Rebranding isn’t just a strategy for businesses. It’s an even hotter trend in geography. I’m
told that 20 countries have changed their names in just the last decade. One can only admire
the zeal for self-reinvention that turns the Czech Republic in Czechia or Burma into Myanmar.
But, honestly, the map name-changers ought to do more consumer market research. Look
at poor Iceland—just imagine what it could do with a more tourist-friendly name? They ought
to a negotiate a trademark exchange with Greenland, which isn't fully leveraging its superior
brand. Honestly, why don’t nations conduct a few focus groups before coming up with these
depressing names? The folks in Trivandrum would never have changed their name to
Thiruvananthapuram if they had only talked to a few travel agents first.

But the biggest success story in geographic rebranding
can be found in those pesky swamps. Once feared for
their malarial atmosphere, muggy weather, and pesky
mosquitoes, they have put all that behind in a glorious
rebranding. The swamps have become wetlands, and
summon up images of pristine ecosystems and colorful
indigenous flora and fauna. Now that is how geographical
rebranding ought to work.

But no one has told the proprietors of Swamplandia!, a
struggling tourist attraction in the Florida wetlands. The
Bigtree family like to think of Swamplandia! as an exciting
theme park, but there’s little here to interest tourists
besides a hokey museum that displays items relating to
the family’s make-believe Native American roots (Grandpa
Sawtooth was originally named  Ernest Schedrach and
came from Ohio), and a lot of alligators. The real draw is
alligator wrestling, an athletic exhibition only a step above
(or perhaps below) bullfighting and cock-fighting in status.

Swamplandia lays claim to one genuine star attraction, a prepossessing woman named
Hilola Bigtree, Sawtooth’s daughter-in-law and the greatest of the female alligator wrestlers.
When she dies of cancer, the theme park loses its audience. But the Bigtree family also
loses its cohesion and sense of direction. Poor old Grandpa is sent to a home for
the elderly in a converted boat. Hilola’s husband starts spending more and more time on the
mainland, involved in mysterious and seemingly futile plans to reinvent Swamplandia!. Their
three children cope in even stranger ways. The oldest, son Kiwi, plans to leave Swamplandia
behind, go to school, and maybe earn some money that can help the rest of his family.  His
sister Osceola begins talking to dead people via the Ouija board and occult trances. The
youngest Bigtree, thirteen-year-old Ava is a Swamplandia! loyalist, who stays around the
alligators and has dreams of becoming a great gator wrestler and carrying on her mother’s
legacy. Who knows, she might even draw audiences back to their swamp.

In the opening pages, Karen Russell seems intent on turning this amusing premise into a
grand comic novel, an endearing mix of
Tarzan of the Apes, Gilligan’s Island and Family Ties.
But  readers are advised to strap on their seat belts, because the tone of this book will twist and
turn with the rapidity of a real theme-park ride. Before you’re done, you will encounter a
dark psychological terrain more akin to
Deliverance and Cape Fear, but also bits and pieces
of other narrative styles.  

The most powerful section of
Swamplandia! is a
Conrad-esque historical seafarer’s narrative,
“The Dredgeman's Revelation," that could easily
stand on its own (and has as a short story in
New Yorker
).  Another sub-plot deals with Kiwi’s
abandonment of Swamplandia! for a menial job
in another tourist attraction. Kiwi’s new employer,
the World of Darkness, is a cross between Dante’s
Inferno and the inside of Jonah’s Old Testament
whale. Here Russell’s sassy prose style here offers
a dark satire on theme park kitsch and the hapless
tourists who frequent these monuments to tackiness.

As this thumbnail summary makes clear,
Swamplandia! is a bit of a compendium of writing
styles.  The scaffolding that holds up the book is a first-person narrative in the voice of Ava,
who is our main protagonist and the emotional center of the book. But Russell shifts for long
stretches into third person while recounting a seriocomic coming-of-age story about Kiwi on
the mainland, and though she uses this storyline to set up some clever symbolic echoes that
mock the rest of her tale, she isn’t quite as convincing here.  Like her characters, Russell is at
her best when she’s dealing with swamp life, and the forays into the city are more enervating
than exciting.

