For those of you who know, I’ve been recently trying to get through all the books on the list of the Tournament of Books in time for the March Madness session of brackets and criticism that is the nectar of life for nerds like me.
I’ve read only two so far.
But despite my lack of time for reading, which I mourn quite often, I did get through Ann Patchett’s novel, State of Wonder, which was a finalist several years ago. As far as fiction goes, it’s a delicious piece of writing. While it’s not a particularly spicy novel, it has the methodical satisfaction of chocolate as it waxes. Following the story of Marina Singh, who is sent into the heart of the jungle in Brazil in search for answers after a fellow scientist dies of a fever. Going down there means confronting a lot of her inner fears: her past with her father, a professor in India, her professor in Medical school, and her own questions concerning her purpose in life. A suspenseful and magical tale of snake laden forests, magical pale blue mushrooms, and women who continue to conceive well beyond the average age of menopause.
In this way, the novel reminded me of the quest for the fountain of youth: the chance to be able to put off decisions that were formerly dictated by time. For the first time, there is the possibility to choose at will when you want children, regardless of the ever ticking biological clock in all of us. And at the same time, it’s also the classic story of messiah-salvation; the destruction of the innocent in order to save the guilty (or ignorant). But more than that, it’s a story of communication.
The novel starts with the reception of a letter that is already several weeks old, stating that Anders Eckman has died in the middle of a jungle of a fever. Already we have this idea of disjointed communication; in this world of social networking, universal internet connectivity, and satellite connections, what is more frustrating than losing your cellphone? And what is more frightening than the thought of being completely disconnected from the world? Whether or not the news is about Kim Kardashian’s new hair color or the State of the Union Address (sadly it’s usually the former rather than the latter) as a culture, we are addicted to instantaneous access to information. I remember being shocked that Steve Jobs had died only weeks after resigning as CEO of Apple, but what I found even more shocking was how quickly the world knew. Within minutes of his last breath Twitter was flooded with condolences, Wikipedia had updated his page to show his time of death, and Apple.com had replaced their homepage with a banner of remembrance.
And all of this had happened within minutes.
And so what is more frightening than the thought of disjointed connectivity is the idea of venturing into the middle of Brazil, in which even the most basic method of communication: mail, consists of hoping that someone will float down the river in a boat to take your letter, and then you can only pray that it doesn’t get lost. What a very chilling, and isolating idea.
What’s more, Marina is going down there in pursuit of a professor whom she hasn’t seen in years; in fact, hasn’t seen since she quite medical school to study molecular biology. A lack of communication is what caused her to drop out of med. school in the first place; she had lost her nerve and disobeyed a direct order, causing a mistake that haunts her for the rest of her life. And now, not only does she have to confront her past, she has to actively hunt down Dr. Swenson. When was the last time you found someone without googling their Facebook profile? Or getting to their house without MapQuest or a GPS system? I used a map this summer for my cross-country road trip, and I have to sadly admit, it was the first time I had ever used one in my entire life.
I could go on and on about communication in this book: Easter, the little adopted boy that serves as Dr. Swenson’s child servant, is deaf but he manages to find other ways to communicate. The tribe they are studying, the Lakashi, have no real way to communicate with the scientists. Marina has no real way to communicate with the outside world once she reaches Dr. Swenson. In what becomes the culminating scene of the book, Dr. Swenson and her team hide vital information from Vogel’s president, Mr. Fox, that while the miracle fertility drug that could make his company immortal may or may not be bust, the team has discovered a possible vaccination for Malaria that could save millions of lives, but would make no money for the company.
And of course, in the end, Marina ignores the pleas of Dr. Swenson to continue to help her research, and goes back to Minnesota quietly with Anders. She communicates nothing of the fertility drug’s possible dead-end to her boss Mr. Fox, none of her inward grief to Dr. Swenson, and none of her sense of failure to anyone, even herself. The second to last significant scene in the book in one in which Marina and Anders make love without a word, because what they lived through was beyond any ability of speaking or understanding.
While many I’ve talked to have loathed this rather lackluster, inexplicable end, I personally enjoyed it. And yes, while it’s frustrating to not be given every little detail and wrapped up plot-point, I enjoyed the subtle mystery and wonder of it all. After all, isn’t a state of wonder one in which one is almost always beyond words?
And in a day and age in which everyone feels compelled to tell their friends and family what they are eating for lunch over Facebook or a Tweet, it actually feels really nice to not know what someone is feeling. At least for a little while.