I took The Shining down from its shelf a few days before Halloween, as it seemed a seasonally-appropriate read. It had sat there for years, Danny Torrance’s blank face staring out from its silver spine, asking me what I was afraid of, what I was waiting for. This will be much different from the movie, it said. Everybody knows how much Stephen King hated Stanley Kubrick’s film. “I think he wants to hurt people with this movie,” isn’t that what King said? And besides, it went on, you haven’t seen it in 15 years.
Book-jacket Danny had a point. And not only was it almost Halloween, but I’d just finished Jack Handey’s brilliantly asinine, irresponsibly funny The Stench of Honolulu. Among the books I’d recently read were Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers, Dean King’s Skeletons on the Zahara, and Bill Beverly’s Dodgers. None of these were exactly “fun,” but they were entertainments, with none of the claustrophobic dread I associated with The Shining. I needed a change of pace, and I couldn’t avoid King’s novel any longer. It was time to get down to brass tacks.
And within the first few chapters, it became clear that The Shining was all brass tacks — sharp, blunt, and efficient. I most enjoy King when he scraps his leavening impulses — inexplicable mysticism, mediocre humor, saccharine endings — and lets the darkness rip. The Long Walk and Gerald’s Game are two of his best because almost no light shines through them, and even The Stand — in which, after a trillion pages, good ultimately prevails — ends on a demoralizing note. As a fan of Kubrick’s film, I knew what I was getting myself into, but King’s book was entirely different, a much more human — and therefore, more unsettling — family drama.
As I made my way through, another unsettling drama — the 2016 presidential campaign — was mercifully winding down, and until election night, The Shining was just a way to escape the noise. What better way to distance myself from Donald Trump’s noxiousness than to read about an eerily quiet, snowed-in hotel, written decades before the terms “basket of deplorables” and “nasty woman” entered the vernacular?
Then, early on November 9th, Donald Trump fucking won. I was about 80 pages from the end of The Shining, and like everything else — large and small, consequential and irrelevant — in the hours and days afterwards, the tenor of the novel changed. I was so unmoored by his victory — by the very notion that someone so vile could be so richly rewarded — that the book and reality engaged in a queasy merge. In The Shining, King conjured a world — albeit limited to the grounds of the Overlook Hotel — in which everything was wrong. Hedge animals came alive; dead guests reappeared; fathers tried to kill their families. Having a sociopathic pussy-grabber as president had more in common with that world than the one I’d been living in.
The Shining is about many things — parental love, the strictures of family, alcohol abuse — but it is mainly about the perils of the mind. In The Shining, there is nothing more dangerous than an unstable thought allowed. And in the wake of the election, it became clear that our minds — both individually and collectively — had become territories as unsafe as anything King could muster. Trump’s more cartoonish supporters had become no less delusional than Jack Torrance, who spends the latter part of The Shining piss-drunk on imaginary gin. Those voters’ nihilism “sent a message,” we were told — as if that message would improve a goddamn thing.
Those of us crushed by the nation’s turn, meanwhile, became dazed Wendy Torrances, at once unwilling to believe what was happening and unable to dismiss it. The hornet’s nest that had sat empty and fumigated — The New York Times puts Clinton’s chances at 85 percent, you know — was suddenly abuzz. All of us — Trump and Clinton supporters both — had become untethered from reality. Or, more accurately, we were all now yoked to a reality that couldn’t possibly be real.
In the end, King’s Shining was much more hopeful than the film, the shadow of which it deserves to escape. This isn’t surprising; King seems, at heart, a warm and caring person, while Kubrick was by all accounts a petty tyrant of his own. So amid my post-election grief, I was heartened by the novel’s ending, which qualifies as “happy” without, as often happens in King — I’m looking at you, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon — cheapening its preceding horrors. And that seems about as good as I can ask for from the next four years: to emerge from the ordeal damaged but still whole. This is the limit of my optimism at the end of 2016. Because we’re all in The Shining now.
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Karen Russell was just out of Columbia’s MFA program and entering her mid-twenties when her short story collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves debuted. Replete with ancient images such as a Minotaur, Yeti, and numerous ghosts, each tale speaks of the heartbreak of adolescence in language beautiful and true. She sets many of them in her native South Florida, on small keys, surrounded by the seemingly endless Everglades.
Russell returns to the Everglades – and to characters from one of her short stories, “Ava Wrestles the Alligator” – for her first novel, Swamplandia! The book tells the story of the Bigtree family, who run a theme park – the titular Swamplandia – on one of Florida’s keys. Their star attraction is the family matriarch, Hilola Bigtree, who dives nightly into a pool of alligators until her untimely death from ovarian cancer.
With the park left destitute, Hilola’s eldest son, Kiwi, takes a job at a rival theme park with dreams of saving the family by one day going to college. Part of the novel follows Kiwi, but the lion’s (or should I say alligator’s?) share of the story is given to Ava, the youngest daughter. Left alone on the island, surrounded by swamp, Ava and her older sister Ossie become enmeshed in a world of séances and ghosts.
I had the opportunity to talk with Russell recently by phone, and I asked about the influences on her work.
The Millions: You’ve received a lot of attention because your sentences are highly literary, musical constructions, but the content of the stories is often genre based, pulling on fantasy and science-fiction. And the emotional lives of the characters feel very real though the specifics of the dilemmas are fantastical. Where does the impulse to mash disparate elements together in your fiction come from?
Karen Russell: The people I loved reading the best in college were total mash-up artists. Like Junot Diaz, who has this voice-driven, wisecracking, going-to-curse-at-you prose and then he has these lyrical, gorgeous descriptions. Or George Saunders – I owe him a great debt because he showed me you can have really moral, moving stories that are partly a function of how insane and absurd the setting is. That was always what got me most powerfully as a reader: these incongruous pairings.
