Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Wednesday, April 23, 2014: Maximum Shelf: Euphoria


Grove Atlantic: Euphoria by Lily King

Grove Atlantic: Euphoria by Lily King

Grove Atlantic: Euphoria by Lily King

Grove Atlantic: Euphoria by Lily King

Euphoria

by Lily King

Lily King (Father of the Rain) renders three young anthropologists in 1930s' New Guinea with nuance, tenderness and charming ambiguity in Euphoria. King draws on the life of Margaret Mead and her relationships with her second and third husbands (Reo Fortune and Gregory Bateson, respectively), but the novel is only loosely based on their lives and work.

Nell Stone is an American, and has recently written a book that is receiving much attention for its controversial subject matter: the sex lives of children in the Solomon Islands. She is an up-and-coming young anthropologist being talked about around the world; when we meet her, she is just emerging from a year and a half in the field in New Guinea, alongside her husband, Fen. Fen is Australian, overbearing and decidedly threatened by Nell's success, as fame and glory as an anthropologist have so far eluded him.

When Nell and Fen come out of the field,  at a party they meet fellow anthropologist Andrew Bankson. He is fresh off a failed suicide attempt, haunted by the deaths of his two brothers and unable to find himself in either his native England or the tribal communities he studies. Bankson is lonely and attracted to the couple, and suggests that he establish them with unstudied "natives" nearby his own fieldwork; he wants to keep them as his friends and neighbors.

The three form an unlikely triangle of mixed alliances. Nell and Fen, for all their disharmony, share a history and an intimacy the loner Bankson can't pierce. But Nell and Bankson achieve a singular connection of the minds: they inspire each other, each stimulating the other's best work. With Fen's sensitivity over and resentment of Nell's talents, this is a dangerous but intoxicating symbiosis, a cerebral union that is sensual and nearly sexual. Bankson is, in fact, rather in love with both Nell and Fen. The two men establish their own bonds as well, when Fen nurses Bankson through a malarial fever. It is a love triangle, but also an intellectual one, and shadows the perceptions of each anthropologist about the tribes they live amongst. They already have very different approaches: Nell has loved, ever since she was a small child, exploring other worlds so that she can come back and tell her family, friends and now colleagues about her adventures; for her, the joy is in the description and the homecoming, but she also has a knack for integrating herself into a new culture. Fen, it seems, would rather become a tribesman than study or write about the tribes. Bankson struggles to participate, but is more inclined to observation--his background is in the natural sciences. As he writes, "I was raised on Science as other people are raised on God, or gods, or the crocodile."

Lily King makes an interesting decision in choosing Bankson as her narrator, as he is the most isolated of the three, spending much of his energy in observing not only the tribal peoples he is meant to study, but also Nell and Fen. That the story of these three characters is told from the perspective of his outsider status means that the reader, too, is forever peeking in and around corners, hoping for more information. Nell's voice is heard through journal entries eventually sent to Bankson by another old friend and possible love interest of Nell's, but she remains tantalizingly difficult to access. The tension of this desire to know Nell better is central to Euphoria, for Bankson and for the reader.

King raises broader questions as well, as each anthropologist's individual approach to his or her work is troubling in its own way. The tribal communities of the fictional Kiona, Mumbanyo, and Tam peoples invite consideration about the fields and methods of anthropology and ethnology. The Tam women, who do the trading and the artistry in their community, inspire Nell's growing ideas about traditional gender roles, a stance that (predictably) does not sit well with the irritable Fen. Margaret Mead is known not only for her writings and work in anthropology, but also as a feminist thinker; in King's hands, the Tam culture inspires the beginning of Nell's own feminist development. As Bankson gravitates toward Nell's empathetic and involved relationship with the Tam, Fen is planning a serious cultural crime, which will precipitate the final denouement. (The life stories of Nell, Fen and Bankson are quite different from their historical counterparts Mead, Fortune and Bateson, so there are no spoilers for readers familiar with that history.)

Euphoria is a masterpiece of dreamy, lyrical, sensuous writing and evocation of a sometimes frighteningly exotic New Guinea. Readers can expect to be enchanted by the setting, inspired by the free-spirited Nell, challenged by the question of respectful participant observation, angered by certain of the characters' actions and teased by the sexual tension. As a bonus, the beautiful cover of Euphoria features the striking rainbow gum tree that figures in the plot of this remarkable novel. --Julia Jenkins

Atlantic Monthly Press, $25, hardcover, 9780802122551

Grove Atlantic: Euphoria by Lily King


Lily King: Feeling the Truth

photo: Laura Lewis

Lily King grew up in Manchester, Mass. She received her B.A. in English Literature from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and her M.A. in Creative Writing from Syracuse University. She has taught English and creative writing at several universities and high schools in the U.S. and abroad. Her three previous novels are The Pleasing Hour, The English Teacher and Father of The Rain. Her short fiction has appeared in literary magazines including Ploughshares and Glimmer Train, as well as in several anthologies. King is the recipient of a MacDowell Fellowship and the Whiting and PEN/Hemingway Awards, among others. She lives with her husband and children in Maine.

