Ignore the Hype: The Novel Euphoria Isn't

Lily King
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           


Jabob Lawrence Migration Series at MOMA Not to Be Missed

One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series and Other Works
Museum of Modern Art (New York City)
Through September 7, 2015

The theory of relativity works for history as well as physics; that is, the nature of reality depends upon the position of the observer. For white Americans, World War One conjures stories of the Argonne Forest, Belleau Wood, and the Marne; World War II inspires narratives of Monte Cassino, Normandy, Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima. Not so for African Americans—the U.S. military was segregated until 1948. Although nearly a half million black men served during the two world wars, those numbers are small potatoes when compared to the real mobilization during wartime: the Great Migration––the movement of 6.6 million African Americans from the South to the North. Among those observing the Great Migration was black artist Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000), whose 1941 Migration Series remains one of the most vivid depictions of America's greatest voluntary internal population shift. (By way of contrast, just 500,000 Americans took part in Westward-bound wagon train sojourns between 1843-69.)

A new show at New York's Museum of Modern Art reunites for the first time in decades all 60 of the panels Lawrence painted to document the Great Migration. It is at once an audacious and poignant show—audacious because Lawrence was just 21 when he undertook the project, and poignant because he pulled no punches about why African Americans left the South, the promise of the North, or the disappointments that accompanied the occasional joys. The why was simple: Jim Crow, lynching, exploitation of black labor, and everyday indignities. Lawrence had a gift for vivid understatement. For instance, he represented the poverty of Southern blacks with a sparse scene of a man and woman staring down at their bare table and an empty fry pan hanging from the wall. To show the backbreaking labor to which children were subjected, he borrowed from ancient Egyptian art to show uneducated youngsters as so many hod carriers for an unseen white pharaoh.

When war created employment opportunities, black men and women flocked to rail lines headed north. In one panel, Lawrence drives home the theme of flight by juxtaposing a mass of black bodies headed in the same direction as an overhead pride of crows. Northern cities dazzled and intimidated, as one can see in a blocky riot of colorful tenements worthy of Mondrian.
But even at 21, Lawrence knew the downside; he chronicled race riots in Chicago and East St Louis to remind viewers that racism was alive and well north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Nor did he shy away from calling out black snobbery, such as fashionable veterans of the Harlem Renaissance (1918-36) who saw newly arrived southerners more as flotsam than as kindred spirits.

In the end, though, think of the contrast between then Egyptian-like hod carriers and Lawrence's touching portrayal of three girls doing math on a school blackboard. Call it the end of ignorance, which is so often the beginning of defiance. It is instructive to consider that Lawrence's Migration Series came the same year A. Philip Randolph threatened to mobilize a black march on Washington, D.C. and forced President Roosevelt to ban discrimination in the defense industry. Many historians (including me) see that as a key moment in launching the modern civil rights movement.  

For his part, Jacob Lawrence went on to become one of the 20th century's most important black artists, and one who produced other works depicting black history. He is sometimes identified as a Harlem Renaissance painter, though its energy was nearly spent by the time Lawrence's family moved from Atlantic City to Harlem in 1930. But to remind us of other ways in which politics and culture intersect, the MOMA exhibit also includes poetry from Langston Hughes, book jackets from Richard Wright books, Depression Era photographs, and a terrific corridor where one can rest whilst listening to selections from now-iconic black musicians such as Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Lead Belly, and Paul Robeson. Want to know what the Great Migration brought? Watch the 1959 video of Billie Holliday singing "Strange Fruit," and you'll figure it out really fast.

Do not miss this exhibit if you're anywhere near the Big Apple between now and September. Observe Jacob Lawrence's world. –Rob Weir


Arts & Entertainment Novel Makes Warhol Look Like a Prophet

Christopher Beha
Ecco, 288 pages, 978-0062322463
* * * ½

In 1968, Andy Warhol remarked, “In the future everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.” What seemed trite then seems prescient in the age of reality television, media confessionals, game shows, instant news, the Internet, and marketers whose sole purpose is to generate buzz. Audiences for shows such as The Voice and American Idol birth a new star every week and command it to supernova the next. Christopher Beha’s breezy novel Arts and Entertainments is a topical comedy that takes on this world. It’s based on a consideration of what might happen if a person got trapped in an autobiographical reality television (RT) show he could neither control nor exit.

Enter Eddie Hartley, a guy so striking in appearance that even street bums call him “Handsome Eddie.” He’s the kind of guy who looks good on stage and screen so, naturally, he became an actor. The problem was that Eddie was a terrible thespian. Even his wife, Susan, says so and Eddie knows it’s true. That’s why he gave up performance to teach acting at the private New York City Catholic school in which he was once a student. At age 33, Eddie is years removed from the spotlight and nearly broke. There’s no way he and Susan can afford the expensive fertility treatments she hopes can bring a child into their marriage. About the only thing Eddie has going for him is that lots of people know he once lived with actress Martha Martin, who is definitely the media buzz girl of the moment. She’s so gorgeous (and ubiquitous) that horn dogs Google her hoping to find naked photos of her glorious body. There aren’t, but there are lots of people who’d pay a lot of money to get their mitts on one. As it so happens, Eddie and Martha made a sex tape early in their relationship. This, as we know, won’t end well!

Eddie’s compromised morals bring him cash, but the rest of his life spirals out of control when Susan is outraged. Or should I say recruited? She throws Eddie out and options her marital discord to a RT company that follows her every movement. Before Eddie knows what hit him, he’s camera fodder as well; he’s the bum in Susan’s RT melodrama. Martha’s as well. Even worse, Eddie is inside a story he doesn’t write, approve, produce, or direct, so the only thing he can think of to do is to join the RT team and hope he can bend the story to his advantage. But once he does this, how can Eddie tell what’s real and what’s TV? Where’s the off ramp?

Beha’s novel is the classic one-trick pony, but it’s the kind of horse you can’t stop watching—just like those trashy RT shows we write off as “guilty pleasures.” There are all sorts of ways one could interpret this book, the most obvious of which is self-reflection on the question of what any one of us would trade for fame. Another would be to drag out your undergrad Philosophy 101 notes and brush up on Parmenides, Kant, Descartes, and all those other folks who wrestled with big ontological questions. Or we could put on a Lit Crit hat and note that Beha’s conversational style isn’t exactly Steinbeck-like in majesty or command of prose. But any attempt to intellectualize this book misses the point: it’s supposed to be shallow. How weighty can one get in a zero gravity culture? Next up: Two miracles are attributed to Andy Warhol and he is proclaimed a saint.  Rob Weir