Mostly I find nineteenth-century Arctic shipwreck stories too familiar (even though – or because? – it’s a very particular category). One of my thesis novels, Afterlands, was all Arctic shipwreck all the time. And I must have read and re-read that novel a dozen times. Too many times to read much about whale blubber without shuddering with concern that someone might ask me about the significance of the whale. or the blubber. But how often do we read in this niche category? Obviously not often. Unless you’re someone who re-reads Moby Dick. In which case you are someone with other kinds of (whale blubber) problems. Continue reading
Here’s how I think it happened:
Ann Patchett read Conrad’s *Heart of Darkness* and thought, “hey – there’s something interesting going on here: snakes make neat metaphors!” And she entirely missed the bits about colonialism.
So she set *State of Wonder* in the present day Amazon and made it about the quest for a pharmaceutical way to prolong fertility. The premise sounds so rich and so fruitful (kind of like the jungle?!) with all kinds of ethical questions about whether fertility ought to be extended, about the exploitation of the environment and indigenous cultures for the benefit of consumption and about the relationship between science and nature. Not to mention the usual colonial questions that *Heart of Darkness* invites.
But what the reader gets is a mystery plot with a well written setting and a jumble of thematic questions that don’t come out anywhere close to coherent. With the hodgepodge of symbols and the patchwork and the wavering attempt at taking on moral questions it reads as a mess. And annoying mess for the lost potential.