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Posts of Janet Chernela, anthropology professor at the University of Maryland.

16 June 2012

"Parody, I presume" : Ann Patchett's State of Wonder

Recognizing that Ann Patchett is a major author, I am going to assume that her new book, State of Wonder, is a send-up.  If that's the case, it's a great success. 

A pharmaceutical company has paid to have a research station built in the Amazon rainforest and they don't know where it is (p. 22). "We sent the whole thing down on a barge, freezers, and tin siding, roofs, and doors, more generators than you could imagine.  We sent everything to set up a fully operating lab and she [Dr. Swenson] met the barge in Manaus and got on board and took it down the river herself.  None of the workers were ever able to remember where they dropped things off" (22).  The researcher and main character, Dr. Swenson, who absconded with the lab, hasn't been heard of in two years.  Never mind that she took it down the Rio Negro, one of the Amazon's northern tributary streams that empties into the Amazon near Manaus so that one can't go down it from Manaus and get very far (see a map).  Now someone must find her and the lab.  When the emissary sent to locate her dies, another is sent.  That scientist is Marina Singh, the book's protagonist and the Stanley of the narrative.

The missing Dr. Swenson has been conducting a thirty-five year study.  Before disappearing into the Amazon Swenson was commuting from her teaching post at Johns Hopkins.  "She had been flying to Manaus all those years and hiring a boat to take her down the splitting tributaries of the Rio Negro" (p. 79).  When they meet in Manaus, Marina finds out how she did it: 

Marina, "So you would teach all week and see patients and then fly down .. on the weekends?"
Swenson, "I would leave late Thursday night after my last class.." 
Marina,"And so you came back on Sunday and taught Monday's class?" 
Swenson, "It was a red-eye coming back.  I'd land Monday morning and have the taxi take me straight to campus" (p. 168-9).  

Before Swenson, there was Dr. Rapp, her mentor.  Rapp was a Harvard professor who "was listed in the catalogue every year but ...[who] never made his way back to the classroom for more than a day or two.  In reality it [his class] was taught by some graduate student...Signing up for the class was as good as admitting you had no idea what was going on" (p. 226).  

When Marina takes a plane to Manaus, a city of two million in the Amazon, she isn't out of the airport before this happens:  "An insect flew against her ear, emitting a sound so piercing that her head snapped back as it struck.  Another insect bit her cheek just as she raised her hand to drive the first one away.  They  were not in the jungle, they were in a parking lot" (69).  The author's sense of humor is more biting than her fictitious, relentless, insects.

And here's a description of Manaus: "Manaus wasn't difficult to figure out.  It catered to tourists and travelers and shippers, who, in this accommodating city, were free from all import duties.  Everyone was either getting off of boats or getting on them, and so the streets had been laid out in such a way that one always had the feeling of walking away from the water or towards it.  By the third day Marina could navigate easily" (p. 77).   Manaus is a city where nothing changes.  One resident remarks, "I can't think of any changes in the last ten years"  (p. 130).  

When Marina gets to the forest, this is the way the acclaimed author describes it in a book considered to be her masterpiece: "Thousands of trees, hundreds of thousands of trees as far as she could see on both sides of the river without a single clearing.  Branches ad infinitum, leaves in perpetuity."

This is what Patchett has to say about the Lakashi, the remote indigenous community living a couple of hours "down the Rio Negro" from Manaus:  "I'll tell you what the locals do have a real genius for, and that's poison. There are so many plants and insects and various reptiles capable of killing a person out here that it seems any idiot could scrape together a compound that would drop an elephant."  

When, at last, Marina meets one of Dr. Swenson's collaborators, the author of the send-up is finally able to provide the punch-line: "Dr. Singh, I presume" (p. 197). 

If you don't have to read this book -- don't. Unless you have been to the Amazon and want to have a guffaw.  


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