Yet this novel holds together surprisingly well despite the sharply contrasting constituent
parts. A zany comic energy propels this book in the first third. Magical realism takes over
for the middle third. And a dark horror story threatens to absorb everything in the final third.
Yet these counterbalance each other, and a work that could easily come across as a cut-
and-paste job achieves something larger and more satisfying.

The book certainly worked wonders for Karen Russell’s career. This debut novel earned her
spots on
New York magazine’s honor roll of  “impressive New Yorkers under the age of 26.
and T
he New Yorker’s “20 under 40” list.  For the National Book Foundation, she was one of
the “5 under 35” honorees.  In 2013, she received a MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant" at
the age of 32.  The literary world rarely hands out so many accolades to an author so young,
and there’s almost always a backlash down the line to those who see to ride the fast track to
authorial eminence.   

For a writer so skilled in moving from comedy to horror to high literary style, the biggest
challenge might simply be deciding which tone and attitude provides her the strongest
platform.  In any event, Russell certainly has the talent to survive the prodigy stage. Since the
success of
Swamplandia!, she has focused on short fiction, and perhaps that will be her
major focus going forward. But I wouldn’t be surprised if she delivered another great novel—
or maybe even two or three.

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. He is the author of ten books. His most
recent book is
How to Listen to Jazz (Basic Books).

Publication date: March 5, 2018
Check out our sister sites:

The New Canon
Great literary works
published since 1985

Great Books Guide
Reviews of current books

Postmodern Mystery
Experimental works of mystery &

Fractious Fiction
Radical, unconventional and
experimental fiction

by Karen Russell
Essay by Ted Gioia
Ted Gioia is publishing essays on his
50 favorite works of non-realist fiction
released since 2000. Featured books
will include works of magical realism,
alternative history, sci-fi, horror, and
fantasy, as well as mainstream literary
fiction that pushes boundaries and
challenges conventional notions of

Click here for the other titles
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
To purchase, click on image
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Blind Assassin

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Bacigalupi, Paolo
The Windup Girl

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barker, Clive
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Bierce, Ambrose
The Complete Short Stories

Blackwood, Algernon
The Complete John Silence Stories

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Brooks, Max
World War Z

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Butler, Octavia E.

Campbell, Ramsey
Demons by Daylight

Campbell, Ramsey
The Nameless

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chambers, Robert W.
The King in Yellow

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Cline, Ernest
Ready Player One

Crichton, Michael
Jurassic Park

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Dickens, Charles
A Christmas Carol

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Egan, Jennifer
A Visit from the Goon Squad

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gardner, John

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haig, Matt
The Humans

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Hendrix, Grady

Herbert, Frank

Joe Hill
Heart-Shaped Box

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Ishiguro, Kazuo
Never Let Me Go

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Ketchum, Jack
Off Season

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen

King, Stephen
Pet Sematary

Koja, Kathe
The Cipher

Krilanovich, Grace
The Orange Eats Creeps

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Our Lady of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Lindqvist, John Ajvide
Let the Right One In

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.

Machen, Arthur
The Great God Pan

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morris, Jan

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
Wizard of the Crow

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

North, Claire
The First 15 Lives of Harry August

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Oyeyemi, Helen
White is for Witching

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Roth, Philip
The Plot Against America

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Straub, Peter
Ghost Story

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stevenson, Robert Louis
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

Stoker, Bram

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Tryon, Thomas
The Other

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Wallace, Edgar
King Kong

Walpole, Horace
The Castle of Otranto

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Weir, Andy
The Martian

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Wong, David
John Dies at the End

Woolf, Virginia

Yamada, Taichi

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites

The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter


SF Site
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog

Disclosure:  Conceptual Fiction
and its sister sites may receive review
copies and promotional materials from
publishers, authors,  publicists or other

All rights reserved.
A zany comic energy propels
this book in the first third.
Magical realism takes over
for the middle third. And a dark
horror story threatens to absorb
everything in the final third.