October 22, 2014KR BlogBlogUncategorized

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

Here’s a horrifying little story from this week’s Guardian newspaper for those of us who have been spending our reading time following Marina up the Amazon in recent weeks. (Warning: For those of you who suffer from debilitating arachnophobia, do yourself a favor and DON’T CLICK. Briefly, an average London family, a delivery from the local supermarket, a bunch of bananas, and THE MOST POISONOUS SPIDER IN THE WORLD!!) What struck me about this story — besides AAAAGHH! I’m never buying bananas again! – is the way it reflects the doubleness of our vision of the Brazilian rainforest: on the one hand, SPIDERS! In fact, spiders big enough to eat birds! “Spiderwebs of such size and strength they could have easily ensnared a small pig.” (190) And on the other hand, as the Guardian story observes, the sider’s venom “is being studied for use in erectile dysfunction treatments…[because] the spider’s bite can cause an erection that sometimes lasts for up to four hours.” So, even as we speak, somewhere in the Amazon, a drug company researcher is searching for wandering spiders, having discovered a Lost Horizon of erections.

As I suggested in my last post, one way to see the world that the Lakashi inhabit is as a contemporary – and, as Janet points out in her recent post, consumable — Eden. That’s a favorite western fantasy, the paradise lost that can be recovered by conquest, and here’s another: somewhere, not far from that paradise, there are cannibals. Innocence must always come accompanied by danger, by depravity, by an aggressive impulse so profound that it obscures and justifies the “civilized“ explorer’s acts of conquest. In fact, one possible origin of the word cannibal is simply a Spanish mispronunciation of the word Carib, the name given to the indigenous people of the Caribbean when the Spanish arrived. In those terms, Canibs had to be savage beyond redemption to justify the savagery the Spanish practiced upon them.

When Marina ventures up that last narrow and nameless river to find the Hummocca, what does she find? (SPOILER ALERT: if you haven’t finished the book, stop reading now!) First a rain of arrows that fall short of her boat, as if in warning not to approach. By now, having seen how Dr. Swenson’s team have “tamed” the Lakashi to accept constant blood tests and genital swabs, or the way that the Jinta now make their living dancing for tourists, shouldn’t we see this as a wise response to the approach of strangers? History isn’t kind to newly discovered tribes, as this National Geographic story from April reminds us. Even brief contact with outsiders can lead to the decimation of isolated tribes by common diseases to which they have no immunity. It’s important to remind ourselves that for a tribe like the Hummocca, finding a white man with a fever floating down the Rio Negro in a canoe is like finding a nuclear bomb with a timer ticking down to zero. And yet, when the Hummocca find exactly such a man, what do they do? They heal him, using a poultice that smells of horseradish and tar and blisters the skin on his chest. This is a man, let’s remember, who has wandered away from a camp full of western doctors who reserve the best medicines for their own use. But all that western medical knowledge, all those antibiotics Dr. Swenson refuses to share with the Lakashi, can’t heal him. And what Marina finds when she makes her way to these terrifying “cannibals,” is a pair of grieving parents, confronting the miracle of finding their son returned from the dead:

When the Hummocca came to the boat Marina could see the shape of their heads was in fact slightly different from the Lakashi just as Dr. Swenson had said. They were not as tall as the Lakashi and Anders towered over them. She handed the one who looked like he was in charge the jar of peanut butter and for a moment he struggled with what to do with it, his hands squeezing the jar. He looked up at Marina, maybe he had meant for her to help him or maybe he meant to kill her, but what he saw there on the boat was Easter. The man with the yellow forehead stood there waist deep in the water, his chest against the pontoon, and the look on his face was the same look that had been on her own face a moment before when she first saw Anders, a cross of joy and disbelief, a look that was willing to accept that which was not possible. He turned and called to a woman on the shore who put the child she was holding on the ground and walked out into the water. Once she had seen Easter from a distance, she tried to move faster and the water held her back. She called to him, stretching out her arms, the trembling in her body sending out a ring of small waves into the water. And then she was there, pulling herself on to the boat and Easter shrank back behind Marina, his hands around her waist as tight as a snake.

The idea of cannibals may be terrifying to Marina, but Patchett insists at this moment that we recognize their emotions as the mirror image of her own when she first sees Anders. And while the jungle may be full of venomous spiders and diseases that can kill even a Norwegian from Minnesota, it’s also a site of not one but two miraculous resurrections. “I thought you were dead,” Marina says to Anders. “I was dead,” he replies.

How do we make sense of these miracles? Do they simply represent a narrative deus ex machina, granting us a happy ending? One way to see this conclusion, I think, is by recognizing how Patchett has constructed the Amazon as a kind of mirror of her characters’ cultural assumptions, anxieties, and desires. The Amazon in this novel is like a gleaming surface on which the American characters project their minds, and it reflects them back in the strange, flattened reverse images that we see when we look into a mirror. The Hummocca, with their oddly shaped heads, are made to embody the failure of humanity that characterizes Dr. Swenson’s treatment of the indigenous subjects of her research. (“I remember the heads of the Hummocca so vividly,” she says when describing them, “it was almost as if I had dissected one.”)

