Reading Books — Euphoria

Euphoria, Lily King, 2014, Atlantic Monthly Press

Great mix of anthropology, suspense, and male guileless

This review is dated September 17, 2014.

The publication of this book coincided with my recent interest in Anthropology and hence my reading of it was more pleasurable than it would otherwise be. I do recommend anyone attempting this book to do some reading on basic tenets of anthropology of indigenous tribes. Some preliminary background makes this even more fun to read.

It would also be useful to learn a little bit about Margaret Mead, an American anthropologist who became famous during the interwar years, before sitting down with this book. Good news is that this is predominantly fiction! It is based on the life of Margaret Mead, appearing here as Nell Stone, but does not trace out her entire life story, probably a wise decision by Lily King.  The male characters Fen, the dark-hearted Aussie, and Bankson, the gentlemanly Brit, are based on Margaret Mead’s real life husbands. I like the idea of changing the arc of life in a biographical fiction, as in this case, as it grips the reader not only from “How?” angle, but also from the “What?” angle.

My sense was that the novel was somewhat truncated after Chapter 28. One could debate whether the novel had enough momentum left at that point to continue on in the civilized world. Perhaps the quick wrap-up of characters’ lives in the remaining chapters was a good way to satisfy some readers’ curiosity and also keep the novel at a commercially attractive length.

There is a fair amount of authentic-sounding detail about the work habits of anthropologists and their life among indigenous tribes.  However, I did not know what to make of the bits that seemed a bit forced.  On page 182, we get a description of “scarification,” a ritual to make cuts to the initiate’s body and infect them with salt to get a crocodile like skin features, and Bankson’s reactions to it: “I had seen dozens of sacrifications, but it does not get any easier.” Well, perhaps this bit tells us a bit more about the tribe, reinforces Bankson’s humanistic outlook, and help complete the portrait of an anthropologist.  Perhaps these are useful bits, do we absolutely have to have psychoanalytic backgrounds attached to all characters? Does that enrich them, or trivialize their pursuits?

The narrative point of view alternating between Nell and Bankson propels the story forward at a good clip, while reaching back to characters’ formative years. It is a bit over the top to learn on page 107 that Nell, “as a little girl in bed at night, when other girls were wishing for ponies or roller skates, wished for a band of gypsies to climb up into her window and take her away with them to teach her their language and their customs…. She would tell her family all about these people.”  Bankson’s science oriented family putting pressure on the siblings, and the elder brother being killed in the Great War, sound a bit canned. We are also given the background of Bankson’s failed suicide, perhaps following in the footsteps of his other brother, in an exquisite paragraph where his native rescuers either have no concept of suicide or never suspect it “The stones are beautiful, but leave them on land before you swim. And do not swim in clothes. This is also dangerous. And do not swim alone. Being alone you will only come to harm.”  Later in the book, when Bankson mentions his failed suicide attempt to Nell, he gets no reaction from her. In a way, Bankson commits scientific suicide by getting swept into Nell’s paradigm, but she is as helpful to him on that front as the natives who rescued Bankson from his real suicide attempt.

Fen’s background is related to us through his musings over an outwardly subconscious Bankson. We learn about his family’s incestuous entrapment of his younger sister by his band of brothers: ….. These traumas of his past, come to explain his violent streak! Nell thinks that “Fen didn’t want to study natives; he wanted to be a native. His attraction to anthropology was not to puzzle out the history of humanity… It was to live without shoes and eat from his hands and fart in public.” Yet, Fen is openly contemptuous of Nell’s book’s success and also materially ambitious as he arranges a raid to steal the one and only “writing” sample of indigenous tribes. Whether real or imaginary, but Fen takes his place among theoretically open-minded men who cannot bear the success of their spouses.

The brewing conflict between Bankson and Fen never blows into open, the two men remain collegial to each other.

What about Nell? Does she jump out of the pages of the novel? She makes a grand entrance as the wounded warrior, fearless, and selfless. Nonetheless, we see the ambition as she rejects the nearby tribes, and hence the safe harbor Bankson offers for her. We see that Nell has the courage to seek the next, never taking comfort in what she has at hand. We hear her assessment:  “I love that Amy Lowell poem when I first read it, how her lover was like red wine at the beginning and then became bread. But that has not happened to me. My loves remain wine to me, yet I become too quickly bread to them.”  So what are we to make of her sailing away with Fen after Fen had shown his naked ambitions, after she had slept with Bankson? Having learned that she had ditched her earlier lover, Helen, for Fen, and her desire to remain wine to her loves, what do we make of her departure with Fen, leaving Bankson behind? Was she trying to be evasive to avoid being turned into Bankson’s bread? Or was it a re-enactment of the post-conflict separation of the warrior parties, as the winner leaves with the trophy, the vanquished cry out: “Go. Go to your beautiful dance, your beautiful ceremonies. And we will buy our dead.” Could it be that Nell felt like a victor, her methodologies having unearthed a rare, female-dominated society and Fen found his proof of writing, with Bankson as the vanquished, left alone with his ineffective genealogies?

Nell’s tragic decision was perhaps linked to her earlier comments on the indigenous people: “They know their ancestors have a plan for them. There’s no sense that it was wrong. Tragedy is based on this sense that there’s been a terrible mistake.”

Perhaps that is reading too much into it. Perhaps my efforts to read more into it is the discomfort of observing the novel’s central character to remain the same, almost inert despite whatever happens around her.  In both Fen and Bankson, we observe significant tectonic shifts in character, yet Nell remains almost numb to what is happening around her. Although she is advertised as the change agent, she herself remains steady, almost boringly predictable. Always charging forward, nagging, and haggling to get what she wants, either a piece of information or a baby.

In the real life, Margaret Mead’s descriptions of a female-dominated society had been mostly discredited: her evidence could not be replicated. In the novel, Nell vanishes with her myths as well.