State of Wonder
by Ann Patchett
"The question is whether or not you choose to disturb the world around you, or if you choose to let it go on as if you had never arrived. That is how one respects indigenous people. If you pay any attention at all you'll realize that you could never convert them to your way of life anyway. 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." (pp 162-3)
IN an age of cell phones, ubiquitous GPS devices, computers of every size and shape we have here a novel that opens with an aerogram letter reporting the mysterious death in the jungles of Brazil of a scientist employed by a pharmaceutical company of presumably substantial size. This event left me as the reader of a story about employees of a global enterprise in the twenty-first century in a state of wonder that strained my credulity. The ensuing story tells of a search, by another research scientist, Marina Singh, who at the request of the President of the company goes to the jungle of Brazil, somewhere beyond Manaus, to find out the details of the death of the scientist, Dr. Anders Eckman, and also report on the status of a mysterious research project led by Marina's one-time teacher, Dr. Annick Swenson, who has been in the jungle for decades purportedly looking for a miraculous drug. The journey of Marina and its outcome comprise the majority of this sometimes tedious and often improbable novel. She is sent on her journey by Mr. Fox, the CEO of the pharmaceutical company, who is something of a cypher.
The best aspect of the novel is the ease in reading the prose which allowed me to read it quickly, for I did not want to linger in the omnipresent heat of the Amazonian jungle, with its insects, spiders, bats, snakes, and poisonous plants, for any longer than necessary. Marina often, practically every night, escaped into a dream world that was often nightmarish and may have helped her bear the difficult environment. Her dreams and her personal psychological issues, while making her a more sympathetic character, added to my wonder at her willingness to stay with Dr. Swenson.
The story is reminiscent of Conrad's Heart of Darkness in outline only, for it has none of the depth of philosophic or moral emphasis found in that book. Here we have in Dr. Swenson merely a nasty person ruling over her jungle fiefdom with an iron fist.
I was hoping that my experience reading State of Wonder would be better than that I had reading Patchett's earlier creation Bel Canto; but I my hope did not bear fruition leaving me in a state of wonder where other readers find the enjoyment in her novels.
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. Harper Perennial, 2012 (2011)