Here’s something new to this blog, which I’m thinking of turning into a semi-regular feature. I was inspired by the round-table discussions that Niall Harrison used to do at Torque Control to try the same thing – to discuss a book over email with a few people, and blog the results.

The book we have on the table is State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. To quote the blurb:

Among the tangled waterways and giant anacondas of the Brazilian Rio Negro, an enigmatic scientist is developing a drug that could alter the lives of women for ever. Dr Annick Swenson’s work is shrouded in mystery; she refuses to report on her progress, especially to her investors, whose patience is fast running out. Anders Eckman, a mild-mannered lab researcher, is sent to investigate. A curt letter reporting his untimely death is all that returns.

Now Marina Singh, Anders’ colleague and once a student of the mighty Dr Swenson, is their last hope. Compelled by the pleas of Anders’s wife, who refuses to accept that her husband is not coming home, Marina leaves the snowy plains of Minnesota and retraces her friend’s steps into the heart of the South American darkness, determined to track down Dr. Swenson and uncover the secrets being jealously guarded among the remotest tribes of the rainforest.

What Marina does not yet know is that, in this ancient corner of the jungle, where the muddy waters and susurrating grasses hide countless unknown perils and temptations, she will face challenges beyond her wildest imagination.

Marina is no longer the student, but only time will tell if she has learnt enough.

Joining me in the conversation were Alison Bacon, Annoné Butler, Yvonne Johnston, and Maureen Kincaid Speller. Please note that we go into some detail about the book, including the ending; you may not want to read the discussion if you haven’t yet read State of Wonder. This is the first half; I’ll post the rest tomorrow [EDIT 10/9: and now here it is].


David Hebblethwaite: What are your thoughts on the role of science in State of Wonder? I guess in a sense it’s at the heart of the book – the main characters are scientists, and the context of the story is a scientific study; but, even at the beginning, there’s a note of ambivalence, when Marina contemplates the blank space at the foot of the letter announcing Anders’ death: “How much could have been said in those remaining inches, how much explained, was beyond scientific measure”. How do you see science in the novel?

Annoné Butler: Ostensibly, Dr Swenson is with the Lakashi in order to discover the secret of their continued fertility. This is what will make Vogel rich, by providing a means for women of the first world to bear children unlimited by age. And it is certainly the primary aim of what the scientific team are doing. Dr Swenson has even tested the bark on herself and knows it works but, in the process, has realised that it is a mistaken and dangerous development. In the process of her own – ultimately catastrophic – pregnancy and birth she reaches the conclusion that such an aim is wholly misconceived – opportunities for birth should be limited as nature intended. This seems to chime with her original view that she is not there to involve herself with the medical problems of the Lakashi, on the basis that their natural state should not be interfered with.

But then there is the by-product of the research: the likely cure for malaria. That will not benefit Vogel but has become the primary focus of the research. To that end, Vogel and Mr Fox are being deceived and Marina ends up colluding with this deceit. So there are recurrent themes of deceit arising from the research and, of course, Swenson deceives Vogel when she writes to say that Anders is dead.

There is so much more to tell. The original research becomes a smokescreen for what is really going on. Is that deceit justified? Vogel are paying for a drug entirely different to the one they expect – are we not expected to feel any outrage on their behalf?

Alison Bacon: I agree with Annoné that deceit (self-deceit and deceit of others, right from the point when we know Marina is having an affair with Mr Fox)  is an important theme and most of this hinges on the science. Science also adds an important ethical layer to the personal story, and I find it interesting that in the jungle accepted medical ethics go out of the window: – the scientists bribe the Lakashi to take part in trials, Swenson tests the drug on herself. And, perhaps most tellingly, Swenson has kept some ‘real’ anaesthetic in reserve for emergencies, by which we understand emergencies suffered by herself or other researchers rather than native Lakashi. Even in the heat of the moment Marina registers all of this as quite shocking in a group of bona fide researchers.  Is the jungle a metaphor for the pharmaceutical industry in which the heat of competition means that ultimately anything goes?

The fiction also needs the science to be credible. I think there was a tiny niggle in my mind that one tiny ecosystem could account for two ‘lost horizons’ of modern medicine, not to mention a hallucinogen sufficiently powerful to incite tribal warfare. Is this just too much for one jungle clearing to do? I love this book to bits, but I have seen a couple of negative reviews on this point.

To sum up: scientific research and the pharmaceutical industry are the setting for the main character’s personal and professional journey. They provide a compelling plot dynamic, as well as adding a moral and ethical dimension to the story. As a reader without a scientific background I was prepared to suspend disbelief as to the actual credibility of the science.

