A while ago I introduced the idea that novels about anthropologists are always good. This judgment was based on my love for Norman Rush’s Mating and Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow and Children of God, but it was quickly disproved by Hanya Yanigihara’s The People in the Trees. Nevertheless, this theory is still fun to test. In a way, any fiction writer is an anthropologist, as long as their work is at least partly character driven, and introducing an anthropologist as a protagonist adds a level of irony and “meta”-ness to the novel.
The protagonist of Euphoria is Andy Bankson, who became an anthropologist by default when his father and two older brothers died and he needed a refuge from his clingy mother. Where better than New Guinea? In chapter 1, however, we don’t know that Andy is the protagonist – because the focus in this chapter is a married couple named Fen and Nell. They are barely speaking to one another, and Nell is covered with painful lesions. These details make it necessary for the reader to become an anthropologist too, but readers are always anthropologists, I suppose – at least if they are paying attention. The opening paragraphs are dynamite:
“As they were leaving the Mumbanyo, someone threw something at them. It bobbed a few yards from the stern of the canoe. A pale brown thing.
‘Another dead baby,’ Fen said.
He had broken her glasses by then, so she didn’t know if he was joking” (1).
All kinds of mysteries there, no? A fantastic novel for how a novel should begin. I’ve read 37% of the book, and I still don’t know exactly what happened with the Mumbanyo. Of the two, Nell seems to be the one whose heart is most fully active in her work. She longs to know everything there is to know about every remote tribe she encounters. Later in chapter 1, she worries about “all the people she was missing, the tribes she would never know and words she would never hear, the worry that they might right now be passing the one people she was meant to study, a people whose genius she would unlock, and who would unlock hers, a people who had a way of life that made sense to her” (8). Of course it’s clear that the “tribe” she really needs to study is her own. An American, Nell came to New Guinea because she wrote a book about sexual activity among children in the Solomon Islands, and now the American public is scandalized. Now, this book is set in the 1930’s, in spite of the fact that it doesn’t feel like the ‘30’s, and I will try to have a better explanation of why it doesn’t feel like the ‘30’s the next time I post – but my impression of the 1930’s American public is generally heavier on the Little Orphan Annie decoder rings and lighter on the widespread reading of anthropological field notes – but perhaps I am missing something. Anyway, the American public is scandalized, so Nell is in New Guinea looking for the tribe that will somehow become her destiny.
As for Fen, he is tortured and angsty and a bit of a dick. He initiates sex with the words “Time to procreate!” The narrator (i.e. Andy Bankson, though we don’t know that yet) reflects that “[Fen] didn’t like [Nell] strong, nor did he like her weak. Many months ago he’s grown tired of sickness and sores. When his fever rose, he took forty-mile hikes. When he had a thick white worm growing beneath the skin of his leg, he cut it out with a penknife” (10).
Andy Bankson knows about all of this because he is hiding behind a Christmas tree, watching Fen and Nell interact. He knows Fen from the past, though we don’t know when or where. Nell asks Fen if Andy is the one who stole his butterfly net, and Fen tells her to shut up. After a paragraph about Nell drinking champagne at a “governor’s station” in New Guinea, King gives us a page break and then the point of view shifts to the first person. The paragraph before the page break is this: “She took a glass from a tray held out to her. On the other side of the room, beyond the tray and the arm of the Taway man who held it, she saw a man beside the tree, a man quite possibly taller than the tree, touching the branch with his fingers” (12). After the page break, the chapter concludes: “Without her glasses, my face would have been little more than a pinking smudge among many, but she seemed to know it was me as soon as I lifted my head” (12). And voila, the narrator.
Andy Bankson is clearly an unreliable narrator, though I’m not sure exactly how. There is something very familiar about the chapters that flash back to his childhood – his saintly oldest brother John, his poetic suicidal brother Martin, his science-obsessed father, and his neurotic mother all living in a huge house passed down through the generous and packed to the gills with scientific instruments. I don’t know what the familiar quality is, exactly: essence of the DeLuce family in Alan Bradley’s Flavia DeLuce novels, with a soupçon of Isherwood’s A Meeting by the River and – I don’t know, maybe a tincture of Evelyn Waugh and a certain Kate Atkinson je ne sais quoi and some heady overtones of the “Frobisher” sections of Cloud Atlas? I don’t know. Maybe I’ve just read so many novels that some of them seem familiar not because they are but because of the law of averages. Homo sapiens can be an awfully repetitive species.
Anyway, Andy falls in love with Nell. There is another figure named Helen, with whom Andy exchanges letters and who seems to know Nell as well, but I haven’t figured out how she’s connected to everyone else. In its premise, this novel reminds me a lot of Rush’s Mating (which I plan to reread soon, by the way): highly intelligent female American anthropologist adrift in unfamiliar tribal setting, complicated relationship with difficult man, a willingness to explore the complexities of love without worrying too much about explaining them. So far I suspect that this novel will not execute this premise as well as Rush did in Mating, though I would be happy to be proven wrong.
P.S. I promise that I will never again use the word “soupçon.” Let this rainbow be a symbol of our covenant. And also this woman in a windbreaker singing “YMCA” alone in a field.