Saturday, January 26, 2013

On listening to State of Wonder

On the long ride from winter Maryland to the Everglades we listened to the audio version of State of Wonder: A Novel by Ann Patchett. (Here is the Wikipedia entry for the book.)

What Happens in the Book

The principal character, Marina Singh, is the child of a mother from Wisconsin and a father from India. Her parents divorced when she was a small child; her father returned to India, remarried, had children with his new wife, and had a career as a university science professor.

The book provides flashbacks with the story of Marina's visits to her father in Calcutta as a child. Those visits were marked by nightmares in which she dreamed she was separated from him by teaming throngs in the Calcutta streets and left alone in a terrible and frightening place where she can not communicate with anyone. Her final trip to India is made while her father is dying; she arrives too late and her mother chooses that they not attend his funeral to save his new family any discomfort.

The book also provides flashbacks to Marina's fifth year of OB/GYN residency under Dr. Annick Swenson. Left alone by her mentor with a woman experiencing a difficult pregnancy, she waits too long, hurries the cesarean and accidentally cuts into the eye of the infant. There is a hearing on her competency and although Dr. Swenson does not support her she is absolved of blame. Nevertheless she changes from clinical medicine to study for a PhD, becoming a pharmacologist.

When the narrative begins, Marina has been working for more than a decade in a big pharma company lab located in Wisconsin. Her office partner Anders Eckman has become a good friend. She has been having an affairs for seven months with the CEO of the firm, Mr. Fox. Mr. Fox is described as from the production side of the firm, not a scientist. He is two decades older than Marina; she is interested in marriage but he feels he is too old for her.

The firm has been funding a research team headed by Dr. Swenson seeking to learn why women in a specific tribe in the Amazon continue to bear children into their 60s and 70s. The expensive program is funded with the hope of developing a drug to prolong fertility and reverse menopause -- and to make a lot of money for the firm. However, Dr. Swenson has been out of touch with the firm for many months. Anders (an enthusiastic bird watcher) is sent to the Amazon to find Dr. Swenson and the research station (the location of which has been kept secret).

As the book begins, Mr. Fox has received a letter from Dr. Swenson reporting that Anders has died of fever. Mr. Fox asks Marina to take up the search for Dr. Swenson and the research station and to report on the state of the research program. Anders wife Karen refuses to believe that Anders in dead; unable to leave her children and travel to Brazil, she asks their friend Marina to do so and search for Anders. Marina agrees.

Preparing for the trip she takes an anti-malarial medicine and again suffers from the nightmares of her childhood visits to India. She learns that these are a side effect of the meds, that she had taken the same meds as a child, and that her mother had hidden from her the fact that the nightmares were induced by the treatment. She loses her father again and again in these nightmares.

Marina arrives in Manaus. Her suitcase has been lost (never to reappear) and with it her satellite phone. She is met by an Australian couple who are paid by Dr. Swenson to keep people away from her and from the station. As they had done to Anders, they keep Marina in Manaus for some time.

Marina is taken to a performance of the opera Orpheus and Eurydice by her Australian watchers. During the performance the voice of Dr. Swenson is heard benind them instructing them not to turn around. Only after the performance is Marina allowed to see and talk to Dr. Swenson. Dr. Swenson is accompanied by a young Indian boy, Easter, who is deaf and dumb, but who serves as a guide to Marina. And at age 73, she is seven months pregnant.

Marina reports back to Mr. Fox. She feels that she has completed the mission, since clearly there is a potential fertility drug and since Dr. Swenson is a competent scientist in charge of its research.. Mr Fox instructs her to continue on to the jungle research station to see more for herself. He sends another satellite phone and a new supply of the anti-malarial meds that cause nightmares.

The party arrives at the research station at the edge of the jungle. Marina has her suitcase stolen, losing her satellite phone. Shortly thereafter her cloths are stolen and she is dressed in the standard moo moo of the local tribal women; they also insist on dressing her hair in their tradition. She is given a simple lab job.

Marina discovers that the site for the station was initially chosen by Dr. Rabb, an ethnobotonist who was both Dr. Swenson's major professor and her lover. Dr. Swenson while chief of the maternity service at Johns Hopkins was also traveling on weekends to the Amazon to work with Dr. Rabb on his research. Marina finds the jungle hellish, with poisonous snakes, biting insects, confusing trails, and many disease threats. While the local Indians around the station are friendly, other tribes are fierce, antagonistic, with a reputation for cannibalism.

Near the research station there is a tiny biosphere dominated by a tree that, like the aspen, grew many trunks from a single root system. The plant has changed the soil to make the area unattractive to other plants. The grove was also the only source for a hallucinogenic mushroom that induced ecstatic visions.  There is also a butterfly that is part of the ecosystem. Women who ingest bark from the trees never enter menopause and successfully completed pregnancies into old age. They are also immune to malaria. The site was kept secret to protect the biosphere from over exploitation.

