Online Book Discussion of Ann Patchett’s STATE OF WONDER: Week One

Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky
October 3, 2014
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This is the first in a series of posts about Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder. Please click on the links below to access additional posts.
Natalie Shapero, Week One
Natalie Shapero, Week Two
Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky, Week Two
David Lynn, Week Two
Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky, Week Three
Janet McAdams, Week Three

Over the next month, David Lynn, Natalie Shapero, Janet McAdams and I will be writing a back-and-forth online discussion here about Ann Patchett’s critically acclaimed novel, State of Wonder. Patchett, as many of you already know, will receive this year’s Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement, and she will come to Gambier on October 25 to deliver the Denham Sutcliffe Memorial Lecture, the culmination of a wonderfully busy four days of events that make up the KR Literary Festival. We’ve handed out copies of State of Wonder at the Mount Vernon Farmer’s Market and at local bookstores as part of the Knox Reads! Program. In addition, we’ve begun a series of conversations about the novel at the Mount Vernon Library, on Kenyon’s campus, and at several local high schools, where students are discussing the novel in their classes. We’re also hoping to hear from you with comments, emendations, reservations, disagreements, and suggestions from some of the many thousands of readers who visit this site regularly. Join us! We’d love to know what you think!

Let me start things off by proposing a few questions from the book’s opening section: What’s the narrative function of Marina’s recurring dream about being abandoned by her father? Is it simply the expression – under the terrifying effects of Lariam — of her childhood experience in India and her father’s abandonment of her when he returned to India to start a new family? Does it reflect a deeper need for her to undertake this journey – and face her fears – in order to come out from the shadow of this trauma and seize control of her own life? Given how Dr. Swenson always seems to be walking away from her in Marina’s memories of medical school, should we see the trauma of her mistake during the botched delivery of the child as reflecting that sense of abandonment by a parent? Is there something even more terrifying in the idea of being abandoned by a symbolic mother?

To start answering these questions, I think we need to look at the novel as taking place in three acts:

Act 1 sets up the book’s narrative problem – the disappearance of Anders Eckman – along with the backstory that will motivate and complicate Marina’s efforts to find him: her recurring nightmares about being abandoned by her father, and her affair with her boss at Vogel Pharmaceuticals, Mr. Fox, a man old enough to be her father. I’ll just point out here that Anders is an interesting name for the book’s MacGuffin figure. (For those of you who don’t know the term, the MacGuffin was Alfred Hitchcock’s term for the object that a film’s hero/ine pursues – a Maltese Falcon, a microfilm, a briefcase full of who knows what damning evidence or fabulous treasures – which is meaningful to the audience simply because everyone wants to find it so badly.) The search for the MacGuffin drives the plot, so Anders’ disappearance makes Marina’s journey to Brazil necessary, but it’s her anxious dreams about being abandoned by her father in this first section of the book that turn her trip to the Amazon into an internal journey and a confrontation with her own deepest fears. Anders, of course, comes from the Greek word Άνδρο (as in, say, “anthropology”), which means “man.” Obviously, that’s suggestive in a book about the search for a drug that radically extends female fertility (which, not to give too much away, turns out to be a kind of MacGuffin in its own right) and characterized by a pervasive anxiety about lost fathers. Fathers go missing throughout this book, and men prove to be ineffectual, partly because it’s a book about forms of female power: the biological power of motherhood, of course, but also the transformative power of female doctors, native midwives, and inspiring (if terrifying) teachers. When Marina reaches the end of her quest, she finds a native village where men seem nearly invisible. But then, we shouldn’t be surprised, because she’s headed for the Amazon, named by European explorers for the tribe of warrior women of Greek mythology when they found that the women of indigenous tribes fought alongside the men to protect their land from these European invaders.