And let’s be clear: if Patchett’s Amazon is a kind of mirror, it’s not just for the novel’s characters. Like all adventure novels, it offers its readers the vicarious pleasures of imperialism – a narrative of exploration, conquest, and return – as a commodity that we can enjoy, like coffee, like spice, like bananas (minus, ideally, the lethal spiders), without leaving the comforts of home. There are, of course, two Edens in this novel: the sacred grove of Martin trees chewed by the fertile and passive Lakashi, but also Eden Prairie, Minnesota, the pastoral American suburb to which Marina returns Anders when she brings him back from the dead:

Minnesota! It smelled like raspberries and sunlight and tender grass. It was summer, and everything was more beautiful than any picture she had carried with her. By the time they were in the taxi they still knew that something extraordinary had happened but they found themselves distracted, first by the tall buildings and then later by the trees that were fully leafed, by the wide stretches of prairie that let the eye sweep so easily in any direction, by the remarkable lightness of air… There had never been a place in the world as beautiful as Minnesota.

The perfect resolution of an adventure story, of course, is the moment that you can click those ruby slippers and say, “There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.” You return transformed, having found the treasure, faced the terror, discovered your own strength and heroism, but the fantasy of return is also a resistance to the transformation demanded of you by the New World you’ve encountered. Adventure promises a transcendence of self, but return promises that that self will be essentially unchanged, like a teenager who longs to leave home, but always wants to know she can return. After Mount Doom, we return to the womb. Enriched by our adventure, we vow never to feel restless again.

So how, then, should we feel about Easter’s return to his parents? Why does the novel imagine this as a betrayal of his trust? As Janet pointed out, Easter is the novel’s treasure, its perfect child, who brings out the parental impulse in Anders, in Marina, even in Dr. Swenson. Everyone wants to take him home with them, and the novel demands that we imagine his life in Eden Prairie, Minnesota when we read Anders’ fevered note, written in college Spanish because he doesn’t speak Portuguese: Please do all that is within your power to help this boy reach the United States and you will be rewarded. Take him to Karen Eckman. Would Easter really be better off in Minnesota than with the Hummocca? Lacking speech, language, cultural knowledge, or even a way to comprehend that strange landscape, would he ever be more than a charity case, a curiosity, an object of wonder? What surprises everyone about Easter in the jungle, aside from the emotional warmth that allows him to bond with strangers (as if he’s the empathic heart Dr. Swenson takes everywhere with her but never allows to guide her actions), is his competence: he can drive the boat, navigate with ease that maze of rivers, the streets of Manaus, and complex social structures of the Lakashi village and the scientists’ camp. Easter alone eats from both pots. What Marina betrays by returning him to his Hummocca parents is his trust, his affection, but mostly his independence, his mastery of his environment. She turns him back into a child by giving him back to the woman who gave birth to him. Is a parent biological? Cultural? The object of our trust and affection? Everyone in this novel wants to adopt Easter, but what matters is who Easter adopts. Easter will come back, you know, Dr. Swenson predicts. He may even be back in the morning. He’ll steal a canoe while they’re sleeping. He knows how to get home. Of course, she predicts the same about Marina:

Trust me, you won’t fit in there anymore. You’ve changed. You’ve betrayed your employer, and you’ll keep on betraying him, and that won’t sit well with someone like you. I changed myself once, it was a long time ago, but I changed. I followed my teacher down here too. I thought I was coming for the summer. I know about this… You’re not like me but you wait, you’ll go back there and nothing will make sense to you anymore. (347)

Why does a novel about the fantasy of endless fertility end with this image of two lost children? It’s an unresolved, and unsettling, conclusion that leaves us with more questions than answers: Is Marina pregnant at the end? (She’s been chewing bark since she arrived, after all.) The novel ends with her telling the taxi driver to go on, but where? Dr. Swenson may be right that it won’t be easy for her to return to Vogel and Dr. Fox, but would it be possible for her to return to the Amazon with a child?

Those final lines suggest the costs of adventure, rather than its pleasures. Every quest is a vision quest: it compels us to confront the change our experience of the world inspires within us. The encounter with the otherness of the Lakashi makes it impossible for Marina to remain the same, because in seeking to be reborn, we must be prepared to surrender the past. No bananas, then, without the risk of spiders. And yet, I find that I keep going back in my mind to that sacred grove, where the trees all share a common root system. The fragile ecosystem that combines the Martins, the Rapps, and the Purple Martinets to produce the dual miracles of fertility and immunity to malaria can’t be duplicated anywhere else in the rain forest, or anywhere in the world. That means it’s unlikely that a chemical effect produced only by this ecosystem will ever be successfully synthesized into a drug, but it also serves as a lovely metaphor for the way such disparate things – as different as trees and butterflies – share a common origin and produce common effects. What we seek in the Amazon is radical difference, but what we find there is the common root system that helps us to know both each other and ourselves.

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