Book Review: Euphoria by Lily King

Love triangles just don’t seem to have the literary currency they once did. It’s tempting to attribute their decline to one too many bloated and overwrought YA romances, but the fall off likely has more to do with the fact that adultery just isn’t as taboo—or, inevitably, as titillating—as it once was. It’s a shame, though. The best literary love triangles were never really about illicit love affairs. They were about the explosive combination of three personalities—not just two. They verged on ménage à trois territory without veering wholesale into domesticity; they still retained an edge of dangerousness. Think Sophie’s Choice, or perhaps some iterations of the Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot triangle. Or, simply think of Lily King’s fourth and latest novel: Euphoria. Loosely based on the life of pioneering researcher Margaret Mead, Euphoria tells the story of a young British anthropologist studying the (fictional) Kiona tribe along Papua New Guinea’s Sepik River. Andrew Bankson—King’s analogue to Gregory Bateson—is fresh off a botched suicide attempt when the novel opens; alienated from his scientifically-minded family (“I was raised on Science as other people are raised on God”) and professionally at sea, Bankson finds himself numbly going the way of his elder brother Martin, who shot himself when Andrew was still in school. Bankson accepts his last-minute reprieve with similar listlessness, drifting instead to a holiday party where he meets the married anthropologists Nell Stone and Schulyer Fenwick. Though already famous for her work on adolescent sexuality amongst the Kirakira, Nell is experiencing her own personal and professional crisis. Her marriage to the insecure and possessive Fen is on the rocks, and the couple finds in Bankson a useful counterweight to their own relationship. On Bankson’s advice, Nell and Fen agree to stay on in Papau New Guinea, immersing themselves in studying the (again, fictional) Tam. Bankson, for his part, eagerly puts his own work on hold to visit the couple. It is a potent and productive meeting of minds, and for a while the trio feels, in Bankson’s words, as if they “could rip the stars from the sky and write the world anew.” The balance of personalities is a delicate one, though, and it’s increasingly thrown off-kilter as Bankson sides with Nell in her analysis of Tam culture. The real-world story King’s novel is based on ended in divorce and remarriage. Euphoria ends in multiple, irreparable acts of betrayal—of Fen, by Nell and Bankson; of Nell, by Fen and Bankson; and of the Tam, by (perhaps) all three. Indeed, there’s something poignantly fitting about King’s relative sidelining of the Tam themselves. The decision to focus so insistently on the central triad of characters—almost to the exclusion of the people they themselves are there to observe—is at first a discomfiting one, but it is in keeping with the cultural blindnesses of early anthropological research. As Bankson himself acknowledges, the view from nowhere has always been a slippery ideal; “Perhaps all science is merely self-investigation,” he says at one point. And while Nell is more sanguine—she speaks of “pulling the meaning” out from inside the cultures she studies—it becomes clear in retrospect that the work the three anthropologists do is little more than a mirror image of themselves. That, at least, is the implication of one of the novel’s most gorgeous and most feverish passages—the dreamlike night that Nell, Fen, and Bankson spend mapping out cultures on “the Grid.” The Grid—a system for diagramming the temperaments and values of tribes and nations according to the cardinal points of the compass—is the work that will make Bankson’s name as an anthropologist. And yet the passage as a whole reads as a kind of extended foreplay aimed at teasing out the dynamics of the group:

We kept at it. The sun came up and went down again. We believed were in the throes of a big theory. We could see our grid in chalk on university blackboards. It felt like we were putting a messy disorganized unlabeled world in order. It felt like decoding. It felt like liberation. Nell and I spoke of never having felt aligned with our culture, with its values and expectations. For long stretches of time it felt like we were crawling around in each other’s brain. We talked in the abstract about relationships, which temperaments went well together. Nell said opposites worked best, and I hastened to agree, though I didn’t believe it, and hoped she didn’t either. She said Southerners were less possessive with their lovers, more inclined to polygamy ‘It’s what her set calls free love,’ Fen said. ‘Multiple partners. You go in for that too, Bankson?’ ‘No.’ It was the only answer I could give him under the circumstances.

Tellingly, the trio end up mapping themselves on the Grid, and one senses that that was always the point they were driving at—another mirror image. A mirror image—but one with real consequences for the people around them. The Grid is ultimately appropriated by the Nazis for use as racial propaganda. The effects of the trio’s self-absorption on the Tam are smaller in scope, but no less poignant. Near the end of the novel, Fen capitalizes on Nell and Bankson’s distraction, sneaking away from the Tam and stealing a sacred artifact from a nearby tribe. The action has disastrous consequences, and while it would be an exaggeration to say that Bankson had colluded with Fen in the run-up to the theft, King strongly implies that he turned a blind eye to the warning signs. Nell, meanwhile, begs Bankson not to go after Fen when she learns of her husband’s disappearance, regardless—apparently—of the cost. The consummation of Nell and Bankson’s relationship thus has a decidedly reckless flavor to it—one which Nell ultimately pays for. Arguably, of course, all this relies on a tired if not outright dated trope: the febrile environment echoing the febrile love story. It’s a testament to the strength of King’s writing that she makes such a familiar storyline seem fresh, and even manages to strip it of some of its less savory aspects; by and large, King resists the impulse to similarly fetishize the exoticism of the Tam. Besides, whatever missteps there are pale in comparison to the novel’s beauty and poignancy. Euphoria ultimately belies its title; what lingers in one’s mind is less the rapture of obsessive love and more the understated grief that follows.

Euphoria was published in June 2014 by Atlantic Monthly Press. Find out more about it on Goodreads. Buy it on Amazon.


Filed under Book Reviews

5 responses to “Book Review: Euphoria by Lily King

  1. I’m delighted to hear that the book lives up to its gorgeous cover! Definitely one for the wishlist, I think. Thanks for a great review. 🙂

  2. I loved this book, but it sounds like you know a lot more than I did about Margaret Mead and the history of anthropology.

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