Monday, July 19, 2004


The Orchid Thief, by Susan Orleans, Read by Jennifer Jay Myers, Random House Audible, 2002

My wife and I have the powerful ability to kill any plant we choose to raise. Our vegetable gardens are typically late planted and then rescued by a spasmodic watering when we realize it's been two weeks since rain helped us out. Our houseplants languish in dark corners or limp along from heavy watering to nothing. Two spice gardens have provided us with enough spices for one batch of food.

After the Cleveland Botanical Gardens finished their lengthy and expensive renovations, we waited a full year before finally going, and we left a bit unimpressed, despite the Garden hosting a big orchid show and sale. We are, to put it quite bluntly, not really plant people.

I don't lose any sleep over this, even though I am a vegetarian and consider myself an environmentally sensitive kind of a guy. But somewhere inside, sometimes, I do feel a lack. There is the faint notion that a part of me is just callous, unrefined, brutal for not having this sensitivity. It is a faint, faint notion, but it is there.

And so, when Susan Orleans digresses from the story of John Laroche in The Orchid Thief to retell stories of orchid enthusiasts, I just shake my head and wonder. There is no sense of missing something or the belief that these people have a sacred mystery that I will forever be deprived of, but rather it is like hearing about people who became obsessed by stamps or dogs or ferrets or Precious Moments plates. It is sometimes possible to see what people enjoy about such things, but it just isn't in me to get that much steam up about it myself.

The history of the orchid and orchid hunters is fascinating, though. Orleans has an eye and an ear for the cranks, the competitiveness and the curios of the past. What to make of the orchid hunters for nineteenth century British barons who almost end in a duel or the hook handed hunter of another? Or what about William Michelitz, the orchid hunter, who on the eve of World War I worries that the universal conflagration would inhibit orchid sales? Or macabrely, consider the English collector who found rare orchids attached to human remains and shipped them back to England still affixed to ribs and shinbones, one orchid being auctioned off still growing off a human skull.

In this history, we learn of the 3,000 year orchid history in China; we are told of medicinal uses of orchids, industrial uses like lubricating violin strings, and how late in the game orchid fever came to England. It is the English mania for collecting, naming, and classifying that leads to the boom in the orchid market outlined above. Orleans puts the orchid smack dab at the beginning of English scientific and industrial revolution leading to Darwin's questions on evolution.

The lengthy discussion of the history of the Florida land scam deal (Want to buy some land in the Everglades?) remains present in the current day despite the scams being pulled fifty years ago. She describes going to the lots involved in one of the biggest scams, that of the Rosen brothers (whose first moneymaker was a hair restorer featuring lanolin and the tagline "Ever seen a baldhead sheep?"). Subdivisions were plotted in blocks, streets were paved and named, driveways started, but no houses built. The remaining site has a ghostly quality and reminded me of my honeymoon.

My wife and I went to the Grand Bahama Island and rented a scooter. One day while driving around the island we drove into an area much the way Orleans described the Golden Gate lots, wide expanses of clearly designated home lots, long streets running to nowhere, stop signs puckered and blistered with buckshot, the jungle's slow reclamation. We spent so much time quietly easing our way down theoretical suburban Grand Bahama that when another vehicle appeared it felt alien, invasive.

Orleans' style in this learned regression is perfect New Yorker. It is erudite without being stuffy, fun while still feeling intelligent, memorable with imagery and events, thick and satisfying. The opening portion of the book feels most like either a fleshed out version of the article originally wrote, or the whole article with subsequent chapters doing the fleshing.

It's easy to see now why the character of Charlie Kaufman might have had difficulties in adapting this in the film Adaptation. It's easy to see why the real Kaufamn might have chosen a book like this as the crux on which to nail his thesis of the difficulties in adapting books to screen and the market forces' treachery. The Orchid Thief is full of memorable scenes and characters, has atmosphere to spare, and is that kind of middlebrow level intelligent writing that is neither difficult to grasp nor flyaway drivel. As such, the book is a shapeless series of essays and mini-essays with no real storyline or direction on which to hang a tale.

The chapters dealing with other orchid growers, collectors, enthusiasts are not nearly so fascinating as both the historical accounts of adventurers nor the quirky heart-of-gold-con-artistry of Laroche. It's simply padding, a filling of scenes and characters that embroider the edges of what is far more interesting. It does show us that Laroche is not simply crazy period, with orchids being the focus of his particular insanity, but rather that he is normal (or almost normal) within this quite widespread nuttiness. Where these stories again take wacky flight is the chapter "Plant Theft" in which Orleans catalogues the various hook and crook methods by which people pirate, hijack, flim-flam, or outright snatch other people's flowers, shrubs, palm trees, seeds, etc.

But of all the characters in this cabinet of curiosities, is the Fakahatchee Swamp itself. Orleans gives us a detailed chronicle replete with loggers, conmen, hunters, displaced and endangered species, dangerous and exotic flora and fauna, and a rich, rich history.

I think perhaps Orleans herself has more sympathy with the more extreme versions of crank and thief. Her language and her anecdotes take on a more poetic and more warm tone, while her stories of plant shows catalog the various growers and sellers with a clinical tone. When discussing the Seminole Indian connection with the swamp, Orleans dutifully provides an at least full outline of the story. When recounting the colorful life of Chief Billy, she fills in the outline.

The final chapter where Orleans returns to Laroche and her quest to finally actually see a Ghost Orchid feels like an obligatory "tie up the loose ends" chapter and finds Orleans feeling sad for everyone in the whole big big world. It's a rather trite ending to what was, on the whole, a fascinating peek into an entirely unfamiliar and strange world that lives and breathes right alongside the everyday world.

As for the reading, I would like to see audiobook companies institute a policy of having the reader read the whole book through then start from the beginning and just keep on going for a while. This book's reader, Jennifer Jay Myers, is a perfect example of someone who'd be helped by this directorial trick. She's a perky reader who seems embarrassed by Orleans' more poetic passages, reading them as though the ideas are just coming to her, she's just transmitting them and can't be held responsible for such luminescent prose. There's an element of embarrassment or shame in her vocal inflection. Her characterization of Laroche is juvenile and sneering, and even though Orleans captures this element of him she goes to great lengths to demonstrate that he is curious, reflective, unfathomable, haunted, incredibly optimistic, obtuse, and borderline criminal.

In other words, Orleans paints a fuller picture than Myers gives voice to. And while Myers grows progressively more comfortable with Orleans' lyricism, she remains steadfast in her dismissive reading of Laroche. It's a demonstrable weakness in her reading — a reading that grows better the longer it goes. It's only a shame that the production's director didn't have her read the book from the beginning all over again.

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