02.04.11

Great Weekend Reads

This weekend: sisters take over their family’s alligator park in Swamplandia!, Allison Pearson visits the cruel fates of adolescent fandom, and the haunting novels of Albania’s Ismail Kadare.

Into the Swamp

Swamplandia!, the talented short-story writer Karen Russell’s debut novel, gives us two more of those precocious children who overcrowd the last 60 years of American fiction. From J.D. Salinger’s Glass children to William Gaddis’ JR to Jonathan Safran Foer’s Oskar Schell, our literature has clamored with intellectually overdeveloped but socially stunted children. Through their eyes, we’re traditionally afforded fresh perspectives—often poignant or satirical—on modern society. Swamplandia!’s unique twist is to present two youths who at first seem to be Everglades savants, but turn out to be just regular kids in swampy circumstances.

The children in question are 13-year-old Ava Bigtree and her older brother Kiwi, who along with their mentally disturbed middle sister Osceola, are the heirs to Swamplandia!, their family’s alligator wrestling park. (That exclamation mark means, of course, that every time Russell ends a sentence with the park’s name, the sentence feels like it’s being yelped.) 

Swamplandia!—which is, appropriately enough, located way out in the glades on a gothic little island accessible only by boat—has fallen on hard times since the death of the Bigtree matriarch, Hilola. Worsening matters is the arrival (straight from the mind of George Saunders, it sometimes feels like) of a vastly more elaborate theme park called the World of Darkness—an “exotic invasive species of business”—funded by the cheerfully named Carpathian Corporation. 

After Hilola’s death, Kiwi runs away to the mainland and takes a job at the World of Darkness, where most of the attractions seem to be based on disturbing Biblical stories.  His comically surreal experiences there are the best sections of the novel, and contain Russell’s most elegant writing. “The World of Darkness seemed to understand its workers the way that floating sticks got understood by a river, and studied to splinters, and undone by it,” she writes.

Kiwi arrives on the mainland expecting to get into Harvard just as soon as he receives his GED (he’s never been to a real school), but quickly and bracingly learns that not only is he no smarter than his brothers in the “army of teenage janitors,” he is far less prepared to interact with the outside world. Faced with a sign that reads “ALL U CAN EAT STEAK AND LOSTER,” he says, “What’s a loster?”

Meanwhile, back at Swamplandia!, the Bigtree patriarch mysteriously departs, leaving his daughters alone indefinitely. Osceola starts venturing out into the swamp at night for what she insists are ghostly romantic assignations with one Louis Thanksgiving, a dredgeman who died decades earlier in an eerie accident, and when she finally elopes with him, Ava is left alone.

While Kiwi’s chapters are narrated in a witty, effective third-person voice, Ava’s chapters—which make up the majority of the book—are in first person. Russell makes an ambitious and debatable choice here: She writes Ava as a clumsy, over-the-top writer.  The night sky is “star-lepered.” The prospect of death by alligator is “a translucent black balloon wombling between the palm trees.” A series of tragedies is “bright-eyed disasters flooding out of a death hole like bats out of a cave.”

The gap in literary proficiency between the Kiwi chapters and the Ava chapters makes it clear that it’s Ava, not Karen Russell, who is a clumsy writer—Karen Russell is clearly a very skilled writer—but nevertheless I don’t know that it was the best idea to make Ava’s voice so florid. It feels like someone took the Ava chunk of the manuscript onto a back porch and fired a shotgun full of awkward similes at it.

Almost every lofty language choice that Ava makes is a little off, and her choices are so consistently off that it's clear Russell really worked to make them that way. In the wrestling show audience, “couples curled their pale legs together like eels.” (But legs bend, they don’t curl in the same way eels curl at all.) “A fat mosquito blimped through the air.”  (But no matter how fat a mosquito gets, it doesn’t blimp.) “A sharp moon cut across the sky, unchaperoned.” (When is the moon ever chaperoned?)

Just as frustrating, Ava never leaves the swamp. After she’s left alone at Swamplandia!, she encounters a raggedy figure called the Bird Man, who ominously offers to take her on a boat ride to the afterlife, where she’ll surely find her sister and Louis Thanksgiving.  We understand from the start that this guy is bad news, but Ava can’t face the truth until she’s deep in the swamp with him.

