Euphoria by Lily King
Going Native(This book was selected as one of The New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Books of 2014.)
By Emily Eakin
June 6, 2014
As a public icon, Margaret Mead has grown fusty — more respected than read, scarred by potshots (remember the critic who tried to prove that she’d been duped by her Samoan informants?) and sidelined in anthropology by a new dispensation, fluent in evolutionary biology, that makes Mead’s “culture and personality” approach look quaint. It’s hard to conceive of the shock caused in 1928 by her depiction, in “Coming of Age in Samoa,” of sexual freedom as key to a happy adolescence, or of the scope of her influence, decades later, as an unflagging champion of progressive causes, from women’s rights to the legalization of marijuana. For most of us, Mead’s name no longer automatically conjures what one biographer termed “steamy things that happened in torrid, languid jungles.” But her life was rich with incident and, on one occasion at least, may have conformed to this description.
In “Euphoria,” the novelist Lily King has taken the known details of that occasion — a 1933 field trip to the Sepik River, in New Guinea, during which Mead and her second husband, Reo Fortune, briefly collaborated with the man who would become her third husband, the English anthropologist Gregory Bateson — and blended them into a story of her own devising. The result is as uncanny as it is transporting. “Euphoria” is a meticulously researched homage to Mead’s restless mind and a considered portrait of Western anthropology in its primitivist heyday. It’s also a taut, witty, fiercely intelligent tale of competing egos and desires in a landscape of exotic menace — a love triangle in extremis.
For King, whose three previous novels, all expertly crafted, rarely strayed far from late-20th-century, New England WASP culture, “Euphoria” represents a departure and arguably a breakthrough. The steam the book emits is as much intellectual as erotic (for Mead there seems hardly to have been a distinction), and King’s signal achievement may be to have created satisfying drama out of a quest for interpretive insight.
The threat of violence and death looms from Page 1, as a disgruntled Mumbanyo tribe member lobs what may or may not be a dead baby at Nell Stone, the controversial American author of the best-selling ethnography “The Children of Kirakira,” and her envious Australian husband, Fen, who are fleeing the tribe in a canoe. Nell’s glasses are broken (by Fen, in what, it’s implied, was a deliberate act), as is one of her ankles. Both husband and wife are filthy, dispirited and sick with malaria. Nell, who longs to be pregnant, has recently miscarried. “Maybe you noticed — there’s sort of a stench of failure about us,” she tells Andrew Bankson, the English anthropologist they run into upon arriving at the local government station, where a drunken Christmas party is underway.
Bankson, the novel’s narrator, isn’t doing too well himself. Like Bateson, his real-life inspiration, he’s tormented by the deaths of his older brothers, one blown up over Belgium in World War I, the other a suicide in Piccadilly Circus, and for two years has been living with a tribe on the Sepik River, less out of a passion for analyzing human social systems than to escape his overbearing mother. Stymied in his work and deeply depressed, he’s fresh from his own suicide attempt — in the river, his pockets full of stones, like Virginia Woolf. On seeing Nell and Fen, it’s all he can do not to fling himself at them: “My heart whapped in my throat and all I could think was how to keep them, how to keep them. I felt my loneliness bulge out of me like a goiter.”
The book is rife with such visceral imagery and pungent with the stink of disease, foul breath and unwashed bodies. Bankson, who falls hard for Nell, describes her — much as Bateson did Mead — in a letter to his mother, as “a sickly, pocket-sized creature with a face like a female Darwin”; in the bush, sentimentality is a luxury, like iodine and Band-Aids. Anyway, it’s Nell’s brain that excites him, her drive and discipline, her easy way with the natives, her scandalously impressionistic field notes, her poetry-laden talk, her naked curiosity, her freedom. “For so long I’d felt that what I’d been trained to do in academic writing was to press my nose to the ground, and here was Nell Stone with her head raised and swiveling in all directions. It was exhilarating and infuriating and I needed to see her again.”
“Euphoria” takes the form of unflinching retrospection, interspersed with entries from Nell’s journal, as Bankson recounts, decades later, his helpless love for her. King deploys this frame with admirable delicacy, casting a shadow of impending tragedy over the narrative and administering the occasional strategic dose of irony or nostalgia. Apart from an early chapter in which Bankson chronicles his painful family history — her only misstep, it comes off a bit pat — she wisely allows the proceedings to unfold mostly as they happen.
Bankson persuades Nell and Fen to take up residence with the Tam, a tribe seven hours upriver by motorized canoe from the one he’s studying. In the bush, this makes them neighbors, and Bankson can’t stay away, at one point falling so desperately ill that he ends up spending a week in their bed. King is brilliant on the moral contradictions that propelled anthropological encounters with remote tribes — a volatile mix of liberal high-mindedness, stoicism, hubris and greed. “If I didn’t believe they shared my humanity entirely, I wouldn’t be here,” Nell tells Bankson loftily. “I’m not interested in zoology.” Yet she and Fen make clear to him that after the loathsome Mumbanyo, who practiced infanticide with clinical indifference, they require a tribe with more savory amenities — a pretty beach and good art. When Bankson visits the couple after they’ve installed themselves among the Tam, he laughs out loud at the sight of their house, with its portico and blue-and-white cloth curtains — “this English tea shop encircled by pampas grass in the middle of the Territories.”
Inside the house, Nell and Fen’s collaboration is dissolving in rancor, along with their marriage. Bankson’s presence temporarily defuses the tension, enabling first an uneasy détente, and then, in an episode King has adapted from Mead’s life, a collective frenzy: Over the course of one sleepless night, the three converge on a framework for mapping the whole of human culture, in all its variations. “We believed we were in the throes of a big theory. We could see our grid in chalk on university blackboards. It felt like we were putting a messy disorganized unlabeled world in order.”
So intense is this communal labor, and the thrill of new apprehension, that the physical romance that follows is almost beside the point. In any case, neither the love affair nor the theory is meant to be. (Mead never formally published her theory, which she called “the squares,” later writing of this period that “it was the closest I’ve ever come to madness.” In the novel, “the Grid” is published to acclaim, but after it is embraced in perverted form by the Third Reich, Bankson has it suppressed.) In King’s exquisite book, desire — for knowledge, fame, another person — is only fleetingly rewarded, and gratification is inseparable from self-deceit. As Nell observes about the moment, typically two months into fieldwork, when a culture suddenly begins to make sense, “It’s a delusion — you’ve only been there eight weeks — and it’s followed by the complete despair of ever understanding anything. But at that moment the place feels entirely yours. It’s the briefest, purest euphoria.”