Presumably even this "loosely based" work required research into the field of anthropology and Mead's life. Did you have any background to begin with? Did you enjoy this research?

It required a ton of research and no, I had zero background in anthropology or ethnology, not even one anthropology course in college! Like many writers, though, I have always felt like an extremely amateur and untrained anthropologist in the world, observing the huge, crazy mysteries of human behavior and writing it all down in novels.

On the one hand, you enjoy the research because it's not writing, which is much harder, but on the other hand you miss writing miserably and feel like a part of you is dead. I had so much to learn before I could start, but because I always knew the book would be fiction, I didn't want to get too attached to any one detail or fact. I read a lot of books at a squint, taking notes but always letting my imagination in on it, writing more notes on what could happen than what did happen, but at the same time trying to absorb all the information in some visceral way so that it felt like personal experience I could draw from when I started writing. And it was hard to know when to start writing. There was always, always more to read, more to learn. When I finally decided it was time, the research loomed over me. But once I wrote the first scene, I felt it become my story, and all that information became useful, not threatening.

What makes Margaret Mead such a good subject for this work? And when did you know you wanted to write about her?

I stumbled into the novel by reading a biography of Margaret Mead nine years ago and coming across this one short chapter about when she was way up this river in Papua New Guinea with her second husband and she met her third. She fell in love hard and fast in this completely isolated environment. She believed in an open marriage, what she called "polygamy," and her husband did not, but she was very honest about her feelings and the whole thing, combined with the heat and mosquitoes and malarial fevers, was just a wild mess. So of course I thought, what a fantastic novel that would make. For a long time I didn't believe that I would actually write it. But I kept going out and getting books about them and by them and taking notes and getting ideas while at the same time thinking: I cannot write this novel. I cannot write a novel about a love triangle between anthropologists in Papua New Guinea in 1933. It was preposterous. But I couldn't seem to stop myself, either.

How did the writing of Euphoria differ from your three previous novels?

With the first three, I was able to just start writing. Each of them required a little detour to the library for something, but usually not until I was deep in, after the first draft had been written. But for this one I didn't even write a sentence for a year after I got the idea. I was working on my novel Father of the Rain while reading everything I could get my hands on about Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson and Reo Fortune. And when I got that first sentence--four sentences, actually--in a coffee shop, I didn't write anything else for several more years. That little cluster of sentences, though, helped me feel I could write the rest someday. They are the words that open the book still and are not much changed from when I scribbled them down at the back of a notebook in that coffee shop. That was very different. With the other books, once I got the first sentences I kept going for fear the initial vision would cloud over and vanish.

Euphoria is told in first person by Bankson, who is the outsider in his own tale. This gives the reader a somewhat restrained perspective. How did you decide to tell it this way? Did you toy with giving Nell her own voice?

That's an excellent question. The plan all along was for it to be told from Nell's point of view. It was supposed to be her story entirely. And it did start that way. But after I wrote the first chapter, I realized I needed the reader to feel what was going on with Bankson, the man she is about to meet and fall in love with, so I wrote that next chapter from his perspective. It surprised me how much closer I was able to get to him, and so quickly, how I was able to get inside him in a way that I was not inside her. This is something that all the planning and plotting of a book can't anticipate. I knew I was a bit in love with him even before I started writing, so I thought it would be so easy to write from Nell's perspective about falling for him. I just never expected to identify with him so closely, sort of fuse with him. But once I did, I realized it was his story. I denied this for a while, actually, and tried to write the book from all three points of view, but apart from Nell's journal entries, Bankson claimed the whole thing in the end.

How important is historical accuracy in fiction? How faithfully does your novel follow the historical record?

Fiction is called fiction for a reason. While I used what I read about a particular moment in the life of Margaret Mead as a springboard, I felt absolutely no allegiance to historical accuracy when it didn't work within the story I was trying to tell. Some of Euphoria is historically accurate, but not because I forced it to be, just because those elements were useful to me. They inspired me. I love history and I love reading about history and I treasure what little I know about our past on this earth, but a novel is not where I go for facts. A novel is where I want to feel the truth. Sometimes you need facts to get at the truth; more often you need your own voice and vision. --Julia Jenkins


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