Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Heart of Darkness in Ann Patchett's STATE OF WONDER

I like Ann Patchett's novels. I loved the Magician’s Assistant and enjoyed Bel Canto. What hooks me is the grand adventure and the incredible consciousness of her heroines. These women are hyper aware of their worlds and themselves. They have irony and real humor, along with a grit that is surprising and transformative. Marina Singh in State of Wonder is just such a creation.

Honest and skeptical by nature and her training as a scientist, Marina also possesses compassion for the flaws of human kind. Painfully aware of her own, she’s glad to have repetitive work in the lab of a pharmaceutical company and the friendship of her colleague, Anders. Like her, he’s a native Minnesotan, who enjoys his safe comfortable home. Why she’s surprised he agrees, when Mr. Fox, the CEO, asks him to go to the Amazon to find the elusive Dr. Swenson.  
The only risk in Marina’s careful life is her affair with Mr.Fox, married and old enough to be her lost father. But her sense of  security is shattered by the unthinkable, Anders' death of a fever. In her perfunctory note, Dr. Swenson gaves no details and seemed annoyed by his visit. Wasn't she the person taking care of him, wonders Marina. Once Swenson’s student, she recalls the woman’s formidable work ethic and her intolerance of human failings. Even so, Marina finds her letter about Anders appalling. And the famous scientist, who's been developing a fertility drug for years, is completely unreachable. Mr. Fox does not even  know the location of her lab, though he needs to know about progress on the drug and to bring Swenson home. --Anders' original mission.

When Ander’s wife asks Marina to find out what happened, she considers going and is surprised that Mr. Fox is in agreement. But she packs with grave misgivings about her competency. While Swenson's student, she made one horrible mistake, which led to her changing fields. She doubts that even if Dr. Swenson doesn't recall her, she can fulfill Mr. Fox’s purposes. .

Throughout the grueling journey, Marina is haunted by a reoccurring childhood nightmare, inspired by an antimalarial drug. Also disorienting is the loss of her luggage, when she lands in Manaus. She never finds it but does eventually locate the young hippie couple, who live in Dr. Swenson’s apartment--the only people who know the location of her lab. But their job is to keep people away from Dr. Swenson.

So Marina’s quest becomes a waiting game. She hates the hot sticky rainy depressing town but becomes friends with the young woman. One night she insists on dressing Marina for the opera and there, in Dr. Swenson’s box, she finally meets the scientist. She also meets Easter, the uncanny deaf mute boy who serves Dr. Swenson. When Marina explains that her mission is for Anders' wife, Swenson tells her to go home. 

Instead, Marina gets into a pontoon to journey with Swenson into primeval darkness. Like Conrad’s narrator, her Kurtz takes her  into a living nightmare. And, while Easter steers the boat down the river, Marina learns of ways she can die; bugs that carry malaria, lethal snakes that unfurl themselves from trees, as well as the painted “former” cannibals they come upon, after an unexpected turn.. 

When they finally arrive among the bonfires of the native Lakoshi, this suitcase also disappears and the next morning, over her protests, the Lakoshi women remove her clothes. They put on a loose shift on her, a kind of maternity dress, and braid her hair. Marina has no choice but to “go native,” though her work in the lab provides the sanity of familiar routine. And her relationship with the brilliant Dr. Swenson begins to parallel  Conrad’s hero, when he finally gets to know Kurtz-- before he learns his madness.  

Marina adapts to a life of primal danger and at Dr. Swenson's urging, uses her early surgical training to help the Lakoshi. She comes to realize that Anders could easily have died of a fever and the Lakoshi might have removed his body. But such logic is not the proof she needs. Yet for Mr. Fox, the promise of the fertility drug is inescapably real. Aged Lakoshi women are pregnant. What’s a dream for some western women, the ability to get pregnant beyond forty, is daily life for the Lakoshi, who raise children in multigenerational families. There is also the mysterious source of fertility, a tree that also can produce a cure for malaria.

But Dr.Swenson, now a very pregnant septuagenarian, has resources to develop one drug.  A malaria drug for poor countries would not be Mr.Fox’s choice. And when he comes to find Marina, he is happy to see all around him evidence of fertility. He believes he has a miracle drug and happily leaves the jungle, expecting Marina to later follow.. But Marina must make a choice.She's earned the respect of her mentor, who sees her as her heir. And she's earned the reverence of the Lakoshi, who accept her into their tribal life. And there's the odd attraction of the tree...

Yet Marina also has a huge pull to go home. She's met her darkness and found a life beyond imaginings. . But, unexpectedly, there is nagging news and a heightened intuition of a fearful mission she must complete--for Anders. The result is truly wonderful. Unlike Conrad, Patchett’s horror brings redemption.