Grove Press, 261 pages, 9780802123701
As an undergraduate, I read Margaret Mead’s seminal ethnographic work Coming of Age in Samoa. Even though it was already an “old” book (published in 1928), one of my takeaway points was that academic writing doesn’t have to be stultifying. I mention this because Lily King’s latest novel—based loosely, as in very loosely, on Mead—is a boring book. I suppose it’s something of an accomplishment to make one of the 20th century’s most fascinating people seem dull, but I doubt that was King’s intent.
Euphoria has been highly hyped and well reviewed, with Salon having pronounced it as an early favorite for the year’s best novel. Methinks the praise has come from reviewers too young (or too lazy) to learn much about Mead and are too eager to settle for a (semi) Cliff Notes look into her character. Although novelists are not biographers and are free to imagine what they wish, King’s decision to model her character Nell Stone upon Mead (1901-78) suggests she’s writing historical fiction. So too does her decision to make Stone famous and set the book among primitive New Guinea tribes. Don’t believe any of it, even though every major character in this book is tangentially based upon a real anthropologist—Schyler Fenwick is a stand-in for Mead’s second husband, Reo Fortune; Andrew Bankson is a paste-up of her third, Gregory Bateson; and Helen Benjamin is modeled after Mead’s mentor, Ruth Benedict. But this book isn't about anthropology; it's mostly a love triangle between Stone, Fen, and Bankson. To that end, King mostly mines biography for details that lend themselves to cheap psychological analyses or advancement of dodgy plot devices. For instance, “Fen” comes across as so intimidated by Nell’s scholarly fame that he has become insecure, lazy, vain, and cruel. He’s one part slacker, one part tyrant, and one part cuckold—hardly the sort of man who later evolved an important mathematical theory (Fortunate numbers). Bankson, by contrast, is so psychologically damaged from the deaths of his younger brothers that we wonder how he was capable of conducting research among fierce Kiona tribesmen, let alone woo the headstrong Stone.
In the novel, by the way, Nell’s lesbian relationship with Helen is presented as an acknowledged fact. This allows King to engage in some heavy-handed prefiguring of Stone’s work among Tam women—the name given to the gynocentric tribe she and Fen are studying—and to set up a homoerotic ritual later on. In life, a Mead/Benedict relationship remains speculative and, suffice it to say, the ritual King cribs is quite different in Mead’s ethnography. (Mead did have a lesbian relationship with anthropologist Rhoda Metraux, but this was after her marriage to Bateson dissolved.) But these contrivances are positively convincing compared to hints of Fen’s bisexuality and a subplot involving his desire to plunder a totemic flute from the Mumbanyo people. (Apply whatever Freudian reading you wish here.)
My objections to Euphoria are not based upon making Nell out to be sanctimonious or difficult—both adjectives were rightly applied to Ms. Mead—rather King’s larger sin of making Stone/Mead dishrag vulnerable and uninteresting. Although King touches upon bigger issues—Stone’s struggle to be an unconventional woman in a male-dominated society, the cultural arrogance of Western anthropology, the lingering question of what field researchers understood versus what they misconstrued—these, and New Guineans in general, are dealt with as exotic backdrops for Western jealousy, love, and lust. Do we really care about a triad involving an obsessed female researcher, an arrogant ne’er do well, and a lovesick sad sack? Let me put it this way: Would you volunteer to live among them? Euphoria left me with ennui. –Rob Weir