Act 2 consists of the book’s middle section in Manaus, which depicts Marina’s frustration at not making progress in finding Dr. Swenson, creating an atmosphere of tropical stasis. We might see this section of the book as the fulfillment of Marina’s fears in Act 1 – she’s not prepared for the Amazon, will get lost there, and won’t achieve her goal in finding the mysterious Dr. Swenson and discovering the truth about what happened to Anders. For that reason, it’s also where the book intentionally frustrates its reader, so that we share Marina’s experience of sinking into this tropical stasis. Interestingly, though, it’s not the jungle that frustrates her progress and threatens her health, but a city. This might be the first hint that Patchett is using the Amazon rainforest as a canvas on which her American characters project their fears and fantasies. Marina fears getting lost in this jungle and failing in her quest, but those fears only threaten to come true before she heads up the river into the forest. Patchett goes to great lengths to isolate Marina from western technology, almost as if she’s moving back in time: she loses not one, but two suitcases, along with the satellite phones that would have made it possible for her to keep in touch with Mr. Fox. But that’s partly because the point of this central section of the novel is to strip her down, remove all her American technology and assumptions, so that she’s ready to face an internal journey when she finally heads upriver into the jungle.

Act 3, then, is as much about Marina’s internal journey as it is about finally getting into the jungle and confronting the truth about Dr. Swenson’s work. One way to see this internal journey is as a version of a classical literary narrative: the journey into the underworld. Marina is searching for a dead man in a place that seems to be both tropical hell (snakes, biting insects, disease) and earthly paradise. Patchett refers to the Greek myth of Orpheus rescuing his lover Eurydice from the underworld, but there’s also an underlying motif of the Amazon as a threatened Eden: women eat from trees, Dr. Swenson embodies the temptations of knowledge, and snakes appear at crucial moments to remind us how that biblical narrative ended. But, most importantly, this final section of the novel is about birth: not simply the biological act of giving birth, although that plays an important part, but the spiritual and psychological role that a journey like this can play in allowing us to escape our childhood fears, which threaten to strangle us. One might say that Marina spends this final section of the novel delivering babies in both literal and symbolic births. By doing so, she also escapes the fears that have shaped and imprisoned her since childhood. She also undergoes a symbolic rebirth, but I don’t want to spoil the ending for those still reading, so I’ll say more about that in future posts.

Just as there are three sections to the novel, I’m going to suggest that there are also three ways to read it:

(1) as a novel about medical research, which invokes both important debates about how medical research has been conducted over the last century (for example, the Tuskegee Experiment) and literary explorations of the theme of the temptations of knowledge like Milton’s Paradise Lost and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein;

(2) as an expression of our fantasies and fears about the natural world and indigenous people of wild places like the Amazon, which might remind us in structure and theme of texts like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (although it’s worth noting before we go too far with that analogy that Patchett has said that her model for this novel wasn’t Conrad’s narrative, but rather Henry James’s The Ambassadors);

and finally

(3) as a meditation on the meaning of fertility, by which we might mean the uncontrolled fertility of the natural world in a place like the Brazilian rain forest, the boundaries of human fertility that Dr. Swenson seems to be pushing against in her research, and the fertility of the imagination.

Let me suggest, as we think about that final way of looking at the novel, that we keep in mind that parenthood isn’t simply biological: it’s also cultural, as we can see in the ways that the Lakashis’ treatment of their children differs from the practices that Marina takes for granted back in America. In fact, we might say that the task of creating children only starts with biological parents: it’s shared, after birth, by the community that surrounds a child (as in “it takes a village to raise a child”), by teachers, and even by the child herself. Our parents create us on a biological level, but we spend the rest of our lives recreating ourselves using images taught to us by our culture, learned in school, and made real to us by books like this. One way that State of Wonder can be read is as a novel about the ways we imagine exotic places and the people who live there in order to reimagine our own lives. As we accompany Marina on her journey into the Amazon, Patchett allows us to imagine how we would respond to its terrors and its beauty. In that sense, the novel is our journey, and its author is the symbolic parent who leads us, shows us its wonders, but will never let go of our trembling hand.

Click here for the next post in the series: Natalie Shapero, Week One

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