Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Passion of the First Novel Wins Out Over the Staid Follow Ups, At Least of Late--A Book Club Discussion About Swamplandia

I've now read four of the five top novels of the year for 2011, as picked by The New York Times Book Review, and I am struck that they are all first novels:
--The Tiger's Wife, by Téa Obreht
--The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach
--Ten Thousand Saints, by Eleanor Henderson
--Swamplandia!, by Karen Russell

The remaining title was Stephen King's 11/22/63, which Jason assures me is King's best novel in twenty years, but seemed to belong to another story. While plenty of seasoned novelists like Jeffrey Eugenides and Ann Patchett hit the best-of lists, there were other first-timers like Teju Cole who had regular shout outs. (We're reading Cole for April's in-store lit group, see below). Why do green first timers often wind up making a bigger splash than folks who have been doing this a whole lot longer?

It should be noted that Swamplandia was also shortlisted for the Orange Prize and she's gotten best of the young writer shout outs from Granta, The New Yorker, and the National Book Foundation.

Why do we look at first novels differently?
1. Lower expectations.
2. Ten years to write the book, as opposed to deadline pressures for the successful first novelists and beaten down enthusiasm for the unsuccessful ones.
3. And the really unsuccessful published first novelists might not get another chance.
4. Or maybe the second novel is actually the failed first novel, finished off, now that a contract is waiting.

I think about Karen Russell's Swamplandia! as a particularly exuberant first novel, of free-floating waves of genius compressed into 400 pages. As I head into our in-store lit group, I wonder how the gang will react. I am hit or miss with fantasy genre bending, and though I know S. will love the book for that (it turns out to be her second read), there are others whom I worry about. I'm just so happy that once again, no one can accuse me of picking the same old novel for the group.

As most folks know by now, Russell's novel is the story of the Bigtree family, proud owner/operators of the Swamplandia! theme park, just of the coast of Everglades Florida. Alas, the star of the show, Hilola Bigtree (also known as Mom), has been felled by cancer as the story opens and the theme park is flailing without her. Worse still, the opening of a nearby hell-themed amusement park, is luring all the tourists away.

This doomsday scenario sends the family on a series of quests. The Chief (dad) hopes to raise money with his improvement scheme, which calls for an extended trip off the island. Kiwi (the son) also hopes to raise money on the mainland, but his idea involves taking a job at their competitor. The quest of Ossie (sister) involves venturing into the spirit world, especially when she falls in love with a ghost and decides to elope with him. And Ava (our heroine of sorts, though she ostensibly shares the lead with Kiwi), of course must follow Ossie into Hell to save her, with the help (?) of the dubious Dredgeman.

Our discussion starts. Oops. We amost immediately hit a nerve. C. is upset by what seems to be child abuse in the story. We talk about how the kids need to be abandoned for the story to happen. Regarding one particularly foul deed, we are more divided. But being that the story seems to play off of classic fiction as well as mythology (where else does hell appear to be a theme park except myth and Chuck Palahniuk?), there are certainly just as foul things that happen in classic literature.

I detour us a bit when I mention hearing in an interview that Russell notes Huckleberry Finn and Kathleen Dunn's Geek Love as two major influences on her work. We discuss some of the other literary references in the story. But we return to the mythology, as J. notes that the book seems to be about how families make their own mythology. We  all do this, but the Bigtrees are exceptionally good at it.

C. finds herself identifying more with Kiwi and I am surprised that more people don't agree with me that Ava's story sort of overwhelms Kiwi. It reminds me of several novels I've read with dual plotlines, where the dark historical one is counterpointed by a parallel lighter contemporary plot. Kiwi's story is distanced a bit by the third-person telling,and the crazy gothic myth of Ava's story becomes more of a satire in Kiwi's case.

I'm all for satire, but it made me think that Kiwi's story alone not only would not have been lauded, it probably would not have been published, certainly as a first novel. At least that's what we hear from agents rejecting the work of our friends. On the other hand, Mel heard from one struggling literary author in the store that an agent rejected her work for being first person, which apparently has trouble selling in the current market.

D. liked reading the book (I'm not going to quote everyone--there were 11 attendees plus me, and I'll run out of initials) and was taken with the style, but he felt he was left with too much and too little. "What was the point of the book?" So we spent the next half hour answering his very question. The overwhelming force of the mother in family. The destruction of the environment and similar destruction of tradition for the sake of modernity. The separation from parent and resulting journey to adulthood, taking three very different routes.

And when we looked at Ossie's journey, it very much seemed to be a dance with suicide. Was her journey back successful? Trying to not give away too much, we were at odds with the ending. Happy or not? Tieing loose ends together and setting them up for the next journey?

It was a mixed bag of opinions and conclusions, but a particularly good discussion. And what was next for Russell? I opined that so many exuberant novels were followed up by small novels of women's friendships betrayed (I'm trying not to be sexist here, but I think I've read three of them myself) or small satires of a writer's life (gender neutral). My thought? Take way too long and write something amazing. But I'll bet your publisher has other ideas.

Next book club dates and times:

Monday, April 2, 7 pm:
Open City, by Teju Cole.

Monday, May 7, 5:30 pm:
Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel.
This has been moved again, from April 30, as I'll now be at Shorewood Public Library co-hosting our event for Michael Buckley (Nerds, Sisters Grimm). Instead, we'll have the talk write before Bechdel appears at Boswell (7 pm) for Are You My Mother?

It looks like I won't be able to attend our June meeting, so the gang is going to pick the book by themselves. I'm going to bring suggestions next time.

Addendum--Daniel's corner of crazy obsession to detail.
At one point, when Ava is panicking, she decides to recite the prime numbers (page 340 of the paperback edition), as Kiwi taught her. She announces: "1, 3, 7, 11." Some people will notice that these are not the first four primes, as 1 is not considered a prime number, and 2 and 5 are.  So the question is, why did Ava make the error? Surely this has to be on purpose, right? But primes, while pop cultural icons of a sort, are not necessarily obessions, unless you perhaps took a lot of number theory in high school and college, like I did. So maybe it's an error. It tripped me up something terrible.

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