A Novel
Lily King
(Atlantic Monthly Press)
Nell and Fen and Bankson are anthropologists in New Guinea, back before WWII. They study lives and habits and customs and loves and hates of this or that tribe and then write books or papers about them.

We first meet Nell and her husband Fen as they are departing their last months with the Mumbanyo. The Mumbanyo are not what we think of when we think "natives," and Nell is not very fond of them. The men dump their babies if they think their wives have been cheating on them. If there are twins, they figure another man has been sleeping with her, so they toss one of them aside --- usually in the river. They also buy and sell the wives, but that evidently goes on all over New Guinea. Better, in the good old days, the Mumbanyo used to eat the missionaries. They claimed that they tasted like "old pig."

The Fenwicks are planning to go home, but but before they can take off for Cairns, they meet Bankson. Bankson had been trying to kill himself, á la Virginia Wolfe (stones in the pockets, wading down into the river). But the men he's been studying catch him, pull him up, scold him. "They made a pile of the stones from my pockets on the beach," he recalls.

    The stones are beautiful, they said, but dangerous. You can collect them, but leave them on land before you swim. And do not swim in clothes. This is also dangerous.

"They were stern and curt. Grown-ups who didn't have patience for an oversized child." Then he meets Nell and it's love at first sight. He also meets her husband, Schuyler Fenwick. The triad is complete, and you know what is going to happen. And it does.

Meanwhile, Bankson no longer wants to be sleeping in the deep but rather, in bed with Nell, so he convinces the two of them to come study a more benign tribe, one's who don't vie with each other to kill everything in sight. He introduces them to what are called the Tam, and --- again --- it's love at first sight. They go into euphoria, anthropological euphoria, which is defined (by Nell) as the moment "when you think you've finally got a handle on the place. Suddenly it feels within your grasp." But then, she explains,

    It's a delusion --- you've only been there eight weeks --- and it's followed by the complete despair of ever understanding anything.

But that moment: "It's the briefest, purest euphoria." Now we know why Andres Bankson fell for her, although he complains that he has never felt euphoria: "A good day for me is when no little boy steals my underwear, pokes iit through with sticks, and brings it back stuffed with rats."

§   §   §

Euphoria didn't come out of nowhere. It's one of those novels that takes us, as fiction, into the lives of people who are probably not fictional --- except to themselves, In this case, it's Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, and Reo Fortune. You'd think that it would be pretty hard to cram the three of them into a 250 page novel (especially the first two), but King does a pretty fair job squeezing them into Euphoria.

He has excellent historlcal resources. Mead wrote six anthropological studies, including the biggie, Coming of Age in Samoa. Nell, her fictional counterpart, has just written a book on her various studies, and it is a big hit. She is quite famous, gets tons of fan mail --- much to husband Fen's disgust --- an we get to watch her style of study.

With the Tam, she spends the first day learning the language; after that, she interviews the women and the children, studies their culture and habits and the way they are treated by the the men. It's harder to study the males: she is not allowed into their houses, nor to speak to them alone. The men are careful with women, we learn, because even though they may buy and sell them, it is a matriarcal society. In some ways. For instance, the women have stone ceremonies from time to time, there in their dark hutches, what they call minyana. The men are not allowed.

The women give each other sensual rub-downs, kneading flesh, bringing hot stones wrapped in bark cloth, heavy and hot and dripping with oil. Nell, who participated in one, says,

    You have to understand, these women are hardworking and unpampered; the Tam men are the ones who have much more leisure, who sit around painting their pots and their bodies and gossiping --- these women started grunting and groaning.

Ultimately, Nell, with Yepe, found "her skin was still oiled, still warm . . . I wanted to touch every bone, every patch of her. I wanted every part of her pressed against me."

§   §   §

Does it work, this novel patched up with the lives of those who lived and worked eighty years ago in Samoa and New Guinea. Has the transplant taken?

Mostly. The islanders come to life, and their affection for Nell, too. Nell, who goes every day to interview the women, in the women's street, speaks their language, plays with and studies them and the children, can tell them a funny story named "Romeo and Juliet," translated into Tchambuli.

Fen? He speaks the men's language, but we know that he is no anthropologist. He wants their work, and their companionship --- but he also wants to steal their treasures, to take back to the land of the white men, to sell and thus become a famous student of world cultures. And the author wants us to know that he is a stinker: all the while married to one of the best and kindest of people, he steals off to the men's lodgings to take his pleasure with another. He may cry, even kiss sweet Bankson when Nell isn't looking --- but he's still a stinker.

And Bankson? He's probably the one in the book we'd most like to hang out with, but he gets pushed around too much by the author when she wants to make a point. Husband Fen may be half in love with him, but pretends to be infuriated by Bankson's passion for Nell. He arrives one night under their house (on stilts, to protect from the river, and the mosquitos), and "hears their voices. I moved under the house to hear them more clearly."

He is down below, listening to their arguments, a sloppy device known as deux de machina, one dredged up by authors who don't want to be bothered with other, more subtle methods. Fen yells "This whole thing is a way for the two of you to screw right in front of me." She says, "This is ridiculous and you know it." He: "I will never be one of your castoffs."

But the ending is a fine surprise, bolted in nicely to all has gone before, leaving us with appropriate questions. Did Fen murder a couple of people just so he could steal a carved Mumbanyo flute, an artifact that proves that they had their own written language long ago? And Nell: howcum she stayed so long with such a jealous galoot for a husband? And kind Bankson: he does get his recognition for being the kind of anthropoligist that we need --- but what then?

--- Pamela Wylie
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