcast Wednesday, March 10, at 3:12 pm.” This information, this data, doesn’t come to us particularly early in the novel or as mere exposition. It’s hard not to resent a surplus of specific details that yields such a deficit of specific feelings. Ava admits to indulging in magical thinking about her mother’s death. “Somehow,” she confesses, “I had worked it out in my mind to where I could believe in our mother without having to believe in ghosts exactly.” Ms. Russell demands that we, like Ava, mentally maintain a sort of semi-delusion while reading Swamplandia!, trusting that mentions of hospice care, scientists from the University of Florida and Dwight D. Eisenhower will suspend our disbelief.
Ms. Russell, who is from Miami, does not invent this world for superficial reasons. The Florida coastline she describes reads like an organic exaggeration of her home. She is devoted to her language and setting, and she clearly takes pleasure in the act of writing. “Nights in the swamp were dark and star-lepered,” she writes, and you get the sense that this is a description Ms. Russell’s held in her mind for years. Similarly: “The wet season was a series of land-versus-water skirmishes, marl turned to chowder and shunted the baby-green cocopalms into the sea; tides manically revised the coastlines.” Like Joan Didion’s California or Hunter S. Thompson’s Las Vegas, Ms. Russell’s fictionalized Florida is based on a set of already fantastic real-life premises. With its subtropical climate and exotic flora and fauna, Florida, a peninsula, sticks out of the country like a sore thumb. It has the highest mortgage delinquency rate in the nation, and a large percentage of the state is now owned by the federal government. At 345 feet, Britton Hill, Fla., is the lowest high-point of any U.S. state. But Swamplandia!, Ava tells us, is far below sea level, one of those nice facts of fiction that automatically fabulizes a place. The Bigtrees, with their obsolete theme park and mystical beliefs, are mortals in a metaphorical underworld; the swamp is their River Styx.
Unfortunately for us, Ms. Russell’s whimsy does not scale. Swamplandia! arrives three years on the heels of St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, the story collection from which this novel sprang. (One of the stories, “Ava Wrestles the Alligator,” is the novel’s original kernel.) Both books share Ms. Russell’s preoccupations with place and adolescence, but the short stories are ultimately more successful. In all her writing, Ms. Russell inspects her own inventions with a jeweler’s loupe, with a keen eye for unexpected facets and linguistic clarity. But the microscopic attention comes at the expense of an imaginative universe that feels worth just so much of our time. If you’re a reader susceptible to the fear that fiction might just be silly enterprise, stay away. You can love a book in incremental units-some inventive diction here, a luscious sentence there-knowing all the while that these annotatable attributes are not all that fortifying. For now, at least, Ms. Russell is better when writing short stories, where she can splash us with colorful language and dunk us in deranged dimensions, where we can enter the fun house and then get the hell out.