Monday, April 15, 2013

The state of wonder through the heart of darkness

Title: State of Wonder
Author: Ann Patchett
Pages: 353
Publisher: Harper Collins
ISBN: 978-0-06-204980-3

Although not explicit, State of Wonder embodies the three different definitions of wonder, according to
        1. to think or speculate curiously be filled with admiration, amazement, or awe; marvel
        3. to doubt

The Vogel company has an uncommunicative, isolationist scientist in the Amazon region of Brazil that is researching a miracle fertility drug that could extend pregnancy beyond middle age. However, the CEO, Mr. Fox, can't get a progress report from Dr. Swenson and when Anders Eckman is sent to get one, he supposedly dies in the jungle. Marina Singh, a former student of Dr. Swenson, is sent next to attempt to find the research station and extract some reports on the research.

This book is her journey, comparable to Conrad's Heart of Darkness, into the darkness of not only the jungles of Brazil, but the darkness of medical ethics and exploitation of research subjects. During this journey, Marina is troubled by her own background - an Indian father who mostly abandoned his American family, her perception of herself as unremarkable, and her own medical mistake that forced her to leave hands-on medicine to lab research. Once in Brazil, she is confronted with the strange juxtaposition of colonial and uncivilized Manaus and the hippie gatekeepers of Dr. Swenson's outpost. Dr. Swenson herself is an indomitable force, who inspires both awe and fear in those who work for her, including the native tribe, the Lakashi.

Once Marina is accepted to the outpost, she travels down the river, and much like Conrad's Marlow, as civilization recedes the darkness of the jungle encroaches on Marina both physically and emotionally. However, the greatest darkness is the flagrant disregard for medical ethics as the means are constantly justified by the ends. The unique substance in the jungle may hold answers to multiple medical issues and Marina is quickly subsumed into both the Lakashi and research cultures. However, she quietly continues to doubt Dr. Swenson's methods and words. I don't want to reveal the climax, as it is a good one, but Marina has good reason to distrust her former teacher – who has been in the jungle too long.

Through most of the book, Marina moves about in a “state of wonder” - either drugged, sick, in shock or intimidated by her teacher. However, she finally makes sense of her own experiences and convictions and begins to make decisions for herself, rather than acquiesce to the demands of others.

“I don't like work--no man does--but I like what is in the work--the chance to find yourself. Your own reality--for yourself not for others--what no other man can ever know. They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means.”
― Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness 

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