State of Wonder, The Novel as Palimpsest, Who’s Writing this Way, and Why?

I am peeking my head up from the digital trenches, looking around to see whether anyone’s still here. I took a bit of unscheduled time away from this blog in May, but I promise that is was all for a good purpose; after having realized that I might still be able to finish revisions to my work in progress before beginning the madhouse that is teaching the summer quarter at work, I decided to clear my schedule as much as possible and write, as my Dear Sugar commemorative mug says, like a *^%#$%$#*@$%.

Happily, that fully revised book is now in the hands of some test readers, and I am now free to regain a little of my life outside the manuscript. One of my rewards to myself was to tuck into some long stretches of reading, and I have gotten myself hooked on Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder.

Despite many of my literary friends’ gushings over this new book from Patchett, I was slow in picking it up. I enjoyed Patchett’s Run and even taught it to my sophomores (who had been clamoring for an “uplifting” or “positive” book after our tours through Flannery O’Connor and Shirley Jackson. As it turns out, they didn’t enjoy the “positive” as much as they though they would! “It was okay” was the most enthusiastic recommendation that Run received from our class). I didn’t respond to Patchett’s Bel Canto as much as many other readers did, so State of Wonder, with its somewhat boring-sounding premise (doctor descends into the jungle to see if she can find some other doctor in said jungle…yada yada yada) didn’t spark much interest in me. Then I gave it a few chapters, and I haven’t been able to put it down since.

State of Wonder is a brilliant palimpsest on Heart of Darkness and, I’d say, of Moby Dick as well. Patchett has updated those classic plots with strong infusion of our modern obsession with biotech and wellness. The quest for the white whale in this case is a search for endless fertility (for those who can pay), and Mr. Kurtz is not just dead but long dead, with the “enlarged minds” of his protégées continuing to wreak all manner of colonial havoc. What I love about Patchett’s updated story is not just it’s smart new take on some of the most enduring themes and plot lines of Western literature, but the way in which she make them feel so fresh, so unexpected.

I’m tempted to say that Patchett’s done a better job with the palimpsest format than even Zadie Smith did with On Beauty, her take on Howard’s End. As I began to brainstorm about other titles that make new projects of “classic” works, I begin drawing blanks. There’s JM Tohline’s recent book The Great Lenore, a take on Gatsby, which has received some mixed reviews. And of course there are some heavy referencers, if not if not retellers of entire tales, like Helen Fielding in her Bridget Jones’ Diary. There are books with some parallel scenes, as with Toni Morrison’s Beloved uses in concert with Huckleberry Finn. There are joke adaptations (just add and Zombies to any public domain title). But after that? Help me out, readers. Which books am I missing?

I also wonder just how good a writer one has to be in order to pull off such a form. And how well known a writer must you be for a readership to take such a book seriously? What impulse drives the desire to reframe a story that’s already been beautifully written? Don’t worry, friends. I’m not planning to assault you with a Davio version of Wuthering Heights. But I do find myself wondering what books, if I wanted to take on an impossible task, would resonate strongly enough within me that I’d want to retell them rather than reread them.

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2 Replies to “State of Wonder, The Novel as Palimpsest, Who’s Writing this Way, and Why?”

  1. In the world of genre fiction, China Mieville’s latest novel, Railsea, is supposed to be an homage to Moby Dick. Seems to me, film-makers do this sort of thing a lot. Some of my favorite obscure palimpsests are The Royal Tenenbaums (A Christmas Carol) and The Big Lebowski (which I’m convinced is based on The Big Sleep, tho’ few will believe me).

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