Thursday, March 31, 2011

Seth design

Very little extended reading of any kind lately -- I'm writing multiple papers and procrastination has tended to be of the furtive, interrupted variety -- but one book that was perhaps noteworthy is Swamplandia! ("!" is part of the title and leads to some initial confusion as it often appears in the middle of a sentence.) Plot summary: 3-kid family grows up in FL swamp island, ostensibly running an alligator theme-park w/ mother as world's greatest alligator wrestler. Mother dies, tourists stop coming, son -- 18-ish -- goes to the "mainland" and gets a real job as a janitor at a competing theme park; older of two daughters turns spiritualist and elopes in a barge with a dead man toward the "underworld"; (much) younger of two daughters sets out to recover her, accompanied by mysterious Bird Man and pocket-sized red alligator named Seth (all alligators are named Seth); son eventually gets shit together and saves everybody's life after nearly strangling his granddad.

I guess I enjoyed it, on the whole, though it might be the most grotesquely overwritten book I've read in years. Page 1 sets the tone -- "nights in the swamp were dark and star-lepered"; "our mother's body was just lines, a smudge against the palm trees" -- and it works very well there (despite the kooky antithesis) and in some of the later descriptive passages, but she can't stop it, so, e.g., the grandson visiting his demented granddad to tell him about the disintegration of their family wonders about "the point of  growing so aged and limp that your mind couldn't make a fist around a name," etc. This is free indirect discourse by the son, "Kiwi," a swamp autodidact who isn't supposed to be poetical. The novel has two narrators, a first-person girl of 12-ish and a generic omniscient (who follows the son, Kiwi, around the "mainland" theme park), but they sound pretty much exactly alike. Sometimes the effect is hilarious, perhaps semi-intentionally; here's a fight scene (3rd person narrator):
Blood trickled into his mouth from a cut on his supper lip. Kiwi opened his eyes and he didn't know what he was doing, the whole stereoscopic world having flattened into brilliance. All he knew for certain was that he was fighting back. He could breathe again. He could scream again. He swiped at the old man's wet shirt and closed on a handle of skin.

And here is a girl lost in the swamp, coming upon someone she thinks is a ghost and remembering what she had heard about the ghost:
I couldn't stop seeing poor Miss Drouet in my mind's eye, gagged and dragged down to the water by her murderers, dead already and now drowning, too, her cloth dress opening like a floewr on the swamp water in a mixed-up and evil chronology. Her dead body floating. Her dead face, the mask of it, rising and falling on the sea's uneasy breath.

Panthers found and finished her in the cattails. Wind unstitched her skeleton. Weeds sprayed outward from the heart-shaped wreck of her pelvis.

But it works better in other places; here's the reconciliation scene, where the family has been reunited in a cheap motel (but note the inability to leave well alone):
[the dad] looked huge and sad on the horned edge of the hotel bed, which had that goofy look of all "fancy" motel furnishings, cheap wood with stupid designs. The wallpaper nudged its quiet spirals upward toward the ceiling fan. We all looked caged in that hotel room.We watched a sitcom on TV and whenever the canned laughter tumbled into the silence of the room, I wanted to roar.

And here is another bit that worked for me:
The Bird Man rubbed at the creases on his forehead. Why did adults always do that? I wondered. What if a face really worked like that, like rumpled trousers, and you could smooth out your bad thoughts from the outside in?

Personally I was more amused than put off by this -- once I got the hang of it I had fun looking out moments of particularly incongruous lyricism -- and there's a lot to like about the novel, it's got some very good bits of psychological realism, and a pretty enjoyable set-piece in the middle about swamp-dredging. But "voice" is not its forte...

PS I was sometimes reminded of John Banville. I think the difference is that Russell's metaphorrhea (is there a word for this?) is more damaging because it takes the edge off some of the legitimately good and appropriate images.

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