This summer, our weather has been a little drizzly, a little chilled. My job has been mind-numbing. The “creative writing” I have been reading from my middle school students is flamboyant in content but completely devoid of style. I can only handle so many magic wands or orphaned princesses, so many repetitions of “I was so happy, I was so sad.” I have been craving sticky, layered language, a sophisticated protagonist and a real conflict– something dire.
Thus, as a remedy, I turned to wunderkind Karen Russell’s Swamplandia, a quick-footed, quirky tale of an alligator wrestling family from the Florida swamp. The narrator is Ava Bigtree, an eloquent 13-year-old abandoned by a dead mother, a ghost-loving sister, a wimpy brother, and a dad who everyone affectionately calls “The Chief.” Left to her own devices, she befriends a “Bird Man” vagabond keen to lure her away from Swamplandia, her family’s depleted theme park. Conflict abound, this book is thick, stylized, and funny. But something in the writing irked me in the end.
Russell’s style here is obviously what is most lauded– she uses a thousand figures of speech per chapter, and her descriptions can result in gasps, but all too often, eye-rolling. I had the same reaction to Illustrado by Miguel Syjuco, another stylist that blew everyone’s mind (except mine). It seems young writers will do ANYTHING stylistic to get a big name, including loading their text with such mind-blowing sentences as to warrant a HUGE review. They will not often take chances with plot though; Swamplandia is a typical family disfunction story and Illustrado is a typical mystery. Instead, these writers feel safe experimenting with language, where they can show off their countless similes without a jarring point of view, plot hook or innovative structure. In this case, Swamplandia had style in spades, but in the end, struck me as trying too hard to impress us with language. She crafts incredible characters, and her setting is truly unique. I look forward to Russell’s next book, when she can finally relax her style, comforted by the fact that yes, she’s blown our minds before.