Negative Capability in Fiction: The Strange Magnetism of Karen Russell's Swamplandia!

Purple clover, Queen Anne's lace,
Crimson hair across your face
You can make me cry, if you don’t know.
With my fiction writing students I sometimes play a game called Smoke: It’s like Twenty Questions, but “slant.” One player thinks of a person (famous or otherwise) that everybody knows. The other players ask questions and try to guess the identity of the person. The catch is that they can’t be questions that will elicit direct answers; they must have to do with the person’s “essence.” For example: If this person were a kind of smoke, what kind of smoke would he or she be? If this person were a type of wood, what type? If a car, what kind of car? What smell or color or sound or music or food or stone or fabric or plant or animal would he or she be? Answers must be given quickly, without thinking, and it’s important to avoid questions about movies, books, political parties, or other subjects that might reveal anything direct or factual about the person. It’s often amazing how few questions it takes to solve, and it really points up the uncanny power of intuitive associations in writing, especially about character.

This is exactly what Bob Dylan is doing in the lines quoted above. Have more evocative lines ever been written about a character? Can’t you see the woman Dylan is describing? Don’t you feel you somehow know her? This is the power of what John Keats referred to as negative capability: “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

And this also helps us to understand why Karen Russell has taken the literary world by storm. Consider the following sentences, selected almost at random from Russell’s debut novel, Swamplandia!:
“The fan was blowing at the chief’s headdress, flattening every feather so that they waved in place, like a school of fishes needling into a strong current.” 
“Unmenaced, all the fish inside the hole had grown huge and lippy. The bass turned in a thick circle, a clock of gloating life.” 
“The sun was lowering itself behind the tree line at an angle, as carefully as a round man descending a ladder.”
These are more than just vivid descriptions. They’re vivid descriptions that give us direct access to a very unusual inner world. Russell has negative capability in spades: she’s able to make unexpected and surprising leaps in a way that is not rational, but that is at the same time so profoundly true. In fact, she has managed to write an entire novel that seems to inhabit the dreamlike, liminal realm of the collective subconscious. This is no mean trick.

Witness this passage, which is taken almost arbitrarily from the extended imaginative tour de force leading up to the book’s conclusion: 
“Out here the mosquitoes were after me for red gallons—you could see clouds of them hanging above the grassland. I’m sure they are still out there hovering like that, like tiny particles of an old, dissolved appetite, something prehistoric and very scary that saturates the air of that swamp. A force that could drain you in sips without ever knowing what you had been, or seeing your face.”

There’s no explaining the impact of a passage like this. No analyzing it in a way that will prove more fruitful than simply reading it and letting it expand in one’s mind. This is the realm of the great poets. Not every fiction writer has the ability to do this. For me, it is the power of negative capability that accounts for the draw of Karen Russell’s deeply strange story-world, and it explains why a debut novel as quirky and hard to categorize as Swamplandia! has made such a splash.