Fascinating to read about the life and decision-making of a Pulitzer fiction juror — in two parts recently from The New Yorker — and to see how close their impressions of Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! were to those friends and I had. Nice to know the Pulitzer people aren’t too far from us regular readin’ folk. Thanks to friend Elizabeth, who remembered me as a fan of the book and the writer, for recommending the NYer pieces.
Author/juror Michael Cunningham wrote in the first piece:
Karen Russell’s “Swamplandia!” was a first novel, and, like many first novels, it contained among its wonders certain narrative miscalculations—the occasional overreliance on endearingly quirky characters, certain scenes that should have been subtler. Was a Pulitzer a slightly excessive response to a fledgling effort?
However, it seemed very much like the initial appearance of an important writer, and its wonders were wonderful indeed. Other first novels, among them Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” and John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces,” have won the Pulitzer. One is not necessarily looking for perfection in a novel, or for the level of control that generally comes with more practice. One is looking, more than anything, for originality, authority, and verve, all of which “Swamplandia!” possessed in abundance.
Nailed it on the latter. I’ve posted some of my favorite passages from the book here previously. Like the introduction of Louis Thanksgiving. Like the killer opening. Like a host of passage you couldn’t imagine reading in any other book or trusting to come from any other writer out there now.
On the former, I thought Cunningham got close but could have gone further. Yes, moving characters along a plot line sometimes got in the way of Russell’s usual sense of wonder, and that pressure seemed to result in uncomfortably quick conclusion. But what left me most torn on the book’s greatness was where Russell left the issue of pain.
I thought the book was a tremendous breakthrough for Russell in that, for the time in her work that I’ve read, she brought real, visceral harm and pain to characters for whom she — and, in turn, we — had come to care deeply. As book encountered that cumulative series of events, I was stunned. By the time the plot was in the thick of the injury, I couldn’t believe Russell had done it. I wasn’t sure she had done it the right way because I didn’t know what the right way for her would even be. But I admired it very much. A sense of wonder was a distance from a sense of darkness. To journey deeply into both was daring.
The book at its ending backed away from darkness. Things nearly grew happy at the end. They certainly got happy compared to a few chapters earlier. That shift was what made me think the book was great but not Pulitzer-winning great. The quick ending might have felt more natural to readers — or less quick — had the tone not lightened substantially. The writer wasn’t yet ready to go through with the hit. The hurried conclusion was the literary getaway car.
Or such was my impression. Was it right? Hard to say. I enjoyed part two of Cunningham’s essay for its emphasis on how in reading new books, like while judging awards, one had no history with which to judge a book. No legacy, no place within the canon, no historical perspective. One simply had to judge a new book with as best an understanding of the world as one had at that moment.
Something I loved about Russell’s book was how I wondered about its moves and my reactions to them for days after reading. Whatever my gut for where the book had gone right and wrong, the power and unique voice in Russell’s narrative had challenged my frame of interpretation, of examination. She had brought the reader into her story’s world enough where the reader began to consider, adopt and question how her world ran. Such a quality made the Pulitzer-finalist spot much deserved.