Current Reading: Euphoria

I just finished reading Lily King’s fantastic new novel Euphoria, based loosely on events in the life of anthropologist Margaret Mead.  Inspired by the brief months in 1933 when Mead conducted fieldwork in New Guinea along with her second and third husbands, King changes the three characters’ names — and aspects of their lives and outcomes.

I read Euphoria outside on the back porch over the course of the last few weeks.  It’s one of those books I’ve read slowly by design.  There’s a lot Lily King does here that I want to absorb.

King keeps a close lens on her three characters, chronicling their mounting sexual tensions and the tight, confined spaces they occupy. There’s a compression in the storytelling: the novel takes place over the course of just a few months in remote villages linked only by “tiny dark canal(s)” and “close corridor(s).”  This compression creates a tension so taught the novel veritably vibrates.

Yet beyond these threads of narrative momentum is the fascination and sheer pleasure of the characters’ anthropological thinking.  And our interest is not limited to the vivid, enticing exoticism of the fictional cultures the characters are studying, which we glimpse through the periphery of the novel’s unfolding.  Even greater pleasure comes from the characters’ intellectual calibrations, their grappling with  anthropological methods and theory, their attempts to redefine their places in the evolving field of anthropological endeavor.  Bankson (the fictionalized character based on Mead’s third husband) problematizes the role of the anthropologist in a way that anticipates modern anthropological thinking.  And there is a nuance and expansiveness of thought in Nell (King’s Margaret Mead character).  She integrates her progressive thinking about agency and perception into innovative new field practices with a confidence that feels staggering.

King changes a lot about the three characters’ life stories — improvising certain hidden aspects of their backgrounds, wildly changing their endings.  And yet I wonder whether her portrayal of their intellectual lives alone might serve as an impetus to change the characters’ names.  It’s a heady business to fabricate and inhabit a serious thinker’s thought.  And Mead is in King’s rendering, as in life, a formidable thinker about anthropology.

She is also a confident inventor of possibility in her own life story, bold and unrelenting in her willingness to carve out a space for herself and a professional and personal independence.

But in the novel’s ending King departs sharply from Mead’s biography.

{be forewarned: spoilers about the novel’s ending to follow}

For all Nell’s personal, sexual, and intellectual innovation and boldness, the novel resolves in the long tradition of our literary canon: like the Anna Kareninas and Madame Bovarys and a host of more recent women in literature, film and television, who die for their sins of freespokenness and desire, Nell is killed at the end of the novel.

Why this particular invention for Nell in King’s rendering?  There may be some real sense of historical loyalty here, not to Mead, but to the broader reality of early twentieth-century women’s limited choices — and to the continued realities and outcomes of domestic violence.

Except that in this actual historic instance, that wasn’t the outcome — Mead divorced her second husband Reo and married Gregory, continued on in her illustrious career.  So why not strive for the complexity of that actual story?

The other possible explanation for King’s choice is structural: with all the constraint of that close lens, King is opting for a certain narrative neatness in her ending, one that resolves the tension of all that pressure.  She has, after all, constructed a tight structure that seems, canonically, only resolved by the tight, out-of-scene neatness of tragedy.

And so in King’s rendering, we get Nell’s out-of-scene death in the cramped imagined space of a ship cabin, the novel’s close lens further narrowed by her death and her second husband’s subsequent disappearance, by Bankson’s holding in of grief and romantic feeling.  The novel frees Nell from an ongoing, living complexity in order to be memorialized by Bankson, who plays a tight-throated role in her legacy creation over the course of his long lifetime.

Undeniably there is a structural neatness in this ending.  The novel is breathtakingly compact.  I can’t help but wonder, though, how much more complex a novel — and a world — King might have built had she reframed this gendered trope.  Had she opted instead for even a fictionalized version of Mead’s complicated life and choices, opted for the nuanced, difficult legacy of a life lived over many subsequent decades.

Early in the novel, King writes, “‘Everyone becomes a genius when they die young.'”  Yet Mead’s intellectual legacy comes from the full span of her lifetime.  King need not have relied on this device.

Ultimately, while reading the ending of this novel, I felt the reality of Mead’s life story hovering alongside the story King wrote about Nell Stone.  Mead’s very different biography from 1933 onwards is like a shadow version that edges the periphery as we read through to the end of King’s imagined world, so that in the end we are left with a world that feels rife with multiple possibilities.  In the end we are allowed to have the full force of Mead’s long radiant legacy and King’s sharp, well-structured novel.  We are allowed both women’s triumphs: that of the anthropologist, that of the novelist.

I cannot highly enough recommend this brilliant novel.


6 thoughts on “Current Reading: Euphoria

  1. I read this a few months ago and could barely make myself return it to the library. You make an excellent point about the ending–I hadn’t thought of it in that framework before. Thank you for the new perspective on this wonderful book!

    • I hear you, Caroline! I’m supposed to pass my copy along to my mom now that I’ve finished it, but I might just have to buy her another one. Glad to hear you loved it as well!

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