Prize-winning author Ann Patchett ("Bel Canto," "Truth and Beauty," "The Magician's Assistant") once confessed that the single most important artistic influence on her work is "The Poseidon Adventure," the 1933 Paul Gallico potboiler that was made into a classic 1970s action-adventure-disaster movie featuring Gene Hackman and Ernest Borgnine fighting their way out of a luxury liner capsized by a 100-foot tidal wave. Patchett explained, "['The Poseidon Adventure'] was the first time I saw something that made me think, Oh, that's what plot is: you're going along, it's fine, then everything turns upside down; people band together, sacrifices are made, there's passion, there's loss, there's a journey and at the end you cut a hole in the boat and you come into the light."
"State of Wonder," Patchett's sixth novel, is a riveting variation on that tightly plotted journey from darkness to light. The novel traces the steps of 42-year-old Marina Singh, pharmacologist at the Vogel Pharmaceutical Company in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. Marina makes her way to a place deep in the bowels of the jungle, "somewhere on a tributary off the Rio Negro" in Brazil, and then must fight her way back home to the bright, frozen landscape of Eden Prairie.
In a matter of weeks, Marina is sailing on a pontoon boat "down a river into the beating heart of nowhere", a would-be Charlie Marlow voyaging into Conrad's heart of darkness. Patchett's heroine leaves her comfort zone in Eden Prairie armed with little more than the talismans of Western civilization: a volume of Henry James, a back issue of the New England Journal of Medicine and a high-tech, GPS-enabled cell phone so sophisticated that it can "make a phone call from Antarctica". She travels to the Amazon seeking answers for herself (about the mysterious circumstances of Anders' death and about the meaning of her own life) and information for the Vogel Pharmaceutical Company (about Dr. Swenson and her progress in the development of a revolutionary new fertility drug).
"State of Wonder" is Marina's interior, psychological journey back in time to confront her past, in the shape of her former medical school professor Dr. Swenson; and a vivid account of her travels through snake-infested rivers, malarial swamps and "thick walls of breathing vegetation".
Unfortunately, if somewhat predictably, Marina's luggage never makes it with her to Dr. Swenson's remote research station in the jungle, leaving her with some serious chinks in her techno-scientific armor. This is a particular problem because the Brazil of "State of Wonder" is a perilous and threatening place. Patchett's South American jungle is bursting with creepy-crawly people and insects, all of which pose a potentially lethal threat to the novel's civilized scientific wayfarers. Swarms of bodies cycle anonymously through the novel and around Marina as her personal voyage unfolds. Dense clouds of insects clamor for blood, and armies of natives mass around the fluorescent lights of a storefront in a frenzy to get inside, or the lonely beam of a flashlight in the jungle. The insatiable, minimally rational and barely-human appetites that drive the indigenous people of the novel are, finally, best embodied by the tribe of sinister cannibals who keep the scientists on their toes as they hover menacingly just on the margins of the story, at least until the novel's nail-biting eleventh hour, when Patchett propels them into position front and center.And yet, Patchett's greatest strength, her imagination, ultimately gives shape to a host of platitudes about the primitive pleasures and dangers that lie out there in the jungle.
In "State of Wonder" Patchett writes with the confidence and authority of an author-explorer endowed with the power to imagine a universe divided into ill-mannered natives and the modern men and women from Minnesota who teach them table manners, instruct them in the art of wiping their feet before they get into bed, and train them to be docile subjects, "submitting themselves to constant weighing and measurement, allowing their menstrual cycles to be charted and their children to be pricked for blood samples".
Unlike Marina or Dr. Swenson or Anders or any of the other figures who are temporarily transplanted from civilization to Amazonian wilderness, Patchett's natives are only semi-human; they don't possess civilized language, but make sounds "less like words and more like the call and answer of birds." They swim in the river in packs with "their long throats stretched up like turtles" and they swarm in a beam of light like massive schools of oversized fish. Doomed to a life outside of the grand narratives of Western progress, left behind by the forward march of modernity, the Lakashi coexist with archaic creatures, like the "freakish brand of great white bird with a wing span of a pterodactyl" and are seemingly impervious to evolutionary change. Dr. Swensen explains, "They are an intractable race. Any progress you advance to them will be undone before your back is turned. You might as well come down here to unbend the river". If "State of Wonder" falters, it is its tendency to rely on Western truisms about exotic lands and indigenous peoples and offer up a curiously clichead view of life beyond the knowable edges of home.
Part scientific thriller, part engaging personal odyssey, "State of Wonder" is a suspenseful jungle adventure with an unexpected ending and other assorted surprises.
Laura Ciolkowski teaches Literature at Columbia University. She is also Associate Director of the Columbia University Center for the Critical Analysis of Social Difference.
State of Wonder
By Ann Patchett
HarperCollins Books, 353 pages, $26.99
'State of Wonder' by Ann Patchett
"State of Wonder" is a suspenseful jungle adventure with an unexpected ending and other assorted surprises
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