One humid night in Coconut Grove, I sat on a wooden floor for hours talking film, drinking icy dark beer and listening to Werner Herzog spin his stories about making Fitzcarraldo in the jungle. It seemed to have been a kind of insane obsession for him, the refusal to fake an impossible feat in a studio, the passion for paying the price in time, investments, human suffering, all captured in a movie about building an opera house in an Amazon outpost. It was heady stuff but I had been in those jungles and I knew the fatal seductions and the looming dark side always poised to overwhelm the unwary. I admired Herzog’s entertaining genius but I thought he was crazy.
That opera house is real. It makes a cameo appearance in Ann Patchett’s latest novel, along with Fitzcarraldo and a cautionary tale of Orpheus and Eurydice and an overlay of Joseph Conrad impossible to ignore. In State of Wonder, Ann Patchett has reimagined Heart of Darkness with female protagonists and an American jungle but the journey seems familiar to us. The reluctant hero, this time heroine, sets out on an uncomfortable quest into the unknown, unearths marvels and horrors, suffers terrors and bug bites and gradually peels back the layers of vines and vegetation to confront the truth. There is a mad, white outpost on the edge of a river, native people as observant of these strange intruders as they are observed, hallucinogenic events and encounters and the dangerous incursion of the modern world.
A mid-west American pharmaceutical company is bankrolling an intractable but brilliant scientist in the heart of the Amazon rainforest. Dr. Annick Swenson is in her seventies, suffers fools not at all and remains incommunicado and hidden in her jungle encampment. Research scientist Dr. Marina Singh, a woman with her own carefully compartmentalized demons, is dispatched by the company to report back on the progress in isolating a new drug that could revolutionize human reproduction. The colleague who preceded her in this quest has mysteriously died of a fever and has been unceremoniously buried at the research station, his death announced weeks later in a cryptic letter.
Nothing Marina finds on her journey is expected and it is one of the joys of the story that Patchett manages to surprise at every turn. The plot is a river, as powerful and inexorable as the Amazon, moving relentlessly over secret depths and currents, everything life-giving and deadly just beneath the muddy surface. The threads of science, arrogance, obsession and greed entwine and every moral choice is ambiguous, every action an accommodation. Where do we belong?, this story asks. How far do we go? Can we ever come back?
I admired Ann Patchett all over again reading this book. Bel Canto was another piece of theater, both lurid and luxurious in its exotic circumstances and inevitable consequences. Somewhere, I read that Patchettt hung out with soprano Renee Fleming in preparation for writing about the world of opera so intimately in that novel. She seems to have engaged in the same kind of fabulous research for State of Wonder. The expat escapists, local entrepreneurs, fierce insects, sweltering heat and thunderous downpours are spot on. My own travels on rivers and in rainforests were as vivid to me reading this book as they were in the moment – she gets it exactly right, so I can’t think the work is wholly imagined. I am jealous of her research – the vivid butterflies, the painted birds, the raw, startling escape from stultifying civilization, the characters larger than life.
In the end, there is no place to hide in the impenetrable rainforests, no walking or running away from the stories we drag after us like useless coats. State of Wonder delivers a very good read, peopled with sympathetic and surprising players, and a pay-off of compelling questions to ponder once you’ve closed the book.
State of Wonder — Ann Patchett | HarperCollins 2011