Russell makes another curious choice when it comes to the two sexual encounters in Swamplandia! (which is, apart from those two isolated scenes, an oddly asexual novel).  The brutal rape of a child late in the story is described in harrowing detail, but when Kiwi hooks up with a mainland girl, we go from a kiss and some groping to this: “Forty minutes later, Kiwi got dropped at the World of Darkness, no longer a virgin.” Why dwell on the awful rape experience after ignoring the comic/dramatic possibilities of the virginity loss?

Such reservations aside, the novel as a whole proves Russell a consistently inventive and intelligent writer. The World of Darkness sections, in particular, demonstrate surreal wit and storytelling facility that will, I hope, animate her future novels. Swamplandia! offers what we tend to look for first in debut novels—the prospect of even better ones to come.

Nick Antosca, contributor

Pop Dreams

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I Think I Love You. By Allison Pearson. 336 pages. Knopf. $24.95. ()

Adolescent fandom can offer invaluable instruction in the cruel pleasures of real love—particularly if you find the proper idol to obsess over early in life. Justin Timberlake, Joe Jonas, David Cassidy—the reigning pop stars come and go, but the zealotic, hysterical devotion hordes of lovesick girls bestow on their pin-up heroes never wavers. In I Think I Love You, Allison Pearson chronicles Welsh teenager Petra Williams’ passion for Cassidy in 1974 and again in 1998. “Feeling superior to your rivals was one of the sweetest pleasures of being a fan, and maybe of being female in general,” the 13-year-old Petra muses as she flips through the pages of The Essential David Cassidy Magazine, her full-color lover’s Bible, holier than any religious text.

“Pain and joy braided tightly together, that was what Petra craved.” And Bill Finn, a recent university graduate, is the man behind the man of Petra’s dreams who provides both: A cynical bass player-turned-editor with the soul of a poet, he pens the faux letters from Cassidy to his fans each month, fueling Petra’s ardor as she plots ways to gain the attention of an American celebrity half a world away. Decades too late, now a professional musician, Petra learns that she and her best friend had won a contest granting them a chance to meet Cassidy himself, just before he hung up his ostentatious catsuits for good. By the time she’s able to cash in her prize, the friendly hands of fate choose to thrust her directly into the arms of Cassidy’s literary doppelganger.

I Think I Love You is embellished with lipstick kisses and chick-lit archetypes, and Pearson diligently attempts to rein in the sentimentality through Petra’s voice—first youthful and tinged with an unassuming wisdom, then aged into a wiser woman still tapped into her youth. She’s the beating heart of this story, quick with nostalgic references and the bewitching, heartbroken thrills that come close to the urgency of first love. Petra isn’t quite tough enough, witty enough, or neurotically infatuated enough to carry the full burden, but you fall for her in spite of it. Millions of girls screamed for Cassidy with unquenchable longing, drunk with the possibility that he might actually choose one of them for his own. Their brazen desire, and Petra’s, too, is described with a touching sincerity in this coming-of-age narrative.

Sharon Steel, contributor

Albania's Dark Horse

At age 74, things are going well for Ismail Kadare. A winner of the first Man Booker International Prize and a perennial (if dark horse) Nobel candidate, he's written dozens of works of fiction and is by far the most critically lauded writer ever to come out of Albania. But during the years of Enver Hoxha's murderous 40-year dictatorship, ending with his death in 1985, Kadare had to toe a careful line. For decades, Kadare, who comes from Hoxha's hometown of Gjirokastër, was nominally a committed Marxist—in 1970, he accepted an appointment to the People's Assembly, the country's legislature—which has resulted in accusations that he was not sufficiently critical of the state.

Kadare and his defenders have argued that his participation in politics was limited and that Hoxha's regime brooked no dissent; any public criticism would've resulted in immediate detention, torture, or death. Unlike late-era Soviet intellectuals, who were often a cause célèbre in the West and bargaining chips in U.S.-Soviet negotiations, Albanian dissidents had little exchange with the outside world. Hoxha's government adhered to a strict brand of Marxist-Leninism that caused it eventually to fall out with both of its chief benefactors—first the Soviet Union, followed by, in 1978, Communist China. For many years, the country was one of Europe's poorest, without a single major ally, dominated by Hoxha's cult of personality.

