Monday, September 19, 2016

A somewhat florid Florida

Sept. 10, 2016 "A somewhat florid Florida": I cut out this article by Brett Josef Grubisic in the National Post on Feb. 5, 2011:

No one will mistake Karen Russell for a latter-day convert to Raymond Carver’s orthodoxy of laconic characters and spare prose. A young writer who gathered widespread acclaim (from Granta to Stephen King) with St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, her 2006 debut short story collection, Russell is a fevered Gothic maximalist at home with rococo descriptive curlicues, filigreed strands of phrasing and bedazzling embroidered passages.

With a volubility that, for better or worse, recalls Zadie Smith at her word-happiest, Russell’s first novel is a wild ride of a performance. With
explicit nods to The Inferno and Through the Looking Glass, Swamplandia! tells of the meteoric descent of a larger-than-life family residing in a rickety self-made wonderland off the coast of Florida.

The mechanics of the wayward plot are relatively simple: After the death by cancer of Hilola “Swamp Centaur” Bigtree, beloved family matriarch and star attraction of Swamplandia!, a money - pit alligator wrestling theme park that’s a 40 minute ferry ride from fictional Loomis Country, Fla., the bereaved survivors scatter.

The Chief, Hilola’s blustering Willy Loman of a husband, soon leaves the island to secure refinancing for Swamplandia!; alone and unmoored, his three teenage children are quickly exposed to losses of innocence from the oddest of sources. (Their grandfather, Ernest Schedrach, who fled his miserable life as an unemployed pulp mill worker in Ohio during the Depression and took the fanciful name Sawtooth Bigtree, is installed in a retirement home.)

A trainee alligator wrestler at the time of her mother’s death, Ava Bigtree supplies the bulk of the narration. Capable of effortless classical allusions as well as sophisticated parsings of pop culture, she is less a bereft, barely pubescent character to feel sympathy for than a showcase for Russell’s voiceless in their party chignons, they stand around the back of a ballroom having flashbacks for most of the movie, regretting older events in their minds, ladling cups of glowing punch from a big bowl, and only after the dying violin note of the final song do they at last step away from the wall”) or a flock of birds (“The buzzards continued to pour

Her homeschooled 13-year-old sounds like a clever MFA student techniques and musings.

Whether Ava is commenting on a TV broadcast (“As if on cue, that lame movie from the sixties started playing, Ladies in Waiting. A quintet of actresses haunt the punch bowl — they are supposed to be spinster sisters or spinster best friends, or maybe just ugly and needy acquaintances — anyhow, these pink chameleons, over Swamplandia! in clothy waves; on the radio, the university scientists speculated that the unusual migration had something to do with the late frosts in the Midwest. Disturbances in the raptors’ diurnal cues”), she registers as a clever MFA student, not a child. For a home-schooled 13-year-old whose mother read her TV Guide, such worldliness and wordplay, while always remarkable, strains credibility.

Throwing Ava into a quest to save Osceola, her missing older sister, allows Russell to indulge her more-is-more philosophy and up the pyrotechnics (and allusions: Homer through Twain). Unsurprisingly, the journey into “the underworld” deep within the swamp, accompanied by a guide with ulterior motives named the Bird Man, grows dark and perilous.

Russell reserves the remaining fifth of Swamplandia! for Ava’s brother Kiwi, a bookish dreamer who bolts from the island in hopes of finding an income that he can send home. Voltaire’s naive Candide in a Floridian cultural wasteland as painted by Bosch, Kiwi lands a job at Swamplandia!’s rival, a franchise theme park called the World of Darkness. A series of surreal blackly comic set pieces, Russell’s elaborate counter-world (simplified to “the World” by its employees) features a Leviathan ride, Lost Souls, the Lake of Fire, and even overpriced Dante’s Tamales from Beelzebub’s Snack Bar.

Kiwi’s misadventures there and in the strip mall territory around it — including run-ins with punishing bosses, unfathomable girls, crude workmates and, best of all, a stripper beauty pageant at a lowrent casino at which his father is the MC — are recounted exuberantly. The extravagant writing, at times risking proximity to ham-fisted symbolism, is characteristically engrossing, yet it’s pleasurable because the scenes are significantly shorter than those of Ava.

There’s no doubting the sheer talent of Swamplandia!’s 29-year-old author. Words and ideas seemingly pour from her inventive mind in a torrent. It’s Russell’s inner editor, however, that could benefit from assertiveness training.

Brett Josef Grubisic is the author of The Age of Cities. He teaches at the University of British Columbia.

"An Alaska of last resort": I cut out this article by Philip Marchand in the National Post on Feb. 5, 2011:

Fans of the television series Northern Exposure will recall the quirky, free-spirited, mostly engaging characters who inhabited a small community in Alaska. The very remoteness of the locale, its isolation, the feeling that anything could happen, the more fanciful the better, contributed to an atmosphere of magic. The series was what literary critics of another era would call a “romance” — that is to say, not realistic.

