10/10/13

"A Glittery Pity"

Here is a problem: genre definitions. In many mediums, the distinctions between genres are so faint that categorization seems almost nonsensical. The differences between “Young Adult Fiction” and “Juvenile Fiction” are messy and subjective, often dependent on generalized tags of maturity, such as sexual content or disturbing imagery. Why is Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams deemed YA Fiction, whereas The Poisonwood Bible is labeled “Adult”? Is it because the latter is a longer book?

This genre – tagging chaos is the result of a human inclination to categorization, a desire to organize information into bite-sized chunks. Stanford professor Robert Sapolsky called this behavior “compartmentalization” in his human biology lectures, and he strove to avoid it in pursuit of a well-rounded view of human biology emphasizing perspective and connection. However, this post seeks not to concur with Sapolsky’s pedagogical ideology, but rather to offer a counter-example.

Karen Russell’s 2011 novel, Swamplandia! is often categorized as “magical realism”, a term that seems almost oxymoronic. This genre often refers to realistic fiction with magical overtones, books too involved in its characters to be considered “fantasy” yet too fantastical to be consider realistic fiction. And Swamplandia! fits the bill perfectly. The novel is  clearly realistic fiction; the novel is concerned entirely with its characters; any fantasy is so well integrated into the characters themselves that it never actually calls attention to itself. On the other hand, the novel is very much concerned with magic and our perceptions of the supernatural. Thus, magical realism.

However, Swamplandia! is special in that instead of merely adhering to genre guidelines, it seeks to explain why the genre is important in the first place.

Magic is really just a misunderstanding. Phenomena that refuse to yield explanation are deemed “magical”; magic will immediately cease to be magical if an explanation is found. Thus, to young children, everyday occurrences seem magical (see this post on Chesterton and wonder). Ava Bigtree isn't exactly young, but she’s young enough to be caught up in this wonder, this uncertainty. At thirteen years of age, Ava cannot completely rule out an underworld, ghosts, and benevolent bird men. These things seem unlikely, sure, but she isn't completely convinced that they cannot exist.

Hence, the magic.

The Ava at the beginning of the story is one who can believe in magic, and the reader believes as well through her eyes. The family's alligator wrestling, Osceola's frightening episodes with ghosts, and Ava's mysterious fear of the mainland all contribute to the reader's belief in magic. In reality, the reader believes only what Ava narrates, and since Ava is inflicted with this belief, the reader has no choice but to follow along. This belief makes the drastic perspective change at the novel's climax feel like a slap in the face.

And speaking of perspective, Ava has this to say about funeral "showers":
Q: Why did those good Christian women volunteer to ornament a loss? With their terrible pity, a glittery pity, as if Death were a holiday like Christmas? We kids got a load of gifts and sweets from the neighbor women, all wrapped up in paper and bows. My brother told me that he was only "intermittently certain" that their intentions were good...
Ava's lack of worldliness certainly impairs her judgement regarding strangers, but they do allow her to (correctly) view common traditions and habits as perfectly obscene. So really, in the end, the question is - which perspective is best? A worldly perspective may allow better decision-making, but ultimately leaves one desensitized to despicable traditions that are ingrained in society. Perhaps the more worldly perspective Ava acquires by the end of the book would have saved her from the trauma of her experiences in the "Underworld", but then we wouldn't have had a story in the first place.

For only a child could describe pity as "glittery". And perhaps a writer.

Watch for a more thorough discussion of the novel (with spoilers!) next week.

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