By Lily King
Atlantic Monthly Press
It doesn't take big events or historical movements for individuals to feel they don't understand the rest of the human race. People are rather curious creatures, after all, prone to actions that seem counter-intuitive, endeavors that seem hopeless or cruel, emotions that appear more at home in left field than in the heart.
These things happen every day, from the normally cheerful person who one day scowls at everyone to the oddball actions drivers take on the road.
And they happen to all sorts of people. That's one of the graces of Lily King's Euphoria. It's a novel inspired by Margaret Mead, her second husband Reo Fortune and her future husband Gregory Bateson, all anthropologists who were involved in a love triangle and professional collaboration while researching in Papua New Guinea. These highly intelligent people who are trained to observe others do some of the damnedest things.
The characters in King's novel, which was short-listed for the National Book Award, resemble what is easily found via Google search about the real people. Reo Fortune, Mead's husband when the three met, appears jealous of his wife. He tried to discredit his wife's work after their divorce. Nell, like Mead, makes a name for herself writing her observations of the gender and sexual roles of women and children.
It's easy to see that the characters Bankson and Nell are going to fall for each other. And it's easy to see that Fen feels jealous and yet wants to keep an unsteady equilibrium going. The physical and emotional aspects of the novel are probably paramount to most readers. And boy, does King ever deliver. Despite the somewhat clumsy set-up to the romantic climax, the emotions are genuine and bittersweet is the prominent tone. That there is delicate storytelling following a narrative fascinated with graphic swapping of traditional Western culture sexual and gender roles is something unexpected and all the more powerful for it.
Nell describes the moment when an anthropologist gets the feeling that she is at the right place doing the right thing. What she says applies to a relationship between two people as well:
It's that moment 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.
King's Nell and Fen, married anthropologists who run into Bankson, another professional in their fairly new field, don't have the same outcome as the real people.
It's their feelings, professional ideas and aspirations, and, by implication as the work of all literary writers is, the wider ramifications of what these things tell us about human beings, that are more important to King's work than rehashing of old scandalous acts.
In the respect of looking at individuals to reach a conclusion about a group, the work of a novelist and an anthropologist are similar. King noted this in an interview with Vogue. It's something I noted when first reading Barbara Pym; many of the characters in her novels are involved with anthropology or fascinated by anthropologists. They study each other and it's quite obvious many times that they belong to different tribes, just as Nell, Fen and Bankson belong to different tribes. Their professional work is an attempt to differentiate people and subsets of people into larger groupings.
"We tell ourselves stories in order to live," wrote Joan Didion. We also tell ourselves stories to make sense of the world and, often, to try to bring order to it. Putting people into categories or tribes is one way to do that.
That word "tribes" in and of itself can provoke a squeamish reaction. Just who are any of us to be studying others as if they were inferior? In King's novel, Fen obviously regards the peoples he studies as inferior. Nell is the character who acts most like someone who believes in equality, and yet as a woman in 1930s Western culture she is not treated with equality. Early on, she says that "For me, other people are the point." She lives as she thinks.
As Nell writes in her journal:
Who are we and where are we going? Why are we, with all our 'progress,' so limited in understanding & sympathy & the ability to give each other real freedom? ...I think above all else it is freedom I search for in my work, in these far-flung places, to find a group of people who give each other the room to be in whatever way they need to be. And maybe I will never find it all in one culture but maybe I can find parts of it in several cultures, maybe I can piece it together like a mosaic and unveil it to the world.
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