In his praise for The Lost City of Z, Malcolm Gladwell’s “central question of our age” addresses the ongoing fascination with the jungle. He wants to know, “In the battle between man and a hostile environment, who wins?” What I’m wondering is, what is this thing we have about the jungle? From the popularity of films like Jurassic Park, Avatar, and Tarzan to books like State of Wonder, The Lost City of Z, and The Jungle Book, we obviously find the alternative to civilization compelling. Or maybe it’s just that writers who excel at descriptive prose jump at the opportunity to create their own vision of a rainforest.
One writer who recently tackled the jungle challenge is Ann Patchett. As Janet Maslin said in her review in The New York Times, “Perhaps the temptations of the Amazon are overwhelming for any writer with such a gift for animating her surroundings.” I’m close to finishing State of Wonder and hooked by Patchett’s vivid descriptions, so I think she was up to the task. The story is about a physician/pharmaceutical researcher who goes to the Amazon to find out what caused her colleague’s mysterious death. He had been sent by their employer to chart the progress of a study of a “miracle drug” and never returned. The doctor running the endeavor, a powerful and elusive personality, has ceased to share information with her source of funding and provides only the sketchiest details of the how the deceased met his end. She reminds me of Sigourney Weaver’s character in Avatar. The biggest character, however, is the jungle itself, rife with bloodsucking insects, miracle plants, and killer anacondas. I’ve been a fan of Patchett’s since Bel Canto, and I’m enjoying Wonder. Fingers crossed that the end delivers when I get to it this weekend. And even if the ending isn’t perfect, I’ve had a satisfactory trip into the jungle during the time I’ve spent reading it.
Before State of Wonder, the last “into the jungle” book I read was The Lost City of Z. If you prefer nonfiction, Z is the way to go. Author David Grann decided to retrace the steps of the legendary explorer Percy Fawcett, who went into the Amazon in 1925 in search of a legendary civilization and was never seen or heard from again. Fawcett was an odd character and ambitious enough to set off into the dangers of the jungle with his own son. His mission received plenty of notoriety before he even disappeared.
"What happened to Percy Fawcett and his expedition?" became the question of generations, with countless groups following him into the jungle attempting to find either him or the elusive city. David Grann comes up with some plausible explanations, and that mystery is what kept me reading further and further into the jungle.
If you read to seek out adventure from the safety of your own couch, both books are a good choice. Going back to Gladwell’s question about who wins the battle, human or jungle, I’m going to posit that usually the jungle wins. With that in mind, I can’t say I’m planning my own adventure to the Amazon any time soon. I am happy to report, however, that nowadays when I close my eyes I can practically smell the rainforest and visualize the wildlife. If a writer does the job right, you’ll still sort of get to go there—safely—for the mere cost of a book. Not too shabby.