It’s also just fun! I had a lot of fun writing Swamplandia! because it felt like I could juggle different kinds of worlds. And I feel like in life we’re all sort of operating in different registers all the time.
TM: How so?
KR: I find myself always writing from this young adolescent point of view because that’s the threshold where you really are straddling worlds. That was my experience of it anyway. Ava, the protagonist of Swamplandia!, was a good, fun age to write from, because she’s a very innocent thirteen and so still has access to the private, child world of fantasy and comic books, but she’s also alive to grittier, more adult realities. She’s tying to figure out the death of her mom and the insolvency of the park – a lot of childhood myths are crumbling around her. As an adolescent you move registers, you switch lenses. You have a sorceress’s magical lens but are also beginning to see the world through adult eyes.
But just in the course of a day I think everyone shuffles a bit. And what happens in my stories is just an expanded vocabulary to talk about a way that everybody feels. To paraphrase Etgar Keret: if I have some guy levitate out of his chair then maybe he’s in love and inside feels like he’s flying.
TM: It sounds like you’re very aware of the writers you admire and have learned from, but how does that work for you in concrete terms? Do you go back to any authors in particular when you’re stuck to crib technique or pointers?
KR: You learn what a story is by reading. There are some stories and novels that leave a big stamp, that virally inhabit your consciousness.
When writing Swamplandia! I ended up teaching Geek Love, this amazing novel by Katherine Dunn that I picked up in high school. It’s a dark carnival tale about a family of actual freaks – it’s just nightmarish, I’ve never read anything like it. I’m positive that if I hadn’t read that book, Kelly Link’s short story collection (Pretty Monsters) and George Saunders, that I wouldn’t feel free enough as I do to write weird. They expanded my idea that you can have a literary book, a book that’s interested in sentences and the poetry of language, and it can also have Arty the Flipper Boy or a Civil War ghost.
When writing the Kiwi sections of Swamplandia!, if I ever felt like the tone was off I would read Saunders because he always makes me want to write. He reads like he’s having such a good time and I love his humor so much. I think you write better if you’re reading good people.
Swamplandia! also owes a big debt to Stephen King’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. I think that’s one of the most beautiful books. For King it’s pretty quiet, about this nine year old girl wandering around the woods in Appalachia. It’s weird to me that King is as popular as he is, you know? Because of the places he goes. That’s an acknowledgement of how weird we all must be, and how we love the dark. I feel like he’s some organ, doing extrasensory processing for all of us!
TM: Do you see Swamplandia! as a coming of age story?
KR: I heard Antonya Nelson say that all stories are coming of age stories, which I really like, because people hear coming of age and think To Kill A Mockingbird or whatever we all read in seventh grade. But Nelson’s idea was that coming of age means you’re getting new information, there’s a new challenge or event and you’re going to have to expand as a character – at whatever age you’re at – and you’re going to become something new as you move through the experience.
The story that felt at the heart of Swamplandia! was Ava’s story, and that is about this kid trying to wrestle with her grief. She does grow up over the course of the book, but the novel also tackles the whole family in grief, so it’s kind of a collective coming of age.
TM: As Swamplandia! progresses, the history of Floridian ecology and land-use come to the fore. Was this material that you knew from your childhood, or did you do a lot of research?
KR: I did too much research. I wanted to know the real history of the state. I think the Bigtree story is a local version of the bigger story. I felt that the death of the mother that’s the catalyzing event in Swamplandia! deeply resonated with how we diked up and drained the swamp. It used to cover the whole state, this floating prairie that extended down from Lake Okeechobee, and now it’s cut off from its headwaters and it’s fractured and really in crisis, a quarter of its original size.
While writing I would look at these aerial pictures, and you can see exactly over time the shrinking territory and how cut up it is. That felt true for this family too, the members of which end up being partitioned and cut off from one another.
TM: One thing that comes up frequently in MFA workshops is consistency – sticking with a point of view or tense or pattern. Yet in so many fantastic books there are surprising changes, elements that make a work really exciting. Like the first 65 pages of Swamplandia! are written in the first person from Ava’s point of view, and then the narrative voice switches to third person, following Kiwi as he heads off on his own and gets a job at The World of Darkness, a rival theme-park. Were you worried this wouldn’t work?
KR: I had the same fear, because you internalize the voice of the collective workshop saying, “You can’t do that! We need to know where this narrative voice is coming from!”
But in a workshop at Columbia, novelist Ben Marcus once said something along the lines of “readers won’t be distracted if it’s written well.”
You want these abrupt narrative changes to be deliberate, to have a rationale. Swamplandia! is not just Ava’s story, it’s the whole Bigtree family’s. I envisioned Hilola Bigtree’s death like a pool ball break, this traumatic event happens and they all spiral off into their own pocket. Ava’s sister Ossie is on her own mystery tour, and Kiwi wanted to save the family in his own way, a more conventional get-a-job, go-to-college way.
TM: Ossie journeys into the swamp, following a spirit she’s fallen in love with, the story of which is left largely to the reader’s imagination. Were you ever tempted to follow her?
KR: No, I knew that for the gravities to work Ossie’s story has to be the dark matter. So much of the power would be lost if we saw what really happened to her, I thought that was an important thing to leave to the reader.
And I wanted Kiwi and Ava to be on parallel tracks, each in their own hell. Kiwi’s is a minimum wage theme-park hell, a mainstream USA kind of hell, while Ava is off in the swamp. In the original conception of this, I thought it looked so beautiful, like a helical DNA strand. Ava’s story is fantastical and Kiwi’s is more realistic, but in the end they both are pretty deranged.