Maureen Kincaid Speller: My sense is that Patchett is working outwards from a premise of science as a pure thing, something supposed to be carried out with detachment, at an emotional remove. She could be seen as trying to show that the practice of science doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s carried out by people who have lives outside the laboratory, who have families, emotional needs, relationships, etc., and this baggage can’t be left at the laboratory door each day. It seeps into work, no matter how hard scientists might try to keep it at bay.

The main binary at work here, I think, is that between commercial science and pure research. Marina, Anders and Mr Fox are representatives of commerce – they are working towards creating marketable products which will make money for the company – while Swenson is positioned, initially at least, as the scientist who has gone ‘rogue’ in commercial terms, dedicating herself to pure research. Pure research is in its way ‘romantic’ but as the novel indicates it brings its own costs and sacrifices.

Theoretically, pure research is the more noble endeavour, done for the glory of the discovery rather than for mere filthy lucre, but in terms of honesty and dishonesty, I find myself wondering who is the more honest of Marina and Swenson. Marina is, I think, clearer about what she is doing and why and there is no evidence of her playing fast and loose with the work she does, whereas Swenson is dishonest on any number of levels. We understand she has made incredible sacrifices but there is a sense that she wants us to know that she has made these incredible sacrifices, almost as though she is performing the role of the great researcher for the observer as well as doing her work. She carefully cultivates the image of the detached and impersonal researcher with no time for an emotional life, yet she is concealing the fact that she is actually human, that she had an affair and so on.

There’s a whole set of ethical issues which I think Patchett and her characters avoid dealing with, and that is the fact that Swenson’s research team has set up shop in the Lakashi domain and is effectively rifling their ‘store cupboard’ for cures and taking specimens: issues of ownership arise. There is a well-developed indigenous narrative nowadays concerning the arrival of western research teams who take botanical and pathological specimens and then disappear without a word. Many tribes refuse to participate because of their awareness that they are literally being used, if not abused, by researchers.

One of the things I find so disturbing about the section of the novel set in the jungle is Patchett’s presentation of the treatment of the Lakashi; one might hope that Marina will question this; instead Patchett seems to quite happily offer up the narrative of exoticism and otherness, with natives appropriating Marina’s possessions and so on, the huge gathering of natives to ‘welcome’ Swenson, Swenson’s attitude to Easter, and numerous other examples. I think the nearest we come to a questioning of this is in Anders’ attempts to teach Easter to read and write, a recognition that Easter is a human being rather than a pet, but Patchett’s portrayal of this is disappointingly lacking in nuance.

I think we are supposed to interpret this as Marina’s going with the flow of native life, except that she is by no means in any sort of Shangri-la. Marina could be construed as ‘finding’ herself in the jungle or as losing her scientific detachment, or possibly, and I have the impression this might be what Patchett is reaching for, that science has human consequences, though I don’t think she’s really digging as deeply as she might. Instead, we could argue that Marina is also exploiting the indigenous population, reading her own hopes and fears onto them. And indeed, while they might provide her salvation in giving her back her medical mojo, that can only happen because she isn’t in a proper medical setting; if she’d done the caesarian back in the US, she would doubtless be on the receiving end of a malpractice suit. And Swenson isn’t much better in setting up the situation.

Annoné: Through the formidable Dr Swenson, Patchett challenges the assumption that a pharmaceutical commodity (albeit an exciting and far reaching one) is worth the human price exacted for its potential distribution. Is scientific innovation worth taking down the entire self-sustaining society of the Lakashi? Swenson is clearly going to scupper the research in relation to the potential fertility drug, but presumably to her the existence of the Lakashi is worth sacrificing for an effective malaria drug which will be of wide benefit.

Yvonne Johnston : The thing which strikes me most on the science question is that only Dr Rapp (dead by the time the novel’s events take place) was really involved in science. All the other characters are dealing with technology rather and pure science. Rapp’s work had been to discover as much a he could about the flora of that part of the Amazon without any thought as to possible commercial exploitation

Alison: I would sum up as the book as the journey of a woman who moves from a life dogged by a professional blunder and a dishonest relationship to a point of self-discovery. And so if the focus is Marina and her deception and desires, the science is in some respect simply the backdrop. On the other hand it is the thing that gives the book its unique character, the arena chosen by the author in which the narrative is played out. Whatever Marina’s inner troubles, she is a woman working for a drug company and sent to the Amazon. The development of the new drug provides the narrative momentum – Anders’ trip, Jim’s need to know, Swenson’s obdurate secrecy and the revelation that the drug has other properties.

