17 August 2005

Natives and Exotics by Jane Alison

Natives and Exotics is a book I find easy to admire and difficult to love, a book that is complex and suggestive, its prose a model of exactness, and yet it feels more like an essay than a novel, its structure designed to highlight correlations and hypotheses rather than emotions or characters. (I mean that as an observation, not a criticism -- I doubt Natives and Exotics would be half as interesting if its characters were as developed as its historical perspective. The muted emotions, in fact, are a relief when so many novels feel like overfed emoticons.) Nonetheless, it can be difficult to adore a novel about the overlapping colonizations of plants and humans in the past few centuries, wondrous as such a book may be, because it remains at a distance, an engine of concepts that invite us to think about them rather than sympathize with them, to gaze at rather than ingest.

Thankfully, there's nothing wrong with admiring a book without adoring it, and there is much to admire here. Natives and Exotics is constructed as a triptych of stories with some additional scenes as connective tissue -- no, "connective tissue" is the wrong metaphor, because the short scenes only partially connect; "orbiting matter" might be a better term. The first main story is of Alice, a young Australian girl who has just moved to Ecuador with her family in 1970. She tries to adjust to the new life, and all the time a sense of menace hangs around her. It is difficult to get a sense of exactly what is going on, but the word oil pops up a fair amount, and talk of government problems, of corruption and destruction (1970 was the year Ecuador's president suspended the constitution and declared himself dictator). The mountains and jungles beckon like old gods, and stories and rumors mingle:
Then the story went around about how Ms. Barkin, the new English teacher, had gone by herself to the Amazon. A long, greenish woman with lank red hair and watery eyes, she'd taken local buses and hitchhiked. She was gone for several weeks. When she came back she looked as though there, in the jungle, she had sunk her body into all the vegetation, the living insects and fetid blossoms and rot, and that even though she had been there so long, all by herself in the jungle, she still had not had enough of it; even though things may have crawled in and out of her body, under her toenails and into her mouth and nostrils and secret openings, in her eyes was an insatiability, like a drug.
Nature changes humans just as much as humans change nature, and that, it becomes clear as the book moves along, is what all of this is about.

Just as we begin to feel settled with Alice, her story stops and suddenly we are in Australia in 1929 with a woman named Violet, who turns out to be pregnant with Alice's mother at the time. Violet's moment is a short one, a scene really, of a woman trying to make a life for herself on a frontier. She is trapped between two worlds and two responsibilities: the expected roles of a woman in 1929, and her own desires for something more, something else, something exotic.

We then move to Violet's great-great-grandfather, George, the adopted son of a Scottish man named Mr. Clarence. Together, they flee the Highland Clearings and head to the Azores, where George creates a magnificent orchard of orange trees. Meanwhile, the Azores become an important site in the War of the Two Brothers, a war that threatens to destroy much of the island George is on. Not everyone thinks the war must be pure destruction, however -- Mr. Clarence's acquaintance Mr. Furnell has grand hopes that it will settle things in both Portugal and Brazil and lead to progress:
"Men demand progress and improvements, Mr. Clarence. I'd think you as a Briton would know that. What with the advances the British have brought to Australia, to India--"

Mr. Clarence was breathing hard. "Those are scarcely improvements," he whispered.

Mr. Furnell stared at him. "Of course they are. The advance of Empire. From woods to pastoralism to agriculture to commerce: the natural course of man's dominion."

"Not," said Mr. Clarence, "if things are lost--"

"Lost? Rather, gained!"
Destruction is inevitable, though, not only because of war, but because of a parasite that arrives with a tree that George has imported. Then Mr. Clarence dies and George decides to move to Australia: "Maybe on that lonely, ancient continent, partly paradise but in large part hell, he would at last find his habitat."

These excerpts probably make the novel seem more polemical and less subtle than it is. The first sections of the book can be bewildering, because it's difficult to figure out what the pieces are aiming for, how they add up, what matters, and what, exactly, is even happening. But by a few chapters into the George and Mr. Clarence section, all sorts of stray details and phrases from the previous sections begin to echo off of each other, and things that threatened to be forgotten move suddenly toward the foreground of memory. It's an exhilarating feeling for a reader, the feeling of jangling bits of past matter suddenly (and contrapuntally) building form and shape from each other.

That feeling only grows stronger in the lovely later sections that bring Violet and Alice back and build their connections. The ending is quieter than the many cycles of destruction and rebuilding that fuel the rest of the book might suggest, but it is entirely appropriate and even, perhaps, moving.

And I haven't yet mentioned an important element of the novel: the science. Botany is a major subject throughout Natives and Exotics right from the beginning. The prologue of the book has three short chapters: The first is set on an island of the Galapagos in 1786, where a sailor carves the date into the shell of a giant tortoise. The second section takes place the same year, and gives us a glimpse of the botanist and explorer Sir Joseph Banks in London. The third section shows us Alexander von Humboldt in 1799 just as he sets sail for Latin America.

After George sets sail for Australia, his boat passes the H.M.S. Beagle, where Charles Darwin is writing in his diary, thinking about Captain Cook and von Humboldt, remembering tortoises: "He'd seen one with 1786 carved in its shell! They might be old as trees. Yet within twenty years they would all be captured, overturned, scooped out, and eaten; not one would remain. Just as, he suspected, the kangaroos of Australia would soon be gone. Men did what they must to live, after all." (Alison seems to have some good fun playing with the implications of the "all-inclusive" term men throughout the book.) Finally, Darwin settles on the fascination of mystery: "Yes, they fascinated him, the awfully sublime movements of nature! And above all, the mystery of mysteries: how the possessors of that fragile thing called life appeared upon the mineral globe, how they became scattered across it."

There's more and more. This is no simple screed against human ingenuity and for a return to some primitive paradise, but rather a vast fugue of glimpses, a map of moments, and a guide to all that is found within all that is lost. It's a study of departures and returns, of repetitions and revisions. It's about, too, the impossible quest for home.

Why, we might wonder, not tell it all chronologically? Why not start with George and work toward Violet and then Alice? Wouldn't it all make more sense? Yes, it might, but it would be a duller experience, because the dislocation of the first sections would be lost, and the novel would feel more like a treatise than, as it does now, a dance. A more linear structure would shatter so many of the implications of the material, because a more linear structure would lull us into creating too clear a narrative. The ambiguity, the occasional confusion, the puzzle-solver's eurekas are all essential to how this novel means, to how it is what it is. A linear narrative would be merely clever; Natives and Exotics rises toward something far more jarring, sharp, and profound than cleverness.

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