If you’re an English major—and I was—you spend a lot of time discussing symbolism and imagery. And even though such blatant and obvious interpretations have long fallen from favor in the lexicon of contemporary critical analysis, you still end up noticing it and thinking about it and writing crummy papers full of it. And sometimes you find those papers when you’re unpacking boxes after a move, and you think to yourself, “Good God, did I really write a paper arguing this John Berryman poem was in fact a mathematical equation? And did I really get an ‘A’ on it?” And college and grad school and literary theory and symbolism seems like something that happened in another life, on another planet.
Then you pick up a book like Ann Patchett’s new novel, State of Wonder (Harper). And everything comes rushing back.
To say State of Wonder is full of symbolism and loaded metaphoric imagery is both an overstatement and an understatement. It is an overstatement because it seems to denigrate the magical quality of Patchett’s prose to say that it is full of symbols. If there is one thing above all else that makes State of Wonder worth reading, it is Patchett’s prose. Both lyrical and entrancing, her descriptions envelop you like the tropics envelop her protagonist, Dr. Marina Singh:
“The minute she stepped into the musty wind of the tropical air-conditioning, Marina smelled her own woolliness. She pulled off her light spring coat and the zippered cardigan beneath it, stuffing them into her carry-on where they did not begin to fit, while every insect in the Amazon lifted its head from the leaf it was masticating and turned a slender antenna in her direction. She was a snack plate, a buffet line, a woman dressed for springtime in the North.”
Singh has become a Brazilian snack plate at the behest of the head of her Minnesota-based pharmaceutical company, Vogel. (That her boss, Mr. Fox, is also her lover is perhaps one of the least convincing subplots of the book.) She is on a journey to discover what really happened in the death of her colleague, Anders Eckman, who had gone to Brazil some months earlier to find the Vogel-funded Dr. Annick Swenson’s jungle laboratory.
Swenson, it turns out, was Singh’s professor in medical school and a mentor of sorts until a tragic accident changed Singh’s career trajectory. Now the older woman is in the latter stages of researching a blockbuster fertility drug—or, at least, that’s what Vogel hopes has been happening. No one at the company has heard from her in ages, which is why Eckman and then Singh are sent after her.
If you think this set up sounds vaguely familiar, well, that’s where the understatement comes in. Patchett isn’t shy about acknowledging that her plot does more than allude to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; Marina at one point thinks to herself that she now understands “The horror! The horror!” of the jungle. But there are no famous last words from Swenson, the Kurtz-like character (who also has more than a touch of Dr. Moreau). Unfortunately there are too many times when Swenson seems more like a mouthpiece for debates on medical ethics and reproductive rights than a fully fleshed out character. Too much of Swenson’s dialogue reads like speeches, not dialogue, as in this passage, after she expresses regret for having stitched up the cut in a indigenous girl’s head:
“‘What would the alternative have been?’ Marina asked. …
“‘The question 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. That is how one respects indigenous people. If you pay any attention at all you’ll realize you could never convert them to your way of life anyway. They are an intractable race. Any progress you advance to them will be undone before your back is turned. You might as well come down here to unbend the river.’”
It goes on, but I’ll spare you—that whole conversation, in fact, lasts almost five pages, and there are many, many more conversations like this, full of clunky expository prose and ethical debates. The drug Swenson has been developing is one that could allow women long past childbearing years to have children, but should they? If the same compound can cure malaria, does it make the unethical work now ethical? What about giving the natives malaria in order to ensure the drug’s efficacy to eventually cure them of it forever? What about testing the drugs on her own staff? Herself?
Swenson is no depraved Kurtz, but her centrality to State of Wonder’s overarching symbolism is the book’s largest flaw. Of course the fecund heart of the jungle is the source of the cure for infertility. Of course the woman developing the cure is a mentor/mother figure. Of course her student/daughter figure is struggling with her own as-yet-unfulfilled maternal instincts. Of course.
I complain about this precisely because State of Wonder is otherwise so good—it’s by far the best new book that I’ve read this year—and it seems a shame that a novel that comes so close to the levels of transcendence Patchett reached in Bel Canto is marred by such obvious and overt symbols and themes. Don’t let that stop you from reading State of Wonder by any means, but you’d be best advised to shut down your inner English major before picking up the book.