Helen and Teacher

Helen and Teacher
The Story of my Life

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Bungles in the Jungle and Pacts that were made to be Broken

Ann Patchett
State of Wonder
New York: Harper Perennial, 2012.

“The news of Anders Eckman’s death came by way of Aerogram . . . begins the novel State of Wonder by Ann Patchett.  So, also begins, the quest of Dr. Marina Singh, failed resident, gifted research for a major drug company.  Yet, this novel is not so much about Dr. Singh as it is about Dr. Annick Swenson, a Kurtz-like character who leads a tribe of diverse and interwoven Natives and researchers through a dance as mysterious and tangled as the tropical vines and giant anaconda snakes that weave their way through the jungle.

I had a dear friend who used to write me about twice a month, for 14 years from England.  She used Aerograms.  The last Aerogram was from her daughter, telling me that my friend had died.  Good news apparently does not come in flimsy, near transparent envelopes.  But, they do lead Marina on an Odyssey up and down the Amazon in search of Dr. Annick Swenson, her old professor, and in search of the truth of what really happened to Anders Eckman.

The similarities to Heart of Darkness do not end there; in fact, Dr. Swenson is even more enigmatic than Kurtz, though Marina, who suffers from malaria and drug induced nightmares, is a far cry from Marlowe and the Narrator of Conrad’s classic. Yet, Marina’s mission is similar; she is supposed to find the elusive Dr. Swenson, check on the progress of the research she is doing, and bring back Dr. Anders Eckman, presumably dead and not alive. By the end, she has more in common with the people who make the jungle their home, and with a small, deaf native boy who arouses maternal instincts in her in ways that working with newborns could not.

Dr. Swenson, who rules her tribe, the Lakashi, a little like Dr. Moreau ruled the creatures on his island, is at best, an ambivalent character, at worse, a cruel despot and renegade doctor, the kind malpractice lawsuits are meant to save us from.  She is researching the bark of a certain tree, and certain magic blue mushrooms that, among other things, make it possible for women of the tribe to bear children into their 70s.  By the end of her study, she queries whether her hypothesis should not be whether women over 50 can have children, but whether they should. She can quell the Lakashi with a mere look, and she is as pale and Scandinavian as they are swarthy and indigenous to the jungle. Coleridge might recognize her as his creation, Death in Life from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”  Conrad would say it was their “restraint” that made the Lakashi care for her, cater to her, tolerate her and her researchers, and take part in her experiments. Another nearby tribe “rains arrows” directly on the characters come to find Dr. Swenson and rescue Marina, and the raining arrows could have been shot directly from the pages of Heart of Darkness. This tribe is known to practice cannibalism, and is not as tolerant or enamored of Dr. Swenson and her entourage.  They are hostile, in part, because she has taken something that belongs to them, something that Marina must give to them later to save another character.

The novel’s plot, too, twists like the tropical plants that can ensnare innocent bystanders, if there are any innocent bystanders in this book.  The tension among the characters is palpable, enough to form a giant spiders’ web of lies and deceit based against the endeavors of a corporate drug company, accused at least by cliché, of, well, lies and deceit.

In one of the surrealistic scenes that are typical to the plot, Marina, who keeps having her Western clothes and cell phones stolen from her, dresses in Lakashi smocks, wears Native jewelry, and chews the bark as they do in ritualistic style each morning.

Throughout the book, chapter by chapter, the characters’ individual horrors come to claim them, sometimes without reason.  Marina’s horror is the ambivalence of her own life, the fear that Dr. Swenson will remember she was her student who failed in an operation and maimed a baby, or that she will not remember her. Marina also fears for the future of the romance she is having with her employer Mr. Fox.  When he arrives by boat at Dr. Swenson’s jungle compound, Marina is not sure if he is there to rescue her, or to check on the progress of the expensive research his company has been funding.  The reader keeps waiting for someone to pass the grape Kool-Aid.

There also shades of Cry the Beloved Country, since several characters follow each other into the Amazon to find Dr. Swenson, then Marina, then Eckman, only to disappear, and have someone else go into the jungle to try to find them.

In one memorable scene, one almost expects one of the characters to paraphrase something on the order of, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume!”

Yet, I still have to say this is a good novel.  My criteria for calling a book a good novel is that I can’t predict the ending.  Poetic language coupled with riddles that are not easy to solve are irresistible to me.  The combination of genres, Sci-Fi, mystery, suspense, poetry, horror, scientific nonfiction, medical discourse, and classic hero’s quest are as varied as the plants, animals, and people that live in the jungle.  This book is not for literary tourists, just as the heart of the jungle, the heart of darkness itself, is not for casual folks on vacation.

Jodi Picoult
The Pact [a love story]
New York:  Quill-William Morrow, 1998

Don’t be fooled by the title; this so-called love story should require “saying your sorry” about a million times.

Picoult often takes on subjects that other writers shy away from, and then has her characters live them in such a way that her readers respond to them the way they might respond to the prince and princess who live happily ever after in a fairy tale.

In The Pact, one of the most important personalities in the book is dead. Death notwithstanding, she is also one of the most controlling, and the cruelest character.

As far as the plot itself, it does not appear at first to be that unusual.  Two affluent families, once close, are driven apart and thrown together in bizarre ways after the apparent murder/suicide involving their children, who have been together since infancy. 
As babies sharing a bassinet, Emily Gold falls asleep clutching Christopher Harte’s tiny hand.  But, don’t be deceived by this almost saccharine sentimental imagery.  Picoult uses it not as a portent of good things to come for these child sweethearts, but as a harbinger of the choking hold Emily will have on Christopher, a hold so tight, that he cannot refuse her anything, even if her desire is deadly and destructive.

As with Salem Falls and House Rules, the law and courtrooms become characters in themselves.  Picoult has an admirable command of the criminal justice system, from arrest to trial and judgment.  I’m not sure she likes lawyers and law enforcement officials; they seem to be terribly obtuse and single-minded in her books.  Yet, I went to law school, and I have to say I sometimes share the same opinion.  Real people defy legal profiling, and motives are simply not that easy to understand.  If they were, we might not have crime at all, at least not the way it is defined in our statute books.

No horrible stone is left unturned in these pages; pedophilia, murder, teen suicide, brutality behind bars, prisoners’ rights violations, and family tragedy are all fodder for her pen.  Yet, what keeps The Pact from descending into a cheap 21st century retelling of Romeo and Juliet or soap opera melodrama is that none of her characters end up acting the way we might predict.  The best TV shrink would be stumped and left speechless by the turn of events, and the pact itself, the other silent character in this complicated plot, is not necessarily between the “star-crossed” teen lovers.

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