Sunday, August 07, 2011

Anne Patchett's State of Wonder

State of Wonder is the story of Marina Singh, who enters the jungle with reluctance but a sense of purpose. Marina needs to find out the details surrounding the death of her co-worker, who preceded her to the Amazon. His death was announced in a letter from the doctor on site, stating simply that he had died of a fever.

The South American jungle she enters is not so much chaotic, but rather a place dancing in perfect step to music only it can hear. The doctor on site, Dr. Anneck Swenson, bends her head to yet another tune. Swenson presents a wall to any purpose other than her own. She is direct yet cryptic, confrontational yet indifferent, rejecting yet needy. Despite Marina's efforts to get a bead on her, she remains slippery to the end.

Marina acts, at every turn, in a way I hope I would act in her circumstance. She resists Swenson's attempts to control her, while she assimilates herself into the local culture with grace and joy. The natives strip her and re-cloth her, braid her hair, offer her the flavors of their world, and she takes it all in with openness and trust. A mirror to her openness and trust is Easter, a deaf boy who lives among them also as a foreigner. Easter hails from a community even deeper in the Amazon, a savage, cannibalistic group who live along an obscure finger of the river. Soon after they meet, Marina and Easter fuse into a single soul. Light, open, loving.

Through a fluke, Swenson learns that the dead doctor isn't dead at all. After imbibing ritualistic hallucinogens, he wandered into the jungle and was taken in by the feared cannibals. Swenson seems to regard this news as little more than a dropped stitch, but Marina and Easter take the boat into the jungle and find the missing scientist. Of course, the cannibals want something in return for the doctor. Recognizing him as one of their own, they want Easter. The confrontation is horrible.

Okay, I was trying not to draw parallels to Heart of Darkness, because the connection is too obvious. But here it is. Here's the confrontation with the inner depths, and Easter, not a creepy Doctor Kurtz, is the one sacrificed. Easter isn't killed, he's delivered to a place where he will dwell, against his will, forever seeking escape. Easter, the embodiment of innocence, is placed in the most primal, uncontrolled tendril of the jungle. Will he be ravaged? Will he transform those around him? I will chew on this for a while.

Marina returns, with her co-worker, to her mid-western existence and leaves us to wonder what she now carries within her from the Amazon and whether it will allow her to return.

1 comment:

Brasil said...

I loved Bel Canto and have recommended it to many people. Bel Canto set my expectations for this book. Alas, it didn't measure up. This is much more of a character-driven story than a plot-driven story, and I was somewhat bored for maybe the first third of the book. But based on my love of Bel Canto, I continued reading.

I'm glad I did, because the more I read, the better it got, until I was fully absorbed in the story. Still, the plot line is preposterous. Would a pharmaceutical company hot on the trail of a revolutionary and potentially highly profitable drug leave the research deep in the Amazon jungle to Dr. Swenson, a female scientist of a certain age who refused to report her progress? Not likely! And would such a company send one and then another research scientist into the vast jungle to locate Dr. Swenson and find out the status of the research?