In such conditions, it's difficult to survive, much less to craft any kind of principled rebellion. But even a cursory reading of Kadare's novels reveals them as deeply steeped in allegory, parable, and allusion—literary tools readymade for subversive work. It's difficult today to read his books without seeing them as clearly out of step with the socialist realism dictated by the government of the time—and even quite hostile to it.

Kadare is a master of Balkan history. He seems to have consumed all of the region's conflicts, folklore, tribal customs, and epic battles, and is able to craft them into lapidary tales that resemble the legends that inspired them. Perhaps as a hedge against Hoxha's censors, he set many of his early novels in this rich past—the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, the early 20th-century Albanian countryside, his own hometown during WWII, a ruggedly pastoral mountain community. Deftly navigating hundreds of years of history, he often invokes the same places, cultural touchstones, and family lineages, giving them wildly different roles depending on the era. In The Palace of Dreams, a Kafka-flavored novel about a quickly rising functionary in a massive bureaucracy that monitors the population's dreams, the protagonist hails from a family who, although politically powerful, may be cursed because of their involvement in a murder during the building of a bridge hundreds of years earlier. That same murder is the key event in Kadare's The Three-Arched Bridge. (The Albanian government banned The Palace of Dreams soon after its 1980 publication.)

There is a problem, however, for Kadare fans. For all of the praise heaped upon him, his work has been the victim of sloppy translations. In many cases, English-language editions of his books are translated from the French. Imagine a foreign film with twice-translated subtitles, and you can envision the complications.

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The Accident. By Ismail Kadare. Translated by John Hodgson. 176 pages. Grove Press. $24. ()

Kadare's latest novel to appear in English, The Accident, bears a few scars of a translator's blunt instrument. Most of John Hodgson's translation (from the Albanian original) is fluid enough, but he uses a number of unnecessarily awkward phrasings: "could be counted on the fingers of one hand"; "hall of residence"; "the zip" (instead of zipper or fly, on a pair of pants). Still, the problems with the translation are minor compared to the novel as a whole, which is surprising, because of the 10 or so Kadare novels that I've read, this is the only one from which I've come away disappointed.

The Accident concerns a mysterious crash on the Vienna autobahn, in which a young couple is ejected from a taxi. While the lovers, Besfort and Rovena, die, the taxi driver survives with minor injuries and cannot explain why he crashed. The first and last 40-odd pages explore the crash investigation, which initially attracts the attention of some Balkan nations' secret services but eventually falls in the lap of an anonymous researcher from the European Road Safety Institute.

There are intimations that the accident may be connected to Besfort's job with the Council of Europe, where he might've been investigating atrocities committed in Yugoslavia under Slobodan Milosevic, but it's never made clear. Nor do we learn much about Rovena, except that she's at one point "an intern at the Archaeological Institute of Vienna." Most of the novel is a meandering plotless journey through their beleaguered affair, which takes place over 12 years.

All of this represents a severe departure from most of Kadare's work, which is not necessarily unwelcome. At first, I thought that The Accident—with its tortured lovers conducting rendezvous in hotel rooms across Europe, manipulating each other into various states of love and submission—might owe something to Milan Kundera, another great writer who found refuge in France. But, at least in this work, Kadare lacks Kundera's ability to show the links between our carnal and our philosophical selves. The novel aims for a hallucinatory fever dream played out across a newly open Europe, but it ends up with something far less vivid: a list of adjectives would contain words like spectral, abstract, rootless, hazy. The novel itself frequently deploys the word "mist," which is all too apt, for the mist never clears. The shattering revelation seemingly hovering over Besfort—Did he somehow arrange their deaths? What's the Yugoslav connection? Is he wanted by the Hague?—barely rises to the level of innuendo before frustratingly receding.

One could justify the disappointment of The Accident by saying that once freed from the strictures of the Hoxha regime, the world was too open to Kadare, his masterful ability to draw historical parallels no longer needed. But Kadare has written some very fine work since leaving Albania, sometimes by writing explicitly about what once was forbidden (The Successor comes to mind). And The Accident contains a few wonderfully clever observations about Albania's rapid changes since its shift to democracy.

Nothing to do then but shrug it off and say that even one of Europe's greatest writers can produce a dud. Few writers have plumbed a region's dark history so thoroughly or profoundly. For readers unfamiliar with Kadare, many other eminently worthy books await.

Jacob Silverman, contributor

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