Ann Patchett’s Amazon tale is subject of wonderment
by Robert Neufeld
Soon, there will be no more indigenous cultures left on Earth, and writers will have to depend on obvious fantasy, like “Avatar,” to send a contemporary explorer into “The Heart of Darkness” or “Green Mansions.”
“State of Wonder” sends 41-year-old Marina Singh, doctor of pharmacology for a drug company, to the Amazon jungle to track down a rogue genius, Dr. Anika Swenson.
Swenson has bonded with the Lakashi people to study their secret of late-life fertility. Marina’s colleague, Anders Eckman, had preceded Marina to Swenson’s outpost, and had died there.
The character of Dr. Swenson is by itself a reason to read “State of Wonder.”
Other reasons are: the portrayal of the Lakashi, who slap each other playfully to express love; the strange miraculousness of the setting; a large cast of distinctive, lovable characters, including Easter, a native deaf-mute prodigy; Marina’s mind, lonely, analytical, and ethical; and the triple plot lines that pursue Marina to Lakashi-world.
“State of Wonder” is the subject of Book Discussion X at Accent on Books, July 12.
Wow and hmmm
When the Pulitzer committee decided to award no fiction prize this year, it passed over three finalists, including Karen Russell’s novel, “Swamplandia,” which had been the subject of a previous Book Discussion X.
“Swamplandia” has great brilliance, but the roots are too supernormal.
“State of Wonder” was not a finalist. It should have been.
Keep in mind that this was also the year of Charles Frazier’s “Nightwoods,” another novel of highest merit that uses psychologically compelling characters to produce events that seem mythic.
Patchett’s wow-making machine emits scenes at a high rate, and the thrills are of many varieties, including ominous and sad, as Marina is drawn out of her cubicle to travel to Manaus, Brazil and beyond.
On the plane, Marina reflects on the mistake she had made as a Chief Resident under Dr. Swenson years ago. It had led Marina to abandon her career.
“She could never have told this story to Anders,” she realizes, “even if it would have put him on his guard, even if that might have been the thing to save his life.”
The story, one of a hundred episodes in the novel, takes place in Marina’s memory while being pestered by a seatmate and a flight attendant just because Marina had awakened screaming from a Lariam-induced nightmare.
The waking memory involves a fetal heartbeat.
When Marina arrives in Manaus, one of the first things she sees is “a black vulture the size of a turkey (walking) down the aisles like all the other shoppers, looking for whatever fish heads and entrails were to be had underneath the tables.”
It is a harbinger of the horrors and wonders to be assimilated in a brave primitive world: bullet ants that shoot off trees to target debilitating bites; candiru fish that swim up urethras; Jabiru storks; malarial mosquitos; anacondas; magic plants.
The ecology of Lakashi-world, a Sutter’s Mill of pharmacopeia, presents a full view of an indigenous culture under threat.
The community of scientists, which includes not only Swenson and Marina, but also husband-and-wife doctors Nancy and Alan Saturn; nerdy Dr. Budi; and multi-lingual Dr. Thomas Nkomo, are constantly faced by ethical dilemmas, which often dredge up the past.
When Alan relates the story of his lucky youthful attachment to Dr. Rapp, the ethnobotanist who’d first found the Lakashi, Nancy tears down her husband’s idol and his monomania.
“He was the greatest man I ever knew,” Alan states.
“He left you with a tribe of Indians in Peru when you had a fever of a hundred and five,” Nancy responds.
After the end
There are a few elements of Patchett’s novel that leave you contemplating her design.
“State of Wonders” includes no craven characters, not even in the Lakashi’s rival tribe, the war-like Hummocca. There’s a missionary-schooled Lakashi man who does reckless things to gain the crown of wilderness tour guide, but he is not like Frazier’s heartless screw-up, Bud, in “Nightwoods.”
The ending of “State of Wonder” resolves one major plot thrust with great emotional impact; and leaves a second unresolved without an obvious hint that it’s a purposeful puzzler, like “Tomorrow is another day.”
Marina’s rise from wallflower to heroine, marked by sensational feats, concludes with a state of limbo.
One of her heroic actions had been delivering a native woman’s breech baby by C-section in the woman’s family’s platform house.
“I’m going to try and turn the baby,” Marina says.
“You’re not,” Dr. Swenson says. “I have edema in my hands.”
“Dear God, when did that happen,” Marina, the ever-compassionate, responds.
“I would have a difficult time with the scalpel,” Dr. Swenson continues. “I have a difficult time with a pencil. All that said, either you are going to do the cesarian or I am. Those are the choices.”
Swenson has a few ulterior motives for imposing her will on Marina, one of which is to boost Marina’s confidence, for Swenson did remember Marina’s long ago obstetrical calamity.
Dr. Swenson is a caring as well as mission-driven manipulator; and goes down in literature alongside some evil ones: Balzac’s Cousin Bette; Daphne Du Maurier’s Mrs. Danvers in “Rebecca”; Margaret Atwoods’s Cordelia in “Cat’s Eye.”
Ultimately, “State of Wonder” is a story about heroes going up against a rising tide.
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (HarperCollins, 2011; Harper Perennial, 2012, 359 pages plus 17-page supplement)
Book Discussion X meets to talk about “State of Wonder” by Ann Patchett at Accent on Books, 854 Merrimon Ave., 7 p.m., Thurs., July 12 (252-6255). To learn about other book discussions in the region, visit The Read on WNC at TheReadonWNC.ning.com.