By Lily King
Atlantic Monthly Press: June 3, 2014
$25, 257 pages
With Euphoria, Lily King tells a compelling love story for mature, thinking adults. Set in the 1930’s, it follows the adventures of three anthropologists working in the Territory of New Guinea: American Nell Stone (loosely based on Margaret Mead), her Australian husband, Fenwick Schuyler (called Fen), and Andrew Bankson, an Englishman who has been working alone studying the Kiona tribe on the Sepik River. Nell and Fen have been studying the Mumbanyo tribe with little success and much frustration (as well as great risk to their own well-being) and decide to return to Australia.
The couple meets Bankson when they converge at the Government Station in Angoram. Bankson has been so despondent following two years of work with the Kiona that he attempts to drown himself, but fails, symptomatic of his efforts in general. He decides he needs time away, so he opts to spend Christmas downriver with some other ex-pats in Angoram.
The result, not surprisingly, is a love triangle among three very different and very complex people. The Stone-Schuyler marriage is troubled for several reasons: a miscarriage, professional jealousy, mutual self-absorption, the shadow of one of Nell’s earlier love affairs, and their drastically different approaches to their anthropological work. Bankson is personally and professionally lost. But his discussion of the Kiona and the other tribes along the Sepik River fascinates Nell and Fen, and they agree to return upriver, where Bankson will help find them a new tribe to study. The whole feels to them as if it were greater than the sum of its three parts.
Although Nell and Bankson are intrigued by each other from the start, the relationship remains platonic and professional as he observes her working methods, so different from his own. She has heard a great deal about him from Fen, but it doesn’t match the man in front of her. In her journal she writes, “But what was all the fuss about him anyway? If he was ever cold or arrogant or territorial, his 25 months with the Kiona must have knocked it out of him. Hard to believe the stories about the string of broken hearts he’s left back in England. Plus Fen says he’s a deviant. What I saw was a teetering, disheveled, unaccountably vulnerable bargepole of a man. A skyscraper beside me. I’m not sure I’ve seen such height and sensitivity paired before. Very tall men are so often naturally removed and distant.”
But Fen seems thrilled to have a friend only a few hours away by canoe, and Bankson feels rejuvenated by their presence, both personally and professionally.
Their relief in finding each other and their pleasure in each other’s company soon wanes and conflicts arise in nearly every aspect of their lives. Nell has published a book about her work, The Children of Kirakira, that breaks new ground with its narrative skill, making it the rare science book that is popular with the general public. When she gives it to Bankson, he reads it straight through, then again the next day. “It was the least academic ethnography I’d ever read, long on description and sweeping conclusions, short on methodical analysis….She wrote with an urgency most of us felt but did not have the courage to reveal, because we were too beholden to the traditions of the old sciences. 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.”
Fen feels overshadowed by his charismatic, intellectual celebrity of a wife, who acknowledges in her journal that “Once I published that book and my words became a commodity, something broke between us.”
Bankson falls in love with Nell, first as a professional admirer, then as a man who discovers he has a hidden romantic streak. Fen is not unaware, but he is preoccupied with a professional obsession that he takes pains to keep from the others.
While a plot summary can make Euphoria sound like a potboiler, it is actually a nuanced evocation of the intellectual fervor of single-minded people dedicated to understanding another culture. King’s measured prose maintains a placid surface while the plot percolates beneath.
In particular, King has given us a marvelous fictional creation in the character of Nell Stone, a feminist who makes her case with actions rather than words. She is fearless in simply living the life she wants to live. Writing in her journal, she confesses, “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. But the world is deaf. The world — and really I mean the West — has no interest in change or self-improvement and my role it seems to me on a dark day like today is merely to document these oddball cultures in the nick of time, just before Western mining and agriculture annihilates them. And then I fear that this awareness of their impending doom alters my observations, laces all of it with a morose nostalgia.” Nell is a thoroughly modern woman with a gift for prescience in her work, if not in her personal life.
As we observe Nell alternately at work and play, in and out of love, ecstatic and despondent about her professional and personal lives, we come to understand what makes this unusual woman tick and to fall under her spell just as first Fen and then Bankson have.
One of the most memorable scenes comes late in the novel when Nell and Bankson, who have a more compatible work style than Nell does with Fen, are typing up their research findings in Nell and Fen’s hut. “I loved the sound of our two typewriters,” writes Bankson. “It felt like we were in a band, making a strange sort of music. It felt like I was part of something, and that the work was important. She always made me feel that the work was important. And then her typewriter stopped and she was watching me. ‘Don’t stop,’ I said. ‘Your typing makes my brain work better.'” Euphoria depicts a meeting of the minds, not just the hearts, of two rare people.
The euphoria of the title refers to those rare moments when an anthropologist achieves a cultural breakthrough in his or her work. Nell describes it well when Bankson asks her the favorite part of her work.”It’s that moment about 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.” (Bankson laughs and tells her that “a good day for me is when no little boy steals my underwear, pokes it through with sticks, and brings it back stuffed with rats.”)
The novel’s title also refers to the even more moving experience of truly understanding another person from one’s own culture, that moment when you realize you are in love with someone new and your world seems to open up before you.
Euphoria is an absorbing and thought-provoking read. Like the long line of novels exploring journeys into uncharted territory on the map and in the heart, from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, Euphoria depicts the inexorable consequences of the encounter between intellectual ambition and romantic sensibility.