Realism is what David Vann does. His novel Caribou Island (HarperCollins, $28.99) is set in and around a small Alaskan community called Soldotna, which contains no amusing characters. It’s the kind of town where rusted-out cars litter backyards, and strip malls alternate with abandoned lots full of more rusted-out cars. The economy is marginal and seasonal, relying on tourism and fishing. Desperate locals work at the cannery, a grinding, tedious employer of last resort. Visitors, far from being charmed by the site, and the state as a whole, call Alaska a “dump” and a “toilet.” Even Jim, a reasonably prosperous local dentist, views Alaska as “the end of the world, a place of exile. Those who couldn’t fit anywhere else came here, and if they couldn’t cling to anything here, they just fell off the edge.”

One resident who still dreams of Alaska as a magical frontier is Gary, who came here 30 years ago, after realizing he was “outclassed” as a graduate student in medieval literature. Gary and his wife, Irene, acquired all the “Alaskan accoutrements” such as moose antlers on their small house, but their daughter, Rhoda, a veterinarian’s assistant, views the results as a “junkyard.” Some might admire the lifestyle of Gary and Irene, as described by Vann. “No TV. No Internet. No phone. Just the lake, the woods, their home, their kids, going into town to work and buy supplies.” But it’s a sad life all the same — Gary scrapes by, somehow, with his failed business enterprises.

Now he has a recurrence of the dream. He and Irene will live even closer to the elements by building a cabin on nearby Caribou Island and moving there for the oncoming winter. It’s an insane vision but Irene is helpless to prevent it.

The reader naturally wonders why she sticks with this loser. Vann explains. As a 10year-old, Irene came home from school one day to see the body of her mother, a suicide, hanging from the rafters. Irene subsequently was passed around, for the rest of her childhood, by relatives who did not want her. The result is Irene’s lifelong determination never to be abandoned again. She will stick to this marriage even though both partners bitterly blame the other for the ruined lives they have lived.

Their two adult children face prospects little better than a cabin on Caribou Island. Mark, a part-time fisherman, is a pothead. Rhoda lives with Jim, whose feelings for her are tepid at best. Rhoda nonetheless dreams of an elaborate wedding ceremony in Hawaii.

This novel gave me the willies. It is nothing new in American literature, of course, to dwell on people with rusted out cars littering the backyard, families beset with booze, divorce, terrible jobs, unreliable dads, children raising themselves. In this novel, however, trailer park mores are combined with a fearful climate and a primordial wilderness, which makes falling off the edge feel even scarier. Irene, whose dilemma is underlined by searing pains in her head that no doctor can diagnose or treat, views the forest as “malevolent.” Gary, despite his bravado, deep down experiences even the “inanimate world” as full of “intent.” It is an intent, needless to say, unfriendly to humans. The dark, brooding, end-of-the-world feeling to the landscape and the seascape makes human follies loom larger than usual, and seem more devastating in their consequences.

Gary’s cabin is a case in point. From the very first day of construction, Gary does nothing but blunder — his carpentry labours are more like a Laurel and Hardy skit than a serious attempt to build a shelter. “To grapple effectually with even purely material problems requires more serenity of mind and more lofty courage than people generally imagine,” Joseph Conrad once wrote. Such serenity of mind and lofty courage is well beyond Gary’s reach. “I’m an incompetent ass, and that’s what I’ve always been,” he confesses to Irene at one point. The cabin itself, lopsided and full of gaps, becomes a symbol of his disordered soul.

In one sense, Caribou Island is a paean to bourgeois values. Material poverty and shabbiness is a reflection not so much of bad luck as defect- ive character, which is why Vann pauses even to note that his characters drive “battered” old cars, “crappy” Datsuns and so on. “No one in the family drove anything worth looking at,” Rhoda reflects at one point — a fact, again, of symbolic import.

Give Rhoda credit. At least she tries to help her parents — the only character in the novel, it seems, concerned about someone other than herself. (A visiting couple, Carl and Monique, two other major characters in the novel, wreak havoc with their blazing selfcentredness.) But Rhoda has barely enough resources to help herself. If she had any gumption she would have left town for Seattle or Portland long ago.

So the gloom deepens and the momentum towards disaster becomes unstoppable. Readers may sense what is coming but it’s hard to look away — partly because Vann knows how to heighten attention with sharply focused prose and use of alternating points of view.

There is another element at work here, not often discussed in critical forums or book club chat, and that is the perverse pleasure readers often take in the misfortunes of characters — a pleasure given boundless scope in fiction. The principle applies here. No matter how badly things are going in the life of a reader, that reader can contemplate the dismal fate of Gary and Irene and feel almost jolly in comparison.

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