I ended up enjoying Euphoria quite a lot. Once I got used to the quirks of the narrative voice (more on that in a moment), I found that this novel follows a classic love-triangle plot, though in a way it’s more of a love rectangle if one factors in a fourth character who is never on the page – and in a way it’s also a love pentagon if you factor in –
Never mind. How about if I just tell you the story?
Fen, Nell, and Bankson are all anthropologists studying native tribes in New Guinea. Fen and Nell are married. They met on an ocean liner, where Nell was already engaged in a love affair with a woman named Helen. One of the moments the novel keeps swooping back to is the moment Nell chose Fen over Helen. Helen had just made the agonizing decision to leave her husband for Nell, but Nell ended up choosing Fen, and her memory of leaving Helen alone on the quai in Marseilles haunts Nell throughout the novel. Complicating this situation is the fact that shortly before he boarded the ship, Fen took a love potion prepared for him by a medicine man in the tribe he had been studying. The idea that Fen somehow “trapped” Nell into rejecting Helen and marrying him is one of many elephants in the proverbial room in their marriage.
Andy Bankson, who helps Fen and Nell find a new tribe to study after the disastrous end to their time with the Mumbanyo, has come to New Guinea to hide out from his overbearing, grief-stricken mother, who lost both her husband, Bankson’s father, and her other two sons within the space of a couple of years. Bankson lost these family members too, and he is haunted by his loss and also by the terrible isolation he feels at being so far from home. He meets Nell when she is ill, miserable, covered with lesions, and at odds with Fen. At this point, Nell and Fen are planning to leave New Guinea and go back to Sydney, Fen’s hometown. Bankson helps find them a new tribe – the Tam – to study, and they do become very attached to the Tam and grateful for Bankson’s help. And then Bankson falls in love with Nell, and Nell falls in love with Bankson. And Fen falls in love with Bankson too – or at least he kisses him passionately on one occasion and no one ever mentions it again (which is how gay relationships worked in the ‘30’s, right?)
And speaking of the ‘30’s – I mentioned in my earlier post that this novel and its narrative voice never felt authentically situated in the early 20th century. On the one hand, as it is written right now, the 1930’s is this novel’s perfect setting. First of all, the science of anthropology was quite new in the ‘30’s; Fen, Nell, and Bankson are part of the second generation of anthropologists, having studied under the pioneers in the field. Lily King mentions in her acknowledgements that Nell’s character is loosely based on Margaret Mead. It’s true that anthropologists in the 1930’s could feel a bit “ahead of their time” compared to their compatriots. As a woman with an advanced degree, Nell certainly might have seemed different from other women of her era. But still – there is something fishy about the way this novel is situated in time.
(I did find one clear anachronism: at one point, Nell refers to something as “harmless as the Hokey Pokey.” That reference set off my Spidey Senses, so I googled “the history of the Hokey Pokey” – honestly, the things I do for you people! – and learned that the Hokey Pokey was “composed” [yes, composed is the exact word Wikipedia used to describe the genesis of the Hokey Pokey] in 1942 by a gentleman named Al Tabor. So HA, Lily King! Just HA!)
The complex love relationships among the western characters are complemented by the array of sexual practices, procreative traditions, and gender roles they study among the New Guinea natives. One tribe has never made the connection between sexual intercourse and pregnancy – they believe that women are impregnated by magical spirits. Another tribe reveres the female orgasm, practicing frequent all-female orgies for the purpose of pleasuring one another. Another tribe – the Mumbanyo – kill all twins that are born in their tribe because they think that the birth of two babies at once means that the mother slept with two different men.
The possessiveness behind the ritual killing of twins is also connected to an ongoing motif. The arrival of Bankson sets off possessive alarm bells in Fen, who is aware almost right away that Bankson is in love with Nell. Fen’s possessiveness is heightened by the fact that he is sure that the love potion he was given before his sea voyage is responsible for luring Nell away from Helen, and he does feel some genuine guilt over this deception, along with the uncertainty about whether Nell really loves him now that the potion has worn off. The anthropologists are possessive not only of their lovers but of the tribes they study. There are a lot of statements like “I won’t presume to analyze the Duna; that’s your tribe, Fen.” When Helen sends Nell a copy of a book she has just written, Nell, Fen, and Bankson sit up all night together analyzing it and critiquing it, and their excitement at being part of a new mode of study is palpable, as is their competitiveness with one another and with Helen, whose book is very good. As their all-night orgy of intellectual debauchery continues, they develop a theory that they end up calling “the Grid.” The Grid is essentially a system to organize and classify the tribes that they and other anthropologists study. They conceive of the Grid as organized around the four cardinal directions: “Northern” tribes are aggressive while “southern” tribes are passive, and so forth. They truly feel that they are creating a groundbreaking new way of studying human beings that will change the way anthropologists work. The fantastic energy and camaraderie they feel that night is part of the “euphoria” of the title, by the way.
If you’ve made the connection between the 1930’s setting and “the Grid,” you may already have figured out where this novel goes. Shortly after Fen, Nell, and Bankson leave New Guinea, Nell dies in childbirth, and both Fen and Bankson grieve for her in solitude. In their misery, they barely notice when the article that they wrote back in New Guinea and sent out for peer review is published in a major journal. They also pay little attention when the article is translated into many languages, including German, and is soon co-opted by the Nazis, who place it on a mandatory reading list for Party members and use it to support the cause of Aryan superiority. This is the other reason this novel must be set in the ‘30’s, of course. Any anthropologists working after the early 1940’s would know better than to create a grand classification system for human beings – this is one of the positive ways the world changed as a result of the Second World War. King doesn’t get the narrative voice right, and I was never convinced that I was being spoken to by characters born at the turn of the 20th century – but I do understand why this novel needs to be set in the ‘30’s.
With this one exception, this novel is really well executed. It’s full of onion-like layers about its Western characters and the tribes they are studying, and the emotional lives of Fen, Nell, and Bankson are rendered very well. This book definitely contributes to the idea that books about anthropologists are always good, helping win back some of the credibility this sub-genre lost after the debacle that was Hanya Yanagihara’s “The People in the Trees.” I recommend it highly as an engrossing and thought-provoking read.