Monday, April 20, 2015

Lily King reimagines Margaret Mead in ‘Euphoria’

EUPHORIA, Lily King’s prize winning novel, is luminous. Reading her lyrical language, her assured handling of technical material, and her evocative descriptions of the peoples and villages of New Guinea as Margaret Mead found them in 1933, produces, well, euphoria.

A brief period in which Mead, Reo Fortune (her second and then-husband), and Gregory Bateson (her eventual third husband) were simultaneously doing field work along the Sepik River provided the seed for the novel. But, as King herself has pointed out, the rest is fiction.

Nell Stone (the Margaret Mead character) is immensely attractive. She has a quick and fertile mind, is hard-working, and able to empathize with and insert herself into the lives of the people she studies. We see
her with children sitting on her lap, hugging her, playing games with her, teaching her their language, laughing, joking – while all the while she takes notes for later transcription. We see her visiting daily with the women of the village, observing, asking questions, participating in an erotic all-female ritual, learning, learning, and learning.

But then, there are the false notes. Having come to live among primitive tribes with a goal of not altering their ways (lest observations be skewed), she and her husband build a large English-style house in their midst, using village men as the builders and laborers. They hire several villagers to be their servants and, we are told, it takes two hundred porters to haul all the books, furniture and Western accouterments they have brought with them.

Nell has published a book on her previous field work (think Mead’s “Coming of Age in Samoa”) which has caused enormous controversy and brought her royalties, grants and fan mail. Her husband, “Fen,” also an anthropologist, has grown jealous and surly, and their collaboration (as well as their marriage) is faltering. We know he has broken her typewriter. There are hints he has broken her glasses and may have caused her physical harm as well. Certainly, he puts a lot of effort into verbal put-downs and sarcasm.

Enter Bankson, yet another anthropologist who has been doing field work for several years in a remote area. The attraction he feels for Nell, and she for him, is immediate and intense. It is both physical and intellectual: she awakens his long-buried love for his work. His thoughts and observations excite her. Fen isn’t happy.

Bateson, Mead and Fortune in 1933
Then, in one frenzied night, the three of them hit upon a theory for “mapping” all the countries of the world as well as the individual humans in them according to “characteristics.” Years later Bankson recalls, “It felt like we were putting a messy disorganized unlabeled world in order.”

What they are experiencing is euphoria as Nell has previously described it:

It’s that moment about two months in, when you think you’ve finally got a handle on the place. Suddenly it feels within your grasp. 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.

It is clear that King has done enormous research on the three anthropologists and their work, the questions they pondered, and their differing methodologies. A great deal of this information is threaded through the novel but it is in no way dry or didactic.

As Emily Eakin wrote in The New York Times (6/6/14):

‘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.

EUPHORIA won the Kirkus Prize for Fiction and the New England Book Award for Fiction and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. It was named a top 10 Fiction Book by the New York Times Book Review and a Best Book of 2014 by NPR. Her previous novels include Father of the Rain, The English Teacher and The Pleasing Hour. For more and to read King’s own “what really happened” note, see

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