Lily King, Euphoria
August 24, 2014 § Leave a comment
She rolled a pencil beneath her palm on the table and then she looked up at me. ‘Helen and I were lovers,’ she said.
‘Ah.’ This explained a few things.
She laughed at my ‘ah’ and told me they had met during Nell’s first anthropology class with Boas. Helen, a decade older, was his graduate assistant. Their connection was instant and though Helen was married with a house in White Plains, she stayed in the city many nights a week. She had encouraged Nell to go and study the Kirakira, but wrote her angry letters accusing Nell of abandoning her. They she surprised her by meeting the boat in Marseille with the news that she had left her husband.
‘But you had met Fen.’
‘I had met Men. And it was awful. Before Helen, I would have said that the desire to possess others is more male than female in our culture, but I think temperament comes into it.’ She tapped the pencil on our Grid.
‘Was she bread to you?’
She shook her head slowly. ‘People are always wine to me, never bread.’
‘Maybe that’s why you don’t want to possess them.’ (pp. 159-160, iPad iBooks e-edition)
When I began classes at the University of Tennessee in the early 1990s, I had the vague notion that I might complete a minor in Anthropology. Although I lacked a couple of classes of completing that by the time I graduated in 1996, I did enjoy the three classes that I did take in the field, especially the Cultural Anthropology class. Of particular interest to me as a cultural historian trainee was the value and perils of ethnologies, or the studies of particular cultural groups. One name that was repeatedly brought up was Margaret Mead and her pioneering work in New Guinea. Even then, she was a very controversial character. Her monographs on sexuality in New Guinea caused a firestorm of debate in early 20th century Anglo-American culture, where birth control could not be sent in the mail and the Comstock Laws were in full effect. What is known of her own life, her loves and passions, were also equally the stuff of legend and disdain, even into the present time.
In her first historical novel, acclaimed novelist Lily King takes a pivotal time in Mead’s personal and professional lives, an expedition in early 1930s New Guinea with her second and future third husbands, Reo Fortune and Gregory Bateson (Fen and Bankson in the novel), and she fictionalizes accounts of that fateful expedition in order to highlight not just the tensions between the characters, but also between the three’s Western perspectives and the cultural practices of the villagers they have been observing. Mead/Nell’s interactions are the driving force of King’s narrative and the convoluted dynamics of their relationships makes for an intriguing, sometimes fascinating read, even for those who are somewhat familiar with Mead’s personal life.
Euphoria is told via Bankson’s PoV, punctuated with entries from Nell’s journals. It is an effective storytelling mode, as it allows for a contrast of the deeply personal with the more antiseptic, clinical approach associated with observation journals. As the story shifts between these two poles, the reader manages to get a clearer impression of what is truly transpiring than if either one of the two narrative modes had dominated. Yet there are times where there is a bit of a bleed-over, as Bankson’s account of Nell’s initial pregnancy during the expedition takes on an odd mixture of theoretical views of sex with personal disappointment of the lack of fruitfulness in his own relations with her:
I walked down the men’s road. A cluster of pigs were muscling each other for a scrap of food beneath one of the houses and making a racket. There was very little light in the sky, but whether it was sunrise or dusk, I wasn’t sure anymore. I had been spun around by them. I was seven hours away from my work, and had been for who knew how many days. Nell was pregnant. She and Fen had made a baby. When I was with them it was easy to convince myself that she hadn’t fully made her choice yet. She played her part in that. Her eyes burned into mine when I had an idea she liked. She followed every word I said; she referred back. When I had written down Martin’s name on the graph she’d passed her finger over the letters. I felt in some ways we’d had some sort of sex, sex of the mind, sex of ideas, sex of words, hundreds and thousands of words, while Fen slept or shat or disappeared. But his kind of sex with her produced a baby. Mine was useless. (p. 161)
The plot depends more upon character interactions than upon external events to drive the narrative. The tension between the three anthropologists simmers before threatening to explode, making for a quick read for the majority of the time. Yet there is more than just character tension developing within the narrative. Nell’s journals, focused more on the people through which the three move, refers back to the historical Mead’s accounts of her time in New Guinea, replete with the then-shocking revelations about sexual relations and family-kinship connections. Those brief entries serve as a counterpoint to Bankson’s narrative, creating a multi-layered tale that works equally as a fictionalization of a key moment in a historical figure’s life and as a social commentary on how Mead’s views themselves perhaps have been superseded by subsequent ethnological research. Although there are a few places where Euphoria perhaps plays up the romantic tensions a bit too much, weakening the overall narrative in the process, on the whole it is a very solid effort, one that will encourage its readers to learn just a little bit more about the extraordinary anthropologist who inspired it.