Dr. Swenson was pushing for the development of a drug that would prevent malaria, and most of the staff in the research station were working on that project. She was using the funds for the development of the fertility drug for the anti-malarial remedy.

Dr. Swenson confronted by a breech birth while she herself is heavily pregnant, has Marina perform a Cesarean in primitive conditions. Impressed by her competence, Dr. Swenson turns over the clinical care for the local Indians to Marina.

Mr. Fox appears in the research station. He has not heard from either Dr. Swenson nor Marina for months. He arrives after a difficult trip, poorly guided by one of the Australians from the Manaus office. He is quickly satisfied that the fertility drug is a possibility and seeks to return to Wisconsin with Marina. However, on the voyage to the station, having made a false decision, they discover a white man in the camp of the most dangerous of the local tribes.

Dr. Swenson admits that the white man must be Anders. In a delirium he wandered away from Easter, his keeper, and has been taken by the tribe. Dr. Swenson falsified the report of his death. Dr. Swenson also tells Marina that her fetus has died, and that Marina will have to perform a Cesarean on her.

Mr. Fox returns to Wisconsin. Marina performs the surgery and saves Dr. Swenson's life. She takes Easter and goes to the village where Anders is being held. There she discovers that Easter is the long lost son of the village chief. A trade is made -- Anders for Easter.

Anders and Marina sleep together once on their return to the research site. Marina, who has been imbibing of the special bark, becomes pregnant. They return to Wisconsin where Anders is reunited with his wife and children.

State of Wonder as a Developmental Story

Marina grows in the book. She overcomes her nightmares and reconciles with the death of her father. She overcomes the fear engendered by her error as a obstetrics resident and is able to practice medicine again. She overcomes her fear of the jungle and rescues Anders. As the book ends, she is about to become a mother and one is sure she will be a good one. She may return to the jungle and take over the direction of the research station as Dr. Swenson wishes, or she may stay in the Wisconsin she loves and develop her relation with Mr. Fox. The decision will be hers.

I found it interesting that the book makes the case (through Dr. Swenson) that there is little or no reason to develop a drug for the only purpose of allowing middle age women to have children late in life, and indeed such a drug might do more harm than good. The book also makes the case that a drug that was effective in preventing malaria without side effects would be a great boon to mankind, even if it would not make money for the company that developed it. That seems very true to me.

Mythological References

Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein,
Orpheus and Eurydice, 1806
In mythology, Orpheus goes into the underground home of the dead to bring Eurydice back to life. His instruction is that he will succeed only if he never looks back. He can not resist the temptation, looks back to see she is following him to the real world and loses her.

The scene in the opera house in the book is a direct reference to the myth. Dr. Swenson instructs Marina not to look back. And indeed, Marina is unable to bring Dr. Swenson out of the hellish jungle back to Wisconsin. She does bring Anders back to his wife who thought him dead and buried in the jungle. She brings Easter (another reference to return from the dead) to his parents who thought him dead (although he is not too happy with the return). I suppose there is also a reference in Mr. Fox who finally comes to the jungle to bring Marina back and leaves without her.

Again in mythology, Persephone is a goddess who spends half her time in the underground with the god of the underground, Hades, and half of her time in the land of the living with her mother, Demeter. When she returns to the land of the living, it is springtime -- plants come back to life and animals give birth. On her return to Hades, the leaves fall and winter is soon to follow. I see a reference to Dr. Swenson at one point in her life spending half her time in Baltimore heading an obstetrics service and the other half with her god-like lover, Dr. Rapp.

The biosphere with mythic properties providing life giving substances, a place of great beauty, on the margin between the modern world and the unforgiving jungle inhabited by fierce tribes seems likely to have antecedents in mythology -- perhaps in the same sources from which we draw the name "Amazon".

The book focuses a lot on fertility and childbirth. Marina is wondering if she is too old to have children. She and Dr. Swenson are both trained obstetricians. Mr. Fox and his company are concerned with the development of a fertility drug. Dr. Swenson is pregnant. The women of the tribe living with the research station are having children. Two key scenes in the book are those in which Marina saves the life of mother and child trapped in a breech birth and in which she saves Dr. Swenson's life by removing the dead fetus by means of a cesarean.

In the book Mr. Fox, Dr. Swenson and Dr. Rapp are always named with their titles and none of the other characters are so named. The three are (perhaps in a reference to Epicurean philosophy) singularly uninterested in the welfare of individual people that are with them, but seem to be more symbolic. Are they more like the gods of Greek mythology than like normal human characters? They seem to be human in form, but remote and motivated by responsibility to "the corporation" or to "science".

The Writing

Padgett's prose weave from the narrator's present to flashbacks, from reality to dream sequences without pause and without losing the listener. That would seem to be a tough thing to bring off. The writing is limpid and splendid.

I especially like the fact that the listener is able to think of the story at several levels. For an author to pull off something that can be listened to as a simple adventure story, as a developmental novel, and as a modern version of ancient myths seems quite impressive.

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