Aug 17, 2010

Karen Russell's The Dredgeman's Revelation (20 under 40)

This short story will haunt you. It will first bore you, then shake you out of your complacent boredom with a power of feeling and a sudden realization that what you've been reading all along wasn't what you thought it was.

If you read it, that is. While there's so many things that make Kristen Russell's The Dredgeman's Revelation unappealing to post-modern demands, such as psychological realism and an attempt at well -rounded characterization that leaves little of consenquence to the postmodern imagination,its appeal, its pull, and grip on the reader are too powerful to be dismissed as too much realism. And I'm aware that that's something that's thrown at the New Yorker's published fiction quite often, and not without reason, but still, this story, I can't say this enough, surprised me and yanked me out of any expectations I had going into it. I was not interested in the main character (the dredgeman), nor in the setting and period (Ocala swamps,FL; shortly after the Civil War), and the fact that it's told in 3rd person narrative mode didn't help either (but that's my personal preference).

No matter. This story is brilliant, unique, and powerful, and that's not something I often say about fiction. My favorite part, one of the most powerfully felt (felt being the keyword for this story's impact)moment is when the main character, Louis (the dredgeman) has, or rather, fails to have, a premonition about his coming violent,undeserved, naturalistic death. Quote: "The woods were deep, but they were neither peaceful nor quiet - they were full of men. [...]Nearly thirteen million job seekers were massing like locust clouds in the cities, but few of these money hunters had made it to the deep glade. [...]When the train had a mechanical problem, the engine cut out and the metal moaned to a full stop in the middle of a wrinkled wood. [...] If he could hear his own death in all that lively hubbub, he ignored it. Home, home, home, the rails sung [...]"

Notice how natural, and naturalistic at certain points, the description is of Louis's perceptions and conception of his future. What to others, to 13 million in fact, displaced job seekers and "money hunters", seemed unappealing, the Ocala swamplands, to Louis it is no less than "home, home, home, made so by the train, the 19th century technology that here, in the FL glades fails to work properly, hinting thus at his demise and early helpless death, even as he chooses (we surmise) to ignore that hint (rather than not hear it at all). This being a naturalistic description/writing, Louis, or anybody could not but hear the calling of death in the train's mechanical failure, in the nature's untamed wilderness, in the few human beings and signs of modern civilization he encounters on his way to the swamps.

Why he ignored that early calling of death is realistically rendered as a function of his psychologically and culturally deprived upbringing. Or so I thought. On second thought, and second reading, it seems that K.Russell devotes so much energy and realistic description of Louis's background only to suggest, or rather hint, that it's an inadequate lead to the story's end and Louis's demise. There's something else that responsible for that, but the story isn't about explanations, neither doesn it seek to build a full character for the sake of realism. It's about the power of realization that one has or might have at the moment that one realizes he is at the brink of death. At the end of the story, death is a certain outcome, and Louis realizes that, and, more powerfully, realizes that he doesn't want to die, despite the death-like quality of his life up to that point. That's his revelation. Our/my revelation was the brilliance of conveying that experience,unlikely in its realistic parameters for most of us but true in psychological ones. Not everybody gets to be in Louis's place, not "really", but psychologically, the feeling of his revelation is universal, as much as the sudden wish to live in the face of death can be said to be universal.

Author info: Karen Russell is 25 yrs old, and a graduate of Columbia's MFA program.