Dear friends and readers,
I’ve decided to write a blog on Ann Patchett’s latest novel, State of Wonder, mainly because it’s been so mis-characterised by most reviews. Far from a book about medicine, South America, or grave variant on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, it’s a muddled fantastic romance relying heavily on stereotypes of scientists, so-called primitive “native” people, and upper middle class white people. Its surface plot-design is filched from the 1992 film, The Medicine Man, about “an eccentric scientist working for large rich drug company in the Amazon jungle, with joke elements taken from Evelyn Waugh’s Handful of Dust.
The archetypal pattern (which the chosen name of the heroine and title of the novel shows Patchett was conscious of) is taken from Shakespeare’s Pericles, whose heroine, Marina, motherless, journeys on a quest to seek her father. Like Miranda in Shakespeare’s Tempest, Pericles‘ Marina is described as finding the world “wondrous” and “beautiful” and the play is filled with “wonders” (magic happenings); we are to see the world is hard, scary, dangerous. Prospero to Miranda when she comes out with one of her statements of joy: “It seems so to thee.” Prospero’s only alive because he found out his brother was planning to murder him in time; he’s been betrayed by all.
Patchett’s disingenuous literary allusions remind me of how she claimed her Bel Canto was modelled on Mann’s Magic Mountain when after the first reading, you realize she had in mind Francis Hodgson’s Burnett, The Secret Garden, or a child’s book in the same mode (“How much does a house know?”).
As the book opens, our heroine, Marina, a research scientist with a pharmaceutical company is visited by Mr Fox, the CEO (who normally stays in another area of the compound) with a thin blue envelope which tells her of the death of her close colleague and mentor, Anders Eckmann. It’s written by Dr Annick Swenson who is as concerned to report the weather and make enigmatic references to her great research more than tell of how this relatively young man died. This great research concerns finding out how the women of a strange tribe, the Lakasi, manage to keep getting pregnant to a very old age. An ominous note is hit when Swenson says it was hard to bury the corpse — such was its state?
Probably the Waugh-like joke in Patchett’s mind is poor female creatures, who would want this, and the paradox of our irrational world that a drug or herb which might cause this would sell terrifically. That’s why the company is funding the mysterious enigmatic Dr Swenson.
Marina has the job of having to tell Eckman’s wife — who has three children by him, lives dependently on him and needs him and his income absolutely. Karen Eckman was that morning in a state of starting to complain bitterly than he should be home already. As the novel moves on, you discover that Marina has been having an affair with the CEO, Mr Fox even though he’s 62, at least 20 years older than herself, 5 years older than her mother. Karen Anders calls Marina and passionately argues that 1) we don’t know for sure that Anders is dead; we have no proof; and to ask her 2) to go to Brazil (the feel is a jungle, wild place, heart of darkness) to find out what’s happened. She can’t go herself — the children you see. Mr Fox would prefer her to go too: he exploits her we see: the company, he says, wants Marina to find out all about Dr Swenson’s research which is costing the company too much money and about which Swenson has told them zilch.
The back story which provides Marina with what emotional life she is given is that of a woman’s subjective romance: she has an Indian father, her parents’ a troubled marriage; she suffers bad dreams from an fantasy anti-malarial drug she takes (Lariam). Secrets are slowly revealed about her childhood and years as a resident, such as she made a bad mistake delivering a baby; this was caused by the “cold” Dr Swenson and led to her leaving off becoming a doctor. From this angle, Dr Swenson assumes mythic proportions of enigmatic fearfulness. All this is treated superficially as we are told so little for real — the same goes for the Anders marriage.
Once in Brazil, every middle class person’s dread occurs: Marina’s luggage is misplaced. We are with a tourist (=stranger) in a strange land. She is taken up a a kind “native” (=Spanish) driver, Milton, goes on fantasy trips to a beach with two elegant friends of Swenson who live in an apartment that could be found in Manhattan. They go to the opera. (What else?) The easy prosperity of this pair parallels the patently TV style upper middle class life of the Eckmanns. Once in the jungle this typology is repeated in the Saturns and a black & Asian scientist, Dr Nkomo and Dr Budi. Patchett also often manages to evade the question of money: she invents situations where somehow what’s happening does not depend on the characters getting money for themselves.
So much for description; now for a brief interpretation: There is a certain (how shall I put this?) opportunism here. Everyone nowadays knows how corrupt pharmaceuticals are — or anyone who reads anything intelligent. Drug companies are increasingly the bad guys in wide-selling fiction — LeCarre’s Constant Gardener is a case in point. I was more and more reminded of Ondjaatje’s Anil’s Ghost. Like Patchett’s other novels, this one begins with a central political and painful issue of our time and manages to skirt it wholly. When we are moved, it’s by supposedly inconsequential details of her central women characters’ lives, e.g., Karen’s letters never reached her husband. We have this vision of this woman writing letters patiently and endlessly and never getting there. The heartlessness of those who couldn’t be bothered to make sure her letters got to her husband is before us.
The actual interest in the book for Patchett was touched upon in a review by Katherine Wyrick: Patchett described it in a studiedly neutral way as an interest in the relationship of a teacher or mentor and student. One of the members of Women Writer through the Ages at Yahoo put it more accurately:
Swenson [is the figure of the artist, or most precisely, the solitary, isolated writer, i.e., Patchettt herself. Swenson Patchett, the successful writer, [is] working to escape the corporation panting to make huge profits from her work. Like Swenson, Patchett must get a blank check from her publisher — all the advances she needs, all the funding she needs, all the trips she needs — because the book industry knows a cash cow when they see it. She’s a brand. I bought this novel on her name. I can imagine Patchett pursued by eager Marinas, dispatched by the publisher with the same zeal as Mr. Fox to find out what kind of “progress” Patchett has made.
