Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Short-a-Day: Karen Russell's "The Dredgeman's Revelation"

[One of The New Yorker's 20 Under 40]

Originally published in The New Yorker, July 26, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 70.

Well, Karen Russell loves the everglades--something about the natural magic must do it for her. But unlike Annie Proulx's gruff love for Wyoming, Russell tends to spend so much time on lavish descriptions that the story gets all swamp-like. The descriptions are fine, but a bit artful: "white-tailed deer sprinted like loosed hallucinations," "[buzzards] made Louis think of funeral umbrellas," "Florida...a peninsula where the sky itself rode overland like a blue locomotive, clouds chuffing across marshes...." The tale is on firmer ground when focused on Louis and his more child-like perception of the world--especially given the ending of the story, in which Louis, who was born dead, finally understands the "pure sadness" of death.

I can't fault for Russell for writing lines like "At birth, his skull had looked like a little violin, cinched and silent"; it's a beautiful image, and she's got plenty of them. But they hide Louis himself, a distant third-person narrative that over-intellectualizes the mosquito-bitten emotion of the tale, which sorely needs it. "The drained and solemn pines reminded Louis of a daguerreotype of Lee's emaciated Confederate forces that he had once seen as a child" is a line that's simply trying too hard, especially for this "bruised and illiterate young man." Give us more of Louis Thanksgiving Auschenbliss's simplicity: "Louis had no problem with any man alive--black, white, or Indian--so long as his surname was not Auschenbliss."

Not all writing should be lovely; not all descriptions should be beautiful--it's especially out of place given the snippets of dialogue (which in turn seem too dumbed down). Russell's talented and evocative, but what's she's conjuring up wouldn't necessarily keep me reading--especially for the length of a novel.

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