Thursday, January 31, 2013

Exotic and Emotional Travels with Ann Patchett

In Ann Patchett’s lovely Bel Canto, the reader travels to a fictional South American country and bears witness to an odd tale of the quotidian, love, and a high stakes hostage situation. Her latest novel, State of Wonder, also uses the exoticism of a South American background and is thick with themes of foreign climes and cultures, as well as bonds that supersede borders, and the energies that drive science.

Dr. Marina Singh has her careful routine turned on its head when news reaches her in her Minnesotan lab that her colleague Anders Eckman has died in the Amazon. The details are vague, reported in a letter by the brilliant but uncommunicative Dr. Annick Swenson. She has spent years of her life and millions of the Minnesotan pharmaceutical company’s money studying the Lakashi tribe who live on the banks of the Rio Negro. Anders was sent to discover the extent of Dr. Swenson's progress and to ensure the value of the work. His death deprives his three sons of a father and his wife of a husband, but it also throws another ratchet in the company’s investment. Mr. Fox, Marina’s lover and the president of the company, asks that she achieve what Anders attempted. Coupled with Anders’s wife’s firm belief that he is not dead, Marina heads south.

Patchett is an exquisite and patient writer. She details the excruciating heat and the unexpected barriers that Marina faces upon her arrival in Brazil with a keen eye and satisfies any possible curiosity. Dr. Swenson does not want to be found and Marina finds herself drifting between the desire to do her duty and the itching dissatisfaction with her role and the particular environment it places her in. Marina studied as an obstetrician before switching to pharmacology, a path that ties her to Dr. Swenson, and has had a profound effect on the course of her life.

The novel is a mystery as well as a study of human impetus and connection. It is well into the book that the reader is allowed to approach the tribe that Dr. Swenson has worked with for over 50 years. We are coupled to Marina’s sphere of knowledge and invested enough in the unknown behind the walls of green to wait with appropriately baited breath and bug spray as Patchett ekes out the details of her story. The Lakashi tribe is the source of hope for the pharmaceutical company that has staked millions on the idea that their immense fertility can be translated into a drug for women everywhere. The studies have reported that Lakashi women bear children into their 70s. I can’t think of anything I’d like to do less as I enter my twilight years, but this is the era of the octomom.

Patchett’s characters are fully-dimensional and their layers are intriguing, and sculpted as believable parts of their history. The novel is a thorough account of the motives of its protagonists and mounts to a surprising end, which is girded by the tensions of the unfamiliar and incredible turns of events. Patchett has an interesting perspective when it comes to matters of the heart and her view of the complexities of moments between people, when coupled with high emotion, is again on display in the final pages of State of Wonder.

Because a number of the same tropes lace Bel Canto and Patchett’s latest work, it is hard not to compare the two. While I didn’t feel that State of Wonder had the same emotional punch as Bel Canto, traveling to the tropics in the chill of a New York winter was not an unpleasant journey, particularly with Marina as my guide.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Like It or Not "Dirt" Sticks with You

I try to keep a running list of titles in order to have something to refer to when I am looking for a good read. I’m not very diligent about my list, so I tend to assume that anything I wrote down I added for good reason. I sent my list off to Santa this year, and the first novel I dove into Christmas morning was Dirt by David Vann. It surprised me, and now, having filed it safely away on my bookshelf, I am still wondering what I was thinking when I chose it.

Galen and his mother live somewhere outside Sacramento on their nearly defunct family walnut farm. His grandmother has dementia and has been sent to a nursing home though she is physically in perfect health. His aunt lives nearby with his hyper-sexual cousin, Jennifer, who relishes the chance to tantalize her cousin with glimpses of her body and half-realized physical encounters. The fractured family goes through a strained, daily ritual of afternoon tea, followed by a visit to grandma, followed by dinner, laced with barbs from his aunt, denial from his mother, and aggressive flirtation from Jennifer. The repetition is caustic and life on the farm, stagnant.

Galen feels trapped by his mother. He hasn’t gone to college because she says there is no money, and the two live off the wages for an ostensible gardener and maid. Galen hunkers down with his copy of Sidhartha on the porch, and while the summer heat creeps up to encase him, the reader’s initial instinct is pity. Poor bright boy, seeking enlightenment, suffocated by his mother and the golden past she wears like armor against the present. It is not long before Galen’s self-absorption and scuttled meditations reveal there is more at stake. The four women and Galen spend a weekend together in a cabin in the woods and the semi-privacy supplies the catalyst for Galen’s epic destruction.

The dirt of the title coats the subject literally and figuratively throughout the novel. In Galen’s attempts to reject the material world, to throw off the shackles he believes bind him, he plunges into the extremes of nature at his body’s expense. Every time Galen took a shower I drew a breath of relief, as if he were staving off some awful disintegration, and a real sense of dread built when he stepped out of doors once again.

Vann has written a disturbing novel about family, modernity, money, delusion, and self-serving personal exploration. Galen fancies himself to be spiritually beyond the people he is surrounded by, entirely failing to recognize the humility of his idol, Sidhartha. The family he is given is hardly a picnic, but Galen makes no effort to understand the distress of their relationships. Had he tried to unravel the tensions that surround him, rather than trying to cut directly through them, Galen might have understood the people in his life as more than obstacles to, or as pawn-like ushers toward, his deliverance.

It’s an accomplishment to evoke such visceral feelings of distaste from your readers while still compelling them to continue on with the story. I am not sure I am pleased to have met Galen, but he certainly won’t be forgotten.