Posted by: Lizzie Ross | September 30, 2011

The jungle I remember wasn’t like this

State of Wonder (2011), Ann Patchett, 353 pp.

About two-thirds of the way through this novel, I came across a review and read it. I’ll never do that again. It was a negative review, and it colored my response to the book until nearly the end, where my pleasure with Patchett’s writing and story revived. It was a possitive review that made me want to read this book in the first place, so what gives?

I sometimes think I’m too malleable, too susceptible to the opinions of others. It makes me an easy reader, sucked into any plot, no matter how far-fetched. Put the MC in danger, and I lose all sense of reality, of myself as someone just reading a book. At the most intense moments, I have to stop, catch my breath, remind myself this is just a story, with the author in charge of what happens. And then if someone tosses off a snarky comment about weak prose or stupid plot lines, I think, “Yeah, this IS crap. I knew it all along.”

Harpy eagle

Well, it’s time to stand up for my own opinions. Despite my feelings of disconnect as I read Patchett’s latest novel — about a Conrad-esque journey to the heart of darkness in the Amazon — I was once again sucked into a fully realized world, dense with jungle growth. The jungle I remember is in equatorial Africa, at the borderline between rain forest and savannah. Yes, in Francophone Africa there are insects, animals, heat, damp rot, dangers, and torrential rains, but not to the extent described by Patchett. But I tamped down my own memories when Dr Marina Singh gets onto the boat that takes her up the Amazon to a hidden tributary. This is Patchett’s world, and I let her be my guide.

Singh’s quest is very much like that of the narrator in Heart of Darkness (and the MC of Apocalypse Now): travel deep into the mysterious jungle, face untold dangers, and do something about the mad person who seems to have jettisoned all connections to civilization. In this case, the mad person is Dr Annick Swenson, who is researching a cure for infertility. Singh’s journey is long and difficult, if only because bureaucrats and toadies delay her at every stage. We’re half-way through the book before she boards the boat that will take her to Dr Swenson’s research lab. Then, once in the fecund center of the action, everything moves quickly, with appearances that shock and surprise.

Who is the villain in this book?  Dr Swenson? The medical conglomerate that pays her bills? The indigenous people with their incomprehensible culture? The jungle that presents dangers almost daily? Marina Singh and her inability to be open-minded about what she is seeing? Who is the “other”, and in what instances is maintaining “otherness” a means of self-preservation?

Here’s Marina, finally hearing the sounds on the river:

The quiet … was subtle: at first Marina heard it only as silence, the absence of human voices, but once her ear had settled into it the other sounds began to rise, the deeply forested chirping, the caw that came from the tops of trees, the chattering of lower primates, the incessant sawing of insect life. It was not unlike the overture of the opera in which the well-trained listener could draw forth the piccolos, the soft French horn, a single meaningful viola.

It’s as if she has finally learned to pay attention to more than just people. A few pages later, when Marina feels night as a “gaping darkness of [God’s] abandonment, Dr Swenson admonishes her to “look at the stars”:

Beyond the spectrum of darkness she saw the bright stars scattered across the table of the night sky and felt as if she had never seen such things as stars before. She did not know enough numbers to count them, and even if she did, the stars could not be separated one from the other …. She could see the milkiness in everything now, the way the sky was spread over with light.

I do remember the stars — I think Patchett gets that part of the jungle right: the absolute darkness of the un-lit earth, jammed against the utter brilliance of a moon-less, cloud-less sky.

In the end, I rail against that negative review, with its expectations of reality (particularly concerning the kind of research that Dr Swenson does). Patchett has portrayed a treacherous world teeming with oddities. Not all of it is fiction.

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