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“Why’s this so good?” No. 31: Susan Orlean maps obsession

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Susan Orlean’s “Orchid Fever” first ran in The New Yorker on January 23, 1995. It had a second life as a book, and a third as a movie, in which adapting the latter from the former drives a screenwriter to madness, ruin and redemption.

And no wonder: Orlean’s most famous article is, in fact, not much of a story – in the sense that not much happens in it. But neither is the piece really a profile of John Laroche, the off-kilter orchid thief at the heart of the tale. “Orchid Fever” is, at root, a portrait of desire, a tribute to and cautionary tale of infatuation.

Orlean includes enough information about orchids to fascinate and educate. (They have a single fertile stamen! Some are shaped like insects! The Victorians were consumed with orchidelirium!) She also puts up a good front that the orchids matter as flowers instead of symbols. And she even gives obsession a shot at slaying her when she treks off into a swamp in an attempt to find the elusive ghost orchid in bloom.

But throughout the piece, it is Laroche, the collector, who serves as the pivot from which everything swings, and it is the force of Orlean’s reactions to Laroche that provides the story’s momentum.

We meet him right at the beginning, in a lede it is possible I have read enough times to memorize:

John Laroche is a tall guy, skinny as a stick, pale-eyed, slouch-shouldered, and sharply handsome, in spite of the fact that he is missing all his front teeth. He has the posture of al dente spaghetti and the nervous intensity of someone who plays a lot of video games. He is thirty-four years old, and works for the Seminole Tribe of Florida, setting up a plant nursery on the tribal reservation near Miami. The Seminole nicknames for Laroche are Crazy White Man and Troublemaker.

Laroche, it is mentioned in passing, lost those front teeth in a car accident that put his wife in a coma and killed his mother and uncle. If Orlean had been going for pity, she could have leaned harder on these losses, or indicated whether and how they helped deliver him into the mess that is his life.

But Orlean is not holding Laroche up as a figure of sympathy or someone to pity, because Laroche has done something most of us never will, at least on a grand scale: He has surrendered his life to obsession. He accidentally poisons himself with pesticide then writes an article titled “Would You Die for Your Plants?” In his third or fourth decade as a serial obsessive – before orchids, it was turtles, Ice-Age fossils, lapidary, then mirrors – Laroche is as caught up in the torture of compulsion as he is with the plants themselves.

This willingness to chase desire preserves his charisma, for all his dental disarray. He is cocksure, possibly brilliant and intermittently ignorant, the boyfriend every father is terrified his child will bring home. He is also, Orlean notes, “the most moral amoral person” she has ever known.

Through her proximity to Laroche, she manages to catch orchid fever, a little. But her mild case only underlines the distinction between her curiosity and the real thing. Here she is tramping through the ghost orchid’s home territory, a swamp Laroche loves:

The Fakahatchee has a certain strange, wild beauty. It is also an aggressively inhospitable place. In fact, the hours I spent retracing Laroche’s footsteps were probably the most miserable I have spent in my entire life. The swampy part of the Fakahatchee is hot and wet and buggy, and full of cottonmouth snakes and diamondback rattlers and alligators and snapping turtles and poisonous plants and wild hogs and things that stick into you and on you and fly into your nose and eyes. Crossing the swamp is a battle. You can walk through about as calmly as you would walk through a car wash. In the middle of the swamp, the sinkholes are filled with as much as seven feet of standing water, and the air has the slack, drapey weight of wet velvet. Sides of trees look sweaty. Leaves are slick from the humidity. The mud sucks your feet and tries to keep a hold of them; failing that, it settles for your shoes. The water in the swamp is stained black with tannin from the cypress trees, which is so corrosive that it can cure leather.

Orlean builds her study of obsession out of a vocabulary of desire and devastation, ranging from the apocalyptic to the sexually charged. Laroche’s own “passions boil up quickly and end abruptly, like tornadoes.” In the Fakahatchee, the rocks have crevices, the trees have crotches, and the orchids invite erotic speculation. Mere friction is enough to ignite the grass, literally setting cars on fire, leaving behind “pan-fried tourists” and the carcasses of burned-out Model Ts.

This landscape of desire – with its friction, pyrotechnics, snakes and wetness – is a dangerous place. To visit it is one thing; to live inside it is another. Anyone fully at home in this swamp is not operating with the same mindset that Orlean or her readers bring to the piece.

It takes a brave writer to underline the distance between reader and subject this way. The risk is that in some kind of false alliance with the reader, you freakify your subject. But Orlean manages to weave in the universal allure of passion, nodding at how easily and unpredictably the gap can be bridged: “Many seemingly normal people, once smitten with orchids, become less like normal people and more like John Laroche.”

Orlean never gets to see the elusive ghost orchid flower, which is probably just as well – surely she would only be disappointed. What she delivers instead is just a little taste of delirium, letting us feel the fever without ending up toothless, broke and in court.

She goes out to the swamp and even finds the plants. But they weren’t blooming, she tells Laroche later over the phone – though he doesn’t believe her. Her guide to the otherworld of obsession knows what was missing: “You should have gone with me.”

Andrea Pitzer (@andreapitzer) is the editor of Nieman Storyboard. She is also working on a book about Vladimir Nabokov and his century.

For more from this collaboration with Longreads and Alexis Madrigal, see the previous posts in the series. And stay tuned for a new shot of inspiration and insight every week.




One comment

  1. David
    posted February 17, 2012 at 2:05 pm | permalink

    Interesting the story is so fulfilling without delivering the knockout punch of a big ending. Likely what drove the screenwriter crackers

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