Another member said Swenson is a kind of Svengali. Swenson reminded me of the traditional dragon lady type found most famously traditionally in Pride and Prejudice: Lady Catherine de Bourgh, rude, arrogant, indifferent to others, pressuring them through her indifference. Women’s films and fiction still feature this archetype of the mean older domineering woman-witch. Anders is the kindly father figure and Mr Fox the deceitful one. In Bel Canto, this part was taken by Mr Hosakawa who is a Mr Knightley type (Austen’s Emma). Sex occurs off-stage.
As to our moral lessons and the full real context of Patchett’s work: Patchett often justifies some of the worst things in women’s lives: in her Patron St of Liars she comes out for lying and homes for unwed mothers and having babies instead of abortions as that makes her characters happy. In The Magician’s Assistant she shows us how much happiness Wall-Mart supplies to these women and supports the enjoyment of mountebank fraud. What is happiness Swift asked: the state of being well-deceived, the supreme felicity of being a fool among knaves. Swift is scathing, while Patchett asks, Would you take it away? Then they’ll have nothing. She does not present her heroines in the truly desperate state they are, and they are even encountering benign representatives of institutions who save them. These are good bad books. They are bad for the way they function; they are good because they are strongly written. Her success is due to her style.
Bel Canto is a better than these, somewhat. I keep assigning it because a middle range of intelligence it my classes like it. The best students never like it best, but the middle ones do and more read it than most books. It alone of the books I’ve read thus far has real humanity because she really does focus in on a real hostage incident and keeps the unjust devastating true ending. Alas, though, I’ve asked and the book does not at all change any students’ attitude in the class for real about “terrorists.” They only see this as being more benign. They don’t even believe the humanity she extends to the “terrorists” in the book. She longed for Bel Canto to be made into a movie, but there it’s radical content (being on the side of the “terrorists” too makes that impossible).
One member of our list wondered why Patchett is respected. I suggest she enacts the political myths of today; she seems liberal but is not for real. The books are disguised women’s romances which don’t disquiet, which reinforce false consciousness (it’s okay to be satisfied at Wall-Mart and accept the world as it is). The back story of Marina’s affair with Fox and her loss of her father is soap opera stuff dressed up to look multicultural.
She is also not respected by the more thoughtful and/or scholarly essayists. Repeatedly these writers show Patchett to reinforce the worst stereotypes. State of Wonder is not the first book where she presents non-white people as primitive with a scary (inferior) culture: in The Destructive Persistence of Myths and Stereotypes: Civilization and Barbarism Redux in Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, Letras Hispanas, 2:1 (Spring 2005), Jane Margus-Delago shows how destructive are the depictions of Spanish people in Bel Canto.
In “Telling stories about illness and disability: the limits and lessons of narrative,” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 53:1 (2010):121-35, Rebecca Garden exposes how Patchett’s afterward to her friend, Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face and Patchett’s memoir, Truth and Beauty, is like most disability narratives, constructed to present various lies which reinforce the original blindnesses to the disability. Such stories don’t show how the person is not assimilated, and they set up a “happy ending’ where at the end the person is accepted by their worlds; they don’t tell what the person’s real thoughts are. The person’s great success is to learn to be acceptable. Grealy does something of the this, only she is so distraught that the reality comes through; she tells how much she suffered from people’s response to her deformed face. She goes on to tell of her terrible operation to fix herself(showing she bought into all the horror at her face) and not content with that had breast surgery to enlarge the size of her breasts. Then she died. Patchett’s afterward set up a firestorm because she showed the autobiography was constructed (like most) often imagined, not literally so. Patchett, though, then did not defy the taboo against telling why a person died. (This is very strong; I’ve noticed it again and again). The twist in her memoir was to blame her friend for not assimilating. To suggest Lucy was at fault for her troubles by presenting her as this nagging impossible person. And to top it off, Patchett bought into the values of cosmetic surgery, congratulating her friend for doing that to herself. Patchett was accused by the popular press of invading her friend’s privacy and using her friend’s agon to make money.
Still, Patchett’s books are not pernicious in the way say Kate Chisholm’s My Hungry Hell is. Chisholm does harm to anorexic girls because she creates fear and hatred of them while pretending to be sympathetic. This one is not as bad as that by far. It’s rather a muddle.
Patchett simply irritates, yet I read her books and even assign one. They are quintessentially American: the optimism is part of the teleology of religion which underlies most American books. In her you see American values of the hypocritical pseudo-liberal establishment exposed unashamedly. That her books never go into money or class shows up the fatuity of the multicultural approach as practiced by her. I get bothered because I live here and have to live with them, see them in the New York Times, where I work, in doctors’ offices, hospitals, hear them in conversation. I want to expose her pretended context of “great men’s books” because this works to dismiss and erase women’s books where her true context is. It is the tradition of women’s romance that sells and makes her money for her fancy house.
So I’ve written this blog out of an impulse to correct. So many of the reviews gush (Patchett has friends) or mis-describe the book. It amuses me to make public the real sources of the book, and Patchett as a Patron Saint of Liars — and Artists. The connection to artist is perhaps the book’s one intriguing aspect with depth. An important book in the literary pantheon (across all countries, eras, languages) is Denis Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew where two men debate the right of an artist to be utterly amoral. Diderot considers this position but rejects it finally. Patchett would not.
Gentle reader, if you’ve gotten this far, Patchett even provides a happy ending. Anders did not die. Marina takes him home the way Shakespeare’s Marina brings her father, Pericles, back to their home in Ephesus. Karen rushes out and (after we are to imagine mild scolding) we are in Father Knows Best once again. So Dr Swenson is justified.