Ava Bigtree is the undeniable star of Karen Russell’s 2011 novel Swamplandia!, and with good reason. She narrates at least half of the book, and her painful move toward acceptance of her mother’s death is clearly its centerpiece theme. But Swamplandia! is also a novel very much concerned with work. As a sort of veil of feminine mystery is lowered over Swamplandia! itself and Kiwi literally disappears from its realm, he seems to drop under the surface of the novel as well despite the fact that his story takes up the other half of its pages. And Kiwi is the biggest nexus between the novel and work.
Ava Bigtree’s older brother Kiwi never loved Swamplandia! and the cult of the Bigtrees the way she did; he wished they lived on the mainland so he could go to a real school and then college and have a good, white-collar job—not dress up as fake Native Americans to impress dopey tourists. And now that their mother has died, their grandfather has been sent to an assisted living facility, and their father has clearly abdicated all attempts at keeping a normal life going for the children, Kiwi emigrates.
On the mainland, he goes to work for The World of Darkness, the grotesque theme park that has ruined Swamplandia!’s business and attracts seemingly even more grotesque tourists. As an immigrant, he realizes that he doesn’t speak the language of his fellow employees, who quickly take to calling him “Margaret” because of his geeky social ineptitude. He is quick to find out that his SAT-word flashcards are not doing him any good in this environment, and he does his best to blend in, though he is constantly messing up. Just as Ava is back home re-learning how to live without their mother, Kiwi is doing the same thing; he’s simply decided to do so in a new home.
Kiwi doesn’t lose his desire to better himself, to go to real school, college, get a better job, and support his family back home (he sends his pathetically small earnings back to Swamplandia! whenever he can, wishing he could make a dent in the family’s gigantic debt). In this way his story takes on the tropes of the immigrant who will go to great lengths for a better future in a new home, and especially in America, after hard work. Kiwi will do anything to erase his family’s mistakes from his own future, no matter how long it takes.
Shifts were nine hours, and the hours contracted or acordioned outward depending on several variables that Kiwi had cataloged: difficulty of task, boredom of task, degree to which task humiliates me personally. For a while all Kiwi had to do was vacuum in the anonymous many-peopled solitude of the front hallf, but then he screwed up that sweet gig. Kiwi made wide orbits with the industrial vacuum cleaner, which trembled and belched in repose like a rodeo bull; on the first day of his third week he ran over his own shoelaces with it and broke it in a way that he couldn’t ignore, hide, or repair. Fuck-fuck-fuck, Kiwi thought—his fluency in mainland expletives had made huge leaps in just two weeks.
One of Kiwi’s work friends advises him to just tell their boss—“[J]ust tell Carl. He’s not going to fire you.” Carl is Kiwi’s first real contact with the world of lower-middle management, and he can’t quite understand why a man with a graduate degree spends his time “reading fantasy books with orcs and orc princesses on the cover” and assigning people like Kiwi to do work like they did at The World of Darkness. But this is part of the brilliance of Swamplandia!: Carl’s patheticness is undeniable but not over-the-top, and Kiwi’s confusion and bemusedness are real, not put-on or the products of long suffering. Russell is clear about the all-around absurdity of the place, which permeates every aspect of The World, without ever getting into nastiness or ill-feeling for anyone from the lowliest janitor to the highest-level corporate functionary.
Kiwi’s penance was to work overtime picking up the wetter, less decipherable pieces of trash with his glvoed hands. The World’s lasers moved in green helixes all around him, a lonely geometry that traveled up and down the entrance to the Whale’s Gullet. Cleaning the family toilet was, by his inexact estimate, one million times more degrading than any of his Bigtree duties on Swamplandia! Worse than putting out popcorn fires, worse even than the buckskin costumes and the jewelry. He was trying to flip the clown-nose plunger inside out with his shoe.
Kiwi perseveres, quite amazingly, and ends up with his own strange form of the American dream: his picture plastered all over the local news after he “saves” a girl in the wave pool (he’s been promoted to lifeguard despite his earlier problems at work), which leads to both some action with the girl and another promotion—both of which have their upsides and downsides. He goes to classes at night to get his GED and struggles to make friends with people who grew up in normal homes and who don’t share any of his real interests. And in the end he saves the Bigtrees in a more amazing way than he ever expected he would.
That is not to say that Russell paints, by any means, a picture of hard work leading down a straight and narrow path to redemption and riches. But Kiwi’s great rebellion against his father is to be responsible—incredibly, improbably responsible—and as a young teenager with no skills and no friends his only way to do so is to humiliate himself with honest but filthy work. He can’t afford to be a romantic and an idealist like his father; he has his sisters to think about. So he gets down to business, no matter how nasty it is.