12 July 2018

The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean


For eight years I thought this was a fictional book. And I don't mean I thought it was a book of fiction, I literally thought it didn't exist in real life. My first introduction to The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession by Susan Orlean was from the movie Adaptation - an intricate film written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze.

The movie follows a neurotic screen writer's attempt to adapt a book by Susan Orlean. Nicolas Cage plays the screen writer (who is supposedly Kaufman) and Meryl Streep plays Orlean. The movie splits itself between Kaufman who is struggling with writer's block and Orlean who is falling deeper and deeper into the hole that is John Laroche (her book's central character) and orchid hunting.

This movie has so many layers and everything weaves into each other so often that I was positive The Orchid Thief wasn't a real book. I remember the characters reading passages from what I thought was a fictionalized book and I found them really beautiful.

It wasn't until I re-watched Adaptation for movie club that I learned the book was actually real. When we were discussing the movie I said how much I wish this book was real because it sounded exactly like the kind of stuff I love - a non-fiction profile about an unfamiliar topic that I am ready to become an expert on. Then everyone was like "IT IS REAL!"

The Orchid Thief is an expansion of Orlean's 1995 piece for The New Yorker which you can read here. It's a profile of John Laroche, an orchid enthusiast who got into legal trouble while 'poaching' the elusive ghost orchid. Orlean spends years interviewing him and hanging around other orchid fanatics through clubs, societies, greenhouses, and competitions.

Laroche alone is enough to write a book about (and Chris Cooper does a great job of playing him in the movie). He is insanely eccentric and is obsessed with things in the way I can only hope to be. And it wasn't only orchids... Laroche was obsessed with a million different things (tropical fish, fossils, etc.) before orchids. Orlean explains it in a way I love: 

Laroche's passions arrived unannounced and ended explosively, like car bombs."

What is a little disturbing about this line is that Laroche actually survived a car crash. Early on in his adulthood he was in a horrifying crash that killed his mother (someone he was very close to), put his wife in a coma for nearly two months, and knocked his front teeth out. His marriage didn't survive much longer. This is also explained in the movie.

Orlean describes how passionate Laroche was about tropical fish, how they were all he thought about, and how quickly he fell out of love with them. What fascinates me isn't even his obsession, but how committed he is to ridding every ounce of his past loves from his life. After he decided he was 'done' with tropical fish he gets rid of his entire collection and refuses to even put a single toe in the ocean (which he lives 2 miles from). Again, this quotation is also in the movie, but it wraps up my envy for anyone as passionate as Laroche:

I wanted to want something as much as people wanted these plants, but it isn't part of my constitution. I think people my age are embarrassed by too much enthusiasm and believe that too much passion about anything is naive. I suppose I do have one unembarassing passion - I want to know what it feels like to care about something passionately."

John Laroche
Even Orlean marvels at his ability to completely detach himself from the things he once loved more than anything. And one of my favourite parts of this book was that you meet Laroche in the peak of his obsession with orchids, and then you read along as he falls out of love with them. I haven't been able to detach myself from something so completely since my childhood hobbies.

As much as I marveled at Laroche's devotion to the things he was devoted to, I marveled even more at his capacity for detachment [...] I supposed 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. Now I was also trying to understand how someone could end such intense desire without leaving a trace."

I've said a million times that I love non-fiction because I love learning as much as possible (in as short a time as possible) about a specific topic. Orlean did A LOT of research about orchids and I loved reading about them as a flower, but also as a commodity. I learned that orchids "might have evolved in soil that was naturally irradiated by a meteor or mineral deposit, and that the radiation is what mutated them into thousands of amazing forms," and that Victorian women were forbidden from owning them because they were too "sexually suggestive." I was reminded (because I know everything) that Joan Didion's daughter Quintana had an orchid named after her, and I also learned a shit ton about Florida as an ecological environment.

Florida has always interested me as a setting. Any movie or TV show set in Florida has always been very eery to me (e.g. Bloodline). The weather for one is horrifying - hot, humid, sweaty - but so are the swamplands and the creatures that choose to make it their home.

Florida is a wet, warm, tropical place, essentially featureless and infinitely transformable. It is as suggestible as someone under hypnosis. Its essential character can be repeatedly re-imagined." 

I learned that nearly two thirds of Florida is man-made, even though it was supposedly deemed unfit for development. And that many have gotten rich off cons involving the essentially useless land.

Chris Cooper as John Laroche and Meryl Streep as Susan Orlean in the movie Adaptation
Orlean also devotes a large section of the book to the history of orchid hunters. She begins with orchid hunters in the Victorian era, when 'orchidelirium' was an actual word people used. This was a time where everyone and their dog wanted orchids, and people made fortunes, or literally died trying, off of orchid hunting. Orlean describes some of the most famous figures in orchid hunting as well as the expeditions themselves.

I liked her distinction between hunters and collectors... that how while a lot of the men on these expeditions were technically obsessed with orchids, it was only because of their desire to commodify them. Even when Orlean jumps ahead to current day, she describes orchid collectors as if they weren't a part of our modern world:

They sincerely loved something, trusted in the perfectibility of some living thing, lives for a myth about themselves and the idea of adventure, were convinced that certain things were really worth dying for, believed that they could make their lives into whatever they dreamed."

As Orlean details more and more absurd cases about people who smuggled rare living things she starts to see Laroche as less eccentric as when she first met him. She describes a case about a drug dealer who collected rare animals and how he chopped a government informant into a dozen pieces AND BARBEQUED HIM before getting caught:

It seemed as if there were hundreds and hundreds of people who were wrapped up in their special passion for the natural world. I still considered Laroche and his schemes exceptional - actually, something beyond exceptional - but he had started to seem more like the endpoint in a continuum. He was the oddball ultimate of those people who are enthralled by non-human living things and who pursues them like lovers."

a ghost orchid
So I guess maybe you are wondering if Orlean ever describes why people, and Laroche specifically, are obsessed with orchids? Or if after reading 284 pages you'll get it? Orlean blatantly asks Laroche what is it about orchids that he loves so much:

He said he admired how adaptable and mutable they are, how they have figured out how to survive in the world. He said plants range in size more than any other living species, and then he asked if I was familiar with the plant that has the largest bloom in the world, which lives parasitically in the roots of a tree. As the giant flower grows it slowly devours and kills the host tree."

I really liked this answer. I wish that I could adapt as easily, and maybe as ruthlessly, as an orchid... and I think this is a feeling everyone can understand.

This book is about orchids, but it's honestly more about obsession, and how we try to make meaning out of our lives. This is the book I can only dream of writing, and I would urge anyone to read it.

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