For people from the Midwest (or maybe this is just me) Florida is a Continental-United-States paradise. I mostly went to Florida as a child, with my parents; we liked to go to Disney World or Universal Studios or to frequent the beaches and escape Michigan’s cold winters. For me, Florida meant warmth and sun and palm trees and beaches. It meant popcorn fiction and paperbacks on a towel and fumbling with wet, sticky pages to the tune of undulant waves that miraculously dissolved every one of my problems into hot sand. Us Midwesterners went to Florida because we wanted to escape. We’d ask ourselves questions (No school for a week? Haven’t had a vacation in a while? You, my friend, have committed the mortal sin of never going to Disneyland?) and the answer we’d always have was “let’s go to Florida.” It was a simple answer.
Karen Russell’s novel, Swamplandia!, takes place in Florida. And in a moment of self-pity, I have to say that it is ruining the Sunshine State for me. Not because I don’t like the story, but because it shows me a side of Florida that I am not ready to see, a side bearing likenesses to Florida’s periphery, an area I’d never call a vacation spot. Swamplandia! is an alligator park owned by a family called the Bigtrees. It was once home to Hilola Bigtree, the greatest alligator wrestler of all time, but she died from cancer and, following her death, the family, the business, and the park fall apart. Her death becomes the driving force for every stroke of bad luck, every quirky encounter, and every missing family member that inflates the pages of Russell’s novel. Despite the novel’s quirks, what attracts me is how each character’s emotional depth has a reality that can traverse any situation; a depth that can, in turn, provide enlightenment through unknown territory.
Its territory is a novelty to me. Swamplandia! is a dust bowl with swamps. It’s humidity without a sun tan. It’s fearing for one’s life because the mainland has the money, the billboard attractions, and the Everglades have the gators, the mosquitoes and people waging war with nature. Swamplandia! isn’t real, nor are the Bigtrees, nor are the gators and the occasional encounters with the supernatural. But the Everglades are real. Poverty is real. The Bigtrees’ emotions are real emotions. Swamplandia! isn’t just a terrain, it’s an all-encompassing territory that parallels reality. It is a territory that begs for my hard questions, questions like: “Florida actually had economic troubles?” and “the Everglades’ mosquitoes can actually look like the smog in New York?” or “People can actually live like that?” Never, in any of my travels to the beautiful state that I’ve kept spit-shined on my ivory pedestal, had I seen a single mosquito. Never had I wanted to believe that Florida could be anything but I Heart My [Insert-Breed-of-Dog Here] T-shirts and Made-in-China water wings and shark-print, Styrofoam boogie boards. In Swamplandia! Russel not only paints a beautifully macabre image of her home state, but she also makes that portrayal regrettably real through her precise, mystically-enhanced verisimilitude.
Russell has been gaining esteem for her ability to seamlessly mix reality and fiction. She has introduced readers to worlds that seemed as if she alone were their sole fathomer. This novel is no exception. Her characters are so diversely quirky, yet so emotionally grounded, that from page one I felt as if I could relate to them as if I were a part of the family, or as if I were a trainee taking my first steps toward wrestling an alligator.
But now, in my head, Florida ex paradiso is no more. Not only does Russell introduce me to one ravaged part of the state, but she introduces me to the most ravaged part of the state. Swamplandia! quickly becomes the embodiment of hell on Earth. Moreover, it is helpless against The World of Darkness theme park, which is a commercialized attraction akin to the big name sites to which I would vacation during my sunny getaways. It’s the Disneyworld and the Universal Studios and the Six Flags of the Everglades. Introspectively (and this is me creating a real-world, what-if-these-two-things-weren’t-fictitious hypothesis that I typically enjoy doing whenever I read), I would have chosen World of Darkness over Swamplandia!. I would have given my fictional money to the fictional ticket-taker and I would have ridden the fictional water slides into their fictional pools of fictional, peed-in water. I would have been a pawn in the commercially darwinistic plans of Swamplandia!’s demise. But maybe it is that, with Swamplandia!, Russell is targeting people like me. She is showing us that Florida, instead of a political state, is actually a state of mind, and that the feelings we might have for Swamplandia!, in conjunction with those we might have for Florida, have perpetuated a form of Doublethink. My idea of Florida is sunshine and beaches and kitsch amusement parks with big attractions. But Swamplandia!’s Florida is the Everglades and alligator wrestling and fan boat rides through mosquito-infested waters. Unfortunately, I love them both. Thus, Russell does something to me that I regret. She somehow turns me into my own victim: I love Swamplandia!, but my Midwestern idolatry of Florida destroys it.