Reading Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, which is amongst the most readable of this year’s Orange shortlist but was rightly overlooked when my runner-up won the prize last night, is an odd experience for a reader of science fiction. First, it is impossible not to notice the punning resonance in the novel’s title – though the novel’s often dream-like descent into the Amazon seems more to emphasise confusion rather than awe, it also reaches, especially in its final third, something close to the sfnal sensawunda: Patchett aims to amaze us by, as well as to lose us in, the fundamental mysteries of the jungle.
Not only that, but all of her characters are scientists: the protagonist, Marina Singh, is a drop-out surgeon who works now as a pharmacologist at Vogel Pharmaceuticals, where she is in the hesitant throes of a careful relationship with the MD, a much older man she knows most often as Mr Fox. When, on the second page of the novel, the pair hear via a brief aerogram that a colleague of theirs, Anders Eckman, has died whilst in the field, it is an inevitability that first Mr Fox and then Eckman’s widow, and mother of his three children, will insist Marina travel herself to Brazil in order to uncover the full truth of his death.
This picture is complicated by the shadowy figure of Annick Swenson, the quasi-legendary doctor and scientist who is leading the Amazonian project which Eckman was observing (“Google Annick Swenson” and “there was remarkably little information to be had” [pg. 80]). Her investigations into the extraordinary fertility of the Lakashi – an Amazonian tribe whose women carry babies to term well into their seventies – are paid for by Vogel, but have been painfully slow. Indeed, one of the many ways in which State of Wonder‘s sensawunda stretches credibility is in its presumption that any pharmaceutical would pay Swenson the way Vogel does – it not only pays her costs and salary, but retains an apartment and a small staff in the nearest city, has funnelled money into a project which offers no interim reports for what seems like decades, and never demands she return home (or does not, at least, punish her when she refuses those requests). In part, this can be explained by Swenson’s forbidding character – she is preternaturally and entertainingly strong-willed and committed – but in part it is the novel finding excuses for the contrivances of its mise en scene.
For Marina, however, the situation is even more complicated: Swenson was her supervisor in Boston when the young Dr Singh chose to throw away her surgical career following a case of negligence during her junior residency. She had blinded a baby in one eye during a C-section, having gone ahead without Swenson despite orders to do otherwise – but when she finally meets her old mentor, Swenson apparently has no memory of the incident or her damning evidence to the inquiry. That reunion does not come until more than a third of the way into the book, however, since Marina is kept apart from her quarry by two of Marina’s staff: the passive, convoluted ways in which they charm Marina into hanging around Manaus rather than immediately following Swenson into the Amazon offer one of the novel’s many faintly surrealist passages: “There’s never any warning when she’s coming,” they tell Marina of Swenson, “[or] when she leaves.” [pg. 71] Instead, they walk the streets – and we get the South American clichés of heat and siestas, insects and child market-traders – and go to the opera – Marina begins to envision herself as Orpheus to Eckers’s Eurydice.
Indeed, perhaps it is madness rather than wonder which eddies beneath the surface of this readably attenuated novel. “What had been wrong with her childhood?” Marina asks herself at one point. “And then the unexpected answer: these pills.” [pg. 34] The pills to which Marina refers are malaria drugs, taken during her frequent visits with her mother to India, to visit her estranged father – a “foreign graduate student father who took his doctoral degree but not his family back to his country of origin after he was finished had become the stuff of presidential history” [pg. 35]. Malaria is a key to understanding State of Wonder: it is revealed, as one may or may not expect of research conducted in tropical climes, that there are potential relationships between the Lakashi’s fertility and the curable but non-vaccinable disease. Meanwhile, Marina is haunted by night terrors – especially when taking Lariam – of a crushing, stereotyped India full of indiscriminate masses of people who swamp she and her father. At Practically Marzipan, Aishwayra is right to note that the Lakashi fare little better – none of them are given names or distinguishing characteristics by Patchett or the scientists, and their neighbouring tribe are depicted in the time-honoured fashion of Oroonoko as murderous cannibals. The only native with a name – the boy Easter, with whom both Swenson and Marina strike up a motherly relationship – is deaf and mute.
Perhaps, though, this is deliberate: like a more composed Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a work to which State of Wonder is deeply indebted, Swenson has begun to lose perspective. In its final third, Patchett’s novel goes from Brazilian travelogue and Gorillas In The Mist-style jungle study to a debate about ‘the native’. Marina begins to wonder about the manner in which the scientists choose their human subjects (“I suppose if this man had a lawyer, it could be said that he hadn’t agreed,” murmurs one of Swenson’s party [pg. 294]); “the question,” says another, “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” [pg. 162]; and, finally, in Easter this question is personifed:
“I wouldn’t have taken someone else’s child,” Marina said.
“Of course you would,” Dr Swenson said. “You would take Easter from me now. You never had any intention of leaving here without him and I never had any intention of letting him go. He was mine.” [pg. 346]
The Lakashi’s horticulture, their ecosystem and their rituals, are personified in Easter as something to be fought over. That Easter is mute and deaf is thematically – and symbolically – significant. “The scientists all agreed that they had never been deep into the jungle for more than eight minutes without thinking they would give everything they owned to be led safely out,” Patchett tell us [pg. 213], and incipient madness is present in this conversation: the Lakashi and their way of life, of course, are not a resource to be mined. Swenson, however, may have taken personal ownership of her project, but she knows, too, that the West is rapacious and selfish: “I am fairly certain you are wrong about an American pharmaceutical company wishing to foot the bill for Third World do-gooding,” she sneers to Marina [pg. 289]. She is no Kurtz, her team is not entirely composed of Westerners, and Patchett is no Conrad.
On the other hand, State of Wonder is so constructed – and the story so conveyed – that the sensitivity of some of its scientists (certainly Marina learns human empathy in the course of an arc ripe for translation onto the silver screen) doesn’t seem quite mirrored in the substance of the novel. It is very smoothly written, and Patchett is skilful in keeping the reader’s attention in both her longeurs and intense vignettes (we might favourably compare her here with Harding and Ozick). Marina’s conflicting feelings about her mixed heritage, the Lakashi’s culture and particularity, and even the book’s increasingly unlikely science all seem rather half-baked and under-considered, though. State of Wonder has some superb character work – its human relationships, alas in all cases between the Westerners, are by far its strongest element, and their power is outstanding on the shortlist – but its clumsiness put it well out of contention. A shame.