Oh boyz. It has been a week (month? year? lifetime?) of stress, boys and girls, which is the reason for my unfortunate radio silence lately. Fortunately, the second meeting of my college’s alumni “Nostalgic English Majors Book Group Meet-up” just ended, which is the perfect impetus to get back to telling everyone my thoughts on books, regardless of their actual interest.
This meet-up’s subject was Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, a book previously reviewed by a fellow Book Blobber, though I largely ignored her post until after I had finished. (After rereading it just now, however, I find that I agree with most of what she says. Also, she provides such a good plot summary of this book that I think I’m just going to skip that part and get right into what I thought about it.)
This book was a struggle for me to read. I read it in several short sittings, as I do most books, but each sitting was a renewed challenge for me to actually get into the book—which, in the end, never really happened. I would try to read at least one chapter before putting it down, but I almost never did (until this weekend, when the meet-up deadline forced me to make the final push to finish).
I ultimately decided that my main problem with this book was Ava, the 13-year-old primary narrator. She didn’t make the decisions I wanted her to make; she didn’t ask the questions I needed answered. Sometimes grappling with a character is really satisfying, makes you think about other parts of the book in new ways, but that didn’t happen here, largely (I think) because I didn’t see how her decisions/lack of questioning related to a wider theme. I just couldn’t see the point of her behaving so contrarily.
About two-thirds of the way through the book, there is a major adjustment in Ava’s perception of the world around her (sorry, that’s really all I can say without spoilers…). What I couldn’t understand was why this change occurred. Some pretty awful stuff happens to her shortly afterward, but I almost couldn’t even focus on it because I was too caught with trying to understand this major change in her perspective. As I was telling my fellow nostalgic English majors, I wanted to be able to point to an event, a reason, an example and say, “Ahh. This is why this happened. This is the root of the change.” I think one of the reasons that people love fiction is that it makes more sense than real life: There are reasons. There are things to analyze that have answers that mean something. Again, sometimes even in fiction, this doesn’t happen, and I still like it—just didn’t happen in Swamplandia!
I guess what I’m trying to say is that fiction operates by certain rules that readers know and understand. Breaking the rules is fun, too! When it’s done well and with a recognizable purpose, it can make great literature, the kind of books that will be read for centuries. For whatever reason, the rule breaking employed by Russell just didn’t resonate with me. It was a good book for discussion, though—while most of us had major issues with it, a couple really liked it, and it was fun to work out why.
P.S. I took time out from Faulkner to finish this in time for the meet-up… we’ll see if I go back to it right away (spoiler alert: doubtful).