Last Ann Patchett I read was too long ago. Bel Canto probably. State of Wonder brings me back in touch with her power. A prodigious one it is. Heart of Darkness is the mother of State of Wonder. Try choosing a better parent.
We’re up the Amazon instead of the Congo, but we’re most definitely with the heirs of Mistah Kurtz. This time commercial exploitation teams up with science to scoop at the soul and essence of the primitives for the benefit of the civilized. All in the name of good. Science, pure and cold as a lab, sails upriver in the person of Dr. Swenson and attempts to carry on its work in secret away from the corruption of the commercial world. Except she can’t quite because she has to cash the checks the company–Vogel; i.e.”bird–sends to keep her going. Vogel boss, the nefarious Mr. Fox, sends emissaries after her. If they make it through the gate guarded by an adolescent-weird couple named Bovender (a combo of “Bovine” and “Provender”?) They disappear on a boat piloted by a deaf child named Easter (Tell me you couldn’t do a study just on the names in this book.), then the jungle swallows them.
Finally, we follow protagonist Marina on the boat (She swallowed a spider to catch the fly. . .) Marina lands. Is immediately stripped of her western trappings, given a native shift and native braids. She encounters the redoubtable Swenson (lately her stern and godlike mentor), snakes, dreams, malaria, insects, poison arrows and poison frogs. There’s a good tribe and an evil one. It’s a world of jibberish and sign language. Even her science doesn’t fit. Conrad’s Marlow has nothing on Marina for pure bafflement and wandering in mental and emotional circles. She’s looking for love and for expiation from the great secret sin of her life. She didn’t necessarily come here for that, but it turns out she did. Where else do you find such things if not at the most elemental core of being? And you don’t necessarily want what you find on such a quest.
Marina is a central character in Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre. That Marina is lost at sea, then redeemed, having managed to maintain her purity despite barbaric attacks that would have infected a lesser soul. I can’t see many parallels between S’s Marina and Patchett’s, but given the suggestiveness of the other names, I’d bet they are there and I’m just missing them. Or maybe there’s another literary Marina I don’t know about.
Whatever the case, Patchett’s created something marvelous in this book. Marvelous indeed.