Annoné: Throughout, Marina is plagued with nightmares—a reaction to the anti-malaria drug Lariam—and these nightly terrors provide a recurring theme in the early part of the book. The persistence of the drug’s horrible side effects raises questions about what exactly medicine (“science”) does, if the treatment offered leads to new, harder-to-cure maladies (in this case, nightmares). Conversely, Marina ingests a shaman’s cup of river liquid to bring down a near-fatal fever, and after a delirious, death-like trance, is, apparently, pretty much healed. The paradox of modern medicine contrasted with the more ancient (and possibly more efficacious) remedies available to the natives – but not necessarily to the visiting scientists. It did make me wonder why on earth Marina would have swallowed the cup of liquid in the first place (perhaps she felt too ill to worry about the consequences), but this must be an example of the scientific empirical approach.

The drug (Lariam) also acts as a metaphor for how journeys linger in your blood, even after the trip is over. The idea that a place could live on inside you, ripe with unknown consequences, perhaps mirrors the story.

In addition, there is Marina’s predicament. She is a doctor, a scientist, but, inserted into the jungle, her reliance on data (her scientific certainties) come under a kind of attack:

She had had a good imagination as a child, though it had been systematically chipped apart by years of studying inorganic chemistry and charting lipids. These days Marina put her faith in data, the world she trusted was one that she could measure. But even with a truly magnificent imagination she could not have put herself in the jungle. She felt something slip across her rib cage—an insect? A bead of sweat? She kept still, looking out through the top of the hammock at the bright split of daylight in front of her… she excelled not through bright bursts of imagination but by the hard labor of a field horse pulling a plow.

Maureen: I think it’s worth considering that Marina’s childhood journeys are mostly going to meet her father in India; that is, keeping up with him and keeping in touch with the other side of her cultural heritage. The nightmares point to an amplification of deeply buried concerns about this aspect; one might for example see them as indicating that Marina is being pushed (as a child, at least) towards doing something she doesn’t actually want to do. The journey itself? Or does she know at some level that she can’t absorb her father’s culture as easily as that. She is, to all intents and purposes, expatriate, and so expatriate that she has never even lived in the country her father comes from; she arrives as a tourist and is being expected to behave as if she belongs.

When she goes to South America, it is again not because she wants to go but because she goes at someone else’s behest, and again a person with some sort of emotional power over her, and again her goal is someone for whom she experiences a kind of unfulfilled love, and again the nightmares, because again the malaria … I’m wondering why Patchett seems to associate various forms of love/family with malaria (in the bloodstream?).

I don’t think she had much choice about swallowing the river liquid, partly because there was nothing else available, partly because at this point she has given herself into the care of Barbara, and this is how Barbara cures things, in the same way that Lariam is how her mother/Mr Fox cure things. Then again, Marina’s own choice, not to take anything at all, hasn’t worked either, so there is clearly a point of tension here as to the best way forward.

The ‘native’ remedy works but it seems to me that the reader is asked to understand that the native remedy works in a more ‘holistic’ way, and it concerns me that Patchett employs what seems to me to be a stereotyped approach to all things native. Yes, part of it is the character of Barbara, who is emotionally lost and relying on Manuas and Dr Swenson and her environment to ‘find’ and ‘ground’ herself, but this seems to overflow into the portrayal of Marina in a way that makes less sense.

One could, I suppose, argue that Marina, part-Indian, part-American, is subconsciously searching for a consistent identity of her own, but I have no sense of her doing this at a conscious level. (Also, I do worry about that Indian/Indian polarity; I don’t believe Patchett is so crass as to directly equate the two but I feel uneasy about what she is trying to do by despatching Marina to the Amazon; though I suppose it is better than despatching Marina to the ashram or some such).

On top of that I am somewhat uneasy about that whole shaman thing; it’s very New Age. Again, I can see that it is in part filtered through Barbara, who is clearly a faddish kind of woman, who takes up ‘local’ things and over-valorises them because of their supposed authenticity without really understanding what that means.

At the same time, I can’t help feeling Patchett herself is using the shaman’s medicine trope as a lazy shorthand for suggesting that local is best, locals have special knowledge, and so on. The trance/rebirth metaphor is a very ‘Western’ representation of what’s going on, and it does bother me that Patchett seems to employ this so blatantly. I was somehow hoping for something… I don’t know, more nuanced? This seems to come out of a handbook for portraying natives in fiction 101, and I find that disappointing.


Come back tomorrow for Part 2 of the discussion.