We think of Margaret Mead --- if we think of her at all --- as the Julia Child of anthropology. Square of jaw. Hair cut with bangs, like a five-year-old. Wire rims. More a scholar than a woman.
We forgot that Mead was a vocal supporter of sexual experimentation in adolescence, women’s rights, the legalization of marijuana. And that, in 1933, her intellectual and personal life converged in an experience a lot more daring than most of us have known. Mead and her second husband were doing fieldwork on the Sepik River in New Guinea when they met English anthropologist Gregory Bateson. Their time together was electrifying. Bateson became her third husband.
Lily King has taken this high-octane collaboration and turned it into an intellectual romance novel. That makes it sound academic, a yawn: anthropologists in heat. Yes, it’s that. There are field reports, letters, and scenes of high drama in which the characters talk animatedly and then someone types. Sometimes there are even two people typing.
"[F]or most of the novel it’s as if you’re taking the most fascinating anthropology course ever taught --- and, after class, over drinks, the rule-breaker of a professor tells you what she’s been up to with her colleagues."
But the effect is hallucinatory --- this is a trip of a novel. My shirt wasn’t soaked with sweat as I read, I wasn’t brushing insects out of my hair, and yet I felt I was upriver with King’s stand-ins for Mead, her husband and Bateson. I’m always delighted when I hit page 256 of a novel and read THE END, but especially so with EUPHORIA. Simply, I was drained. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here. For the Audible audio book, click here.]
The novel begins with a bang. Literally. Married anthropologists Nell Stone and Schuyler Fenwick are just setting off in a canoe when someone throws a “pale brown thing” at them. “Another dead baby,” Fen says matter-of-factly. It’s a relief when they arrive back in “civilization” and, at a Christmas party, run into Andrew Bankson, an anthropologist who is studying the most interesting tribe on this part of the river.
Nell and Fen don’t know what Bankson tells the reader: “Three days earlier, I’d gone to the river to drown myself.” He gloms onto the young anthropologists like a Kardashian attaching itself to a cameraman wearing a suit made of money. “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.” And so Bankson arranges for Nell and Fen to live with a tribe just seven hours from his camp. Seven hours? Only because he’s got a motor on his canoe.
Think he’ll stay away?
“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.”
In her marriage, Nell is the star. She’s written a bestselling book and her husband hasn’t. But their relationship isn’t equal. Fen claims the most interesting parts of the research. He doesn’t share. He has an agenda. In a word, it would be as productive to study her marriage as it would be to delve into the customs of the “natives.”
And here’s Bankson: tall, British, connected, accomplished, brimming with ideas. His arrival at Nell and Fen’s camp is a change agent --- erotic, scholarly, violent change. Everything you think will happen happens. And more.
What does the title mean? It’s an observation Nell makes about doing research. “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.”
This book is like that. It goes off the rails at the end, and along the way there’s a dead patch or two, but for most of the novel it’s as if you’re taking the most fascinating anthropology course ever taught --- and, after class, over drinks, the rule-breaker of a professor tells you what she’s been up to with her colleagues.
Hot stuff. In every way.
Reviewed by Jesse Kornbluth on July 25, 2014