“Our mother performed in starlight.” Thus reads the succinct and succulent first sentence of Swamplandia!, Karen Russell’s 2011 literary blockbuster (Oops! Dead metaphor.) And while it doesn’t, at first blush, contain a metaphor—their mother, Hilola Bigtree, really does perform under the stars—it does contain a pun, I think, and the pun contains a metaphor. “Starlight” here, could also refer to the artificial spotlight that will soon be flicked on by her husband, Chief Bigtree, the faux Indian CEO of Swamplandia!, to illuminate Hilola, the alligator-wrestling main attraction of the tumbledown Florida alligator theme park. And with that lovely opening salvo, this surreal, by turns funny, tender and chilling, and on every page blotto-on-metaphor novel is off to the races. (Yikes! Am I mixing metaphors—dead ones, at that?)
So, how just how drunk-on-metaphor is Karen Russell?
Well, on the first page of Swamplandia!, we see Hilola, mother of the thirteen-year-old narrator Ava Bigtree, clad in a green two-piece bathing suit and standing motionless in starlit darkness on the edge of a diving board, directly above a seething pit of alligators. It’s a Fantasia of a scene, more strange and beautiful with every added brushstroke (Hmm. Moribund if not dead, I fear.) of visual and metaphorical detail: Hilola’s long hair flying around her face in the wind, “her shoulders pinched back like wings”; the alligators (the lake is “planked with” them) with “their icicle overbites and the awesome diamonds of their heads”; the sweating, shushing, crushing, cursing, beer-spilling audience, with weeping kids and couples who “curled their pale legs together like eels.” Suddenly, “trumpets tooted from our big old-fashioned speakers and the huge unseeing eye of the follow spot twisted through the palm fronds until it found Hilola.”
Okay, there I’ve quoted six metaphors—and left out a few more. This Karen Russell’s a prodigy, gushing metaphors like a blue whale gushes sperm. (Doh! Definitely a B-L-U-E simile: Better Left UnExpressed); and most of them, unlike whale sperm, (I know, I know, I just can’t resist extending my metaphors) penetrate fertile ground.
One that doesn’t penetrate, in my humble opinion—but with such prodigality, some seed will spill—appears on that same first page. Right after we’re given the unforgettable image of Hilola, star-and-moonlit on the diving board, we’re told: “Nights in the swamp were dark and star-lepered . . . ” SAY WHAT? Star-lepered?! No, Karen! No! Say it ain’t so! Granted, Hilola Bigtree is an ill-fated character, so a dark metaphor could be in order here; but sorry, I just can’t buy visualizing the dazzling starscape of a south Florida swamp island as suffering from leprosy. And with that settled, let’s cut to the big picture for a moment, leaving Hilola poised to dive.
Bathing for four hundred pages in Swamplandia!’s never-run-dry metaphor shower, I started to wonder about the role of metaphor in fiction, and how much metaphor is too much metaphor, and if my perception of Karen Russell as a metaphorizer on steroids is even correct, in comparison to other authors. So, I did an experiment. I pulled, at random, ten novels, some contemporary, some classic, from my shelves; read, almost at random (avoiding only dialogue-heavy segments) five continuous pages from each; and bean-counted the metaphors of each (Similes counted as metaphors). Herewith the surprising, though unscientific, results, in order of metaphoric abundance, and with the caveat that it’s not always easy to decide between a “live” metaphor, where the visualization still works, and a dead, clichéd or moribund one:
#1 (with 14 metaphors): NOT Karen Russell but Barbara Kingsolver, The Lacuna. (My favorite: “He sat straight, as if his body were pierced like a Hindu’s, with a thousand nails of guilt.”)
#2 (with 12 metaphors): Kaaaren Ruuuussell!!!!!!!, Swamplandia!
#3 (8 metaphors): Paul Harding, Tinkers
#4 (7 metaphors): Dead Darlings/Novel Incubator’s own E.B. Moore, An Unseemly Wife. (Impressive, especially considering her hyper-concise, sculpted language.)
#5 (6 metaphors, but boy, what doozies!): Charles Dickens, Bleak House. (My favorites: “Smoke, which is the London ivy . . .”; and, describing “a shrewd niece”: “She had a sharp nose like a sharp autumn evening, inclining to be frosty towards the end.”
#6 (Also with six, but Dickens is tough to beat.): Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss.
#7 (3 metaphors): Marilynne Robinson, Home.
#8 (With only 2 metaphors): Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure. (But both were good and one’s a gem: “She was clammy as a marine deity.”)
#9, (Also with two metaphors): Alice McDermott, Charming Billy.
#10, (With NO metaphors, who but . . .): Jane Austen, Pride And Prejudice. (Curious, huh? Bears looking into.)
So what’s the takeaway? Maybe nothing, because the sample’s so small. But it seems to suggest that an abundance of metaphor isn’t essential to good fiction. So if you struggle for the good metaphor, don’t despair, think Jane Austen. And here’s Karen Russell herself, in an interview with Jill Owens on Powells.com: “I don’t know if it’s a problem, like there’s just a lot of associative tissue in my brain or what, but I really have to be a little disciplined about metaphor . . . . What can be difficult about it for me is that it’s tough to balance that with the fact that . . . readers want to know what’s going to happen.”
That reminds me! We left Hilola poised above the alligator pit! Let’s go see what happens. (But remember: count the metaphors!): “She hit the water with perfect precision… The Chief’s spot cast a light like a rime of ice onto the murk and Mom swam inside this circle across the entire length of the lake. People screamed and pointed whenever an alligator swam into the spotlight with her, a plump and switching tail cutting suddenly into its margarine wavelengths, the spade of a monster’s face jawing up to her side. Our mother swam blissfully on . . .”
End of story? Read on and see.