There arenít many novels with exclamation marks in their titles. Used without irony ñ as in Charles Kingsleyís Westward Ho! ñ they strive too hard, leaving us no room for manoeuvre. Absalom, Absalom! by Faulkner and Look at the Harlequins! by Nabokov, on the other hand, are more subtle, creating some distance between us and their tellers, if not their tales. Karen Russellís exclamation marks reveal varying degrees of insincerity, but they are always employed with a Nabokovian lightness of touch. Swamplandia! ñ her second book and first novel ñ wears its exhortation nonchalantly. Lottery tickets are branded ëWin This Lotto!í, a pilotís course is called ëReach for the Skies!í and a home-school textbook is titled ëTeach Your Child Ö in the Wild!í For F. Scott Fitzgerald using exclamation marks is like ëlaughing at your own jokesí, but Russell uses them to puncture advertising cant, and you can usually laugh along with her. She is herself a hotly promoted commodity ñ one of Grantaís best young American novelists, the New Yorkerís ë20 under 40í, the National Book Foundationís ë5 under 35í and New York magazineís ë25 people to watch under 25í ñ but has not been overpraised.
LRB 2 June 2011 | PDF Download