State of Wonder and Heart of Darkness

A local book club’s pick of Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder led me to rereading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The similarities are hard to miss: the menacing jungle (Africa for Conrad, Brazil for Patchett); the main character who manipulates the ignorant natives ( Kurtz vs Dr. Swenson); the ruthless, greedy corporation willing to destroy a way of life in the name of progress (ivory merchants in Africa; pharmaceutical companies in Brazil).

Both authors use brutal realism, with Patchett offering some respite in romance, while Conrad mires in the worst of humanity. Both use their talents for phrasing to capture the reader.

“Marina brushed her hand across the back of her neck and dislodged something with a hard shell. She had learned in time to brush instead of slap as slapping only served to pump the entire contents of the insect which was doubtlessly already burrowed into the skin with some entomological protuberance, straight into the bloodstream.”  Patchett, State of Wonder

“I tried to break the spell–the heavy, mute spell of the wilderness–that seemed to draw him to its pitiless breast by the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts, by the memory of gratified and monstrous passions. This alone, I was convinced, had driven him out to the edge of the forest, to the bush, towards the gleam of fires, the throb of drums, the drone of weird incantations; this alone had beguiled his unlawful soul beyond the bounds of permitted aspirations.”
Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Conrad wrote his cautionary tale over 100 years ago (1903). Not much has changed it seems, just the players and the place, continuing the universal themes of greed and ethics.

If you haven’t yet read State of Wonder, the review here might tempt you. The classic Heart of Darkness is available free online.

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

I once knew a botanist whose idea of heaven was to find secluded areas full of new vegetation – plants undiscovered, unknown – a paradise of discovery.  Of course, if this place had 27 different kinds of mosquitos, snakes, and no running water – all the better.   Not my idea of fun.  But, thankfully, explorers are still willing to go into the obscure sites, and in Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, they are subsidized by the pharmaceutical companies.

Patchett stirs the action immediately with news that a researcher recently sent into the Amazon jungle to check on promising research on a new fertility drug has mysteriously died.  With little information forthcoming from the feisty seventy-year-old in charge of the project, Dr. Swenson, who continues to run up bills without sending back samples, the phramaceutical company’s VP decides to send Dr. Marina Singh to the jungle to investigate exactly what is going on.  So starts a saga of jungle lore – complete with cannibals, torch-bearing natives, rivers full of anacandas, malaria-breeding mosquitos, and mysterious trees with the promise of a cure.

Patchett knows how to tell a story.  If you’ve read Bel Canto or Run, you know how she can weave unlikely characters and possibilities together, and even give you a surprise now and then, as she holds you a captive reader.  State of Wonder, although a little hokey and conveniently melodramatic at times, is no exception; I couldn’t put it down and read it in a day – nonstop.

Whether or not Patchett did her research, her descriptions of the jungle are not only plausible but downright convincing.  With all the harrowing close-calls poor Marina Singh had to endure, it’s unlikely any reader would want to consider it as a travel destination.  And the characters, as dysfunctional as they may be personally, all work together: the Bovenders, Australian surfers looking for an “easy gig” while waiting for the waves in Peru; Mr. Fox, the uptight administrator hoping no one will notice his feelings for his subordinate, Marina; Dr. Swenson, the tough old broad who takes no prisoners but has a heart after all; Easter, the native deaf boy with more sense than most of the medical doctors – in the jungle anyway; and, of course, Marina, the star character, who struggles with her own demons that led her away from obstetrics to a career as a researcher in cholesterol.

The crux of the story has Marina going to the Amazon to find Anders, her colleague and father of three boys, who has mysteriously died in the jungle.  After a series of setbacks, she finally makes it to Dr. Swenson’s secret camp, and discovers the magical bark that makes the seventy year old women fertile, along with a few other surprises.

The ending is far-fetched, but you will be thankful for it.  And, as always, Patchett offers a wild ride with a good story.