Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Orchid Thief readalong: Week 3

And so we come to the end and it's not far from where we started -- with orchid thief John Laroche in the Fakahatchee Strand, going after a ghost orchid. This time he's not intending to take it, just to show a ghost orchid in bloom to writer Susan Orlean, for whom it has become a minor obsession.

But they never find one. For me, one of the major questions of this book is whether that's OK. Orlean herself says this: "It was just as well that I never saw a ghost orchid, so that it could never disappoint me, and so it would remain forever something I wanted to see." Which is an interesting point -- kind of like Christmas morning when you're a kid, high expectations are so often not met. Except ... that the lure of the ghost orchid is central to the point of this book. Isn't it? (I can certainly understand, though, Orlean's overwhelming desire to get the hell out of the marsh before it got dark -- my husband and I once got lost until way past dark kayaking in the Everglades and it was most assuredly Not Fun.)

I'll be curious to hear readers' reactions to the book as we start meeting and talking about The Orchid Thief. The book definitely lacks the sort of narrative arc many may be used to from fiction or even more traditional nonfiction. Laroche as a central character -- the book is named for him, after all -- certainly poses a challenge for the writer, as he gives up on his driving obsession for orchids and cops a plea to the theft charge.

It appears to me that Orlean was really writing about obsession, not orchids -- the plants just happened to be the way she met the various obsessessives. "I suppose that is exactly what I was doing in Florida, figuring out how people found order and contentment and a sense of purpose in the universe by fixing their sights on one single thing or one belief or one desire," she writes. But on this re-reading after many years I mostly appreciated it as a book about Florida, specifically South Florida in the mid to late '90s, a time when I was really getting to know the place and figuring out that I was actually going to stay here. I liked her description and history of the Golden Gate Estates (yeah, I know that was in an early section) a lot. I admired the way she captured how the South Florida landscape can be both despair-inducing and so beautiful it takes your breath away, almost in the same moment. I loved her description of the smell of the Fakahatchee Strand: "you smell the tang of mud and the sourness of rotting leaves and the perfumes of a million different flowers floating by, each distinct but transparent, like soap bubbles." It reminded me of one summer, around the time she was writing this book, when I was housesitting on Upper Sugarloaf Key and came to appreciate the mucky mangrove smell of that area -- it's the smell of deterioration and rot, in one sense -- but also the smell of unstoppable, endlessly renewing Florida life.

1 comment:

  1. Orchid Thief read-a-long week 3
    I think it is okay Orlean never saw a ghost orchid. In a novel (or the idolized screenplay by Charlie Kaufman) then, yes, I think she should have seen one…but writing an entire book around orchid obsession, namely one man’s obsession with a particular orchid and then never actually finding that particular orchid—hey, that’s life.
    I agree Orlean was writing more about obsession. There is the orchid obsession, the land scams, the Seminole history.
    I enjoyed the book much more on the second reading. I read it about 4-5 years ago so I was not expecting an arching story--one with a Beginning, Middle and End. This time I read it more as a series of essays about Florida with the common theme of orchids. And as I’ve stated before I just love books that emphasize the weirdness that is South Florida. I think this book does that very well, form the history of the Seminoles to the Golden Gate Estates to John Laroche.