Euphoria by Lily King: Does it Live Up to its Name?

Happy New Year, Snotties! And we mean that with the utmost affection. A New Year means new reads and snotty banter—let’s get started!

We are kicking off 2015 with the much-acclaimed Euphoria by Lily King, which seemed to make it onto a million Best Books of 2014 lists. Now it’s our turn to weigh in.

King’s Euphoria tells the story—inspired by the real life events of famous anthropologist, Margaret Mead—of British anthropologist Andrew Bankson, who is alone in 1930s New Guinea studying the Kiona tribe. Struggling with his progress, haunted by the suicide of one brother, the death of another, and the constant judgment of his mother, Bankson attempts suicide. Saved by his very subjects, members of the Kiona tribe, Bankson then encounters accomplished colleagues (and marrieds) Nell Stone and Schuyler Fenwick (known as Nell and Fen). The couple has just left behind the barbaric and murderous Mumbayano tribe—leaving Nell traumatized and Fen still in search for the break that will bring him the level of notoriety achieved by his highly regarded wife. Bankson helps the couple settle into a new place of study, among the Tam people. The three social scientists bring a combination of desire, hunger, greed, perfectionism, and insecurity that’s bound to have dramatic consequences.

Lara: While it seemed as though everyone loved Euphoria, here’s what I love. I love the title. I love the cover. I love the last 60 pages of this book—adored them, in fact. And that’s about it. I wanted to love more of it. I’m truly torn because it had an opportunity to be fully loved and I wanted to fully love it. Candidly, though, it was a struggle.

Thank God for the euphoria of the last paragraph—and not because it was over—because it’s one of the best closes I have ever read.

Jennifer: Well, wow. First, why did you not like the beginning, up until the last 60 pages? And why did you like the end?

You go first, and then I’ll share.

Lara: King is a good writer and she wrote Euphoria with a strong handle on anthropology. Despite that, I didn’t like how it was organized. Take for instance the first sentence of the second chapter:

“Three days earlier, I had gone to the river to drown myself.”

That gets you at the gut. It’s hugely powerful. It should have been the book’s opener.

She also introduced a number of people and situations that ultimately had no bearing on the overall story or its tremendous climax. I felt lost in some of the details and I didn’t want to keep picking it up. Or maybe it’s just I am not a big anthro fan.

Jennifer: My first roommate in college was an anthro major. Susan Something. We didn’t keep in touch. Actually, I don’t think she liked me very much. I think she considered me all freshman-y and girlie. She had animal carcasses and dusty bones she kept on a bookshelf, which was radically not a part of my world. I wonder what happened to her.

Lara: Additionally, the book is teased as a love triangle—and while it is, it took a long time to get there. I wanted more of it. I wanted to hear about it in Nell’s voice, not just Bankson’s.

Jennifer: Yeah, okay. I found it super well written, totally engaging, but it didn’t completely work for me. This has less to do with the writing of the book, and more to do with my own thoughts on anthropology. I’m just not much of a cultural relativist, so many of the philosophical presuppositions of the field don’t work for me. A love story built upon a relativist foundation is absolutely intriguing, but King doesn’t fully push it.

I can go a little further with this anthropology thing. The book has quite a few fascinating passages here. I’m not sure you’re really wanting to battle over cultural relativism vs. moral absolutes, however. We might just sum it up by saying that the book does, at least, raise provocative questions on what it means to be human and how do we study other cultures.

Here are some wild things I might bring up in discussing Euphoria: the movies Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Selma, the books Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and State of Wonder by Ann Patchett.

Lara: Do I need to run and get a Masters degree in Cultural Relativism before we continue? Let’s keep this convo out of the hallowed halls of the university and back in the corner of Paradise Bakery where we actually are.

I can’t speak to the connection/relationship Euphoria has to any of the Planet of the Apes movies or Heart of Darkness, but I can with State of Wonder. And I will say this—Patchett wrote a better, more fully developed book, where boundaries were pushed. I can’t even compare the two.

Jennifer: Well, I have to get into those hallowed halls, Lara. You know me. Dork-at-heart. My own heart o’ darkness is an academic heart, albeit a lousy one.

Lara: You’re cute to think Cultural Relativism is dorkiness. It’s academic snobbery. But go ahead.

Jennifer: Thanks for calling me cute. People rarely do.

I think this book does require a little understanding of the context. Here’s some info on Margaret Mead, who inspired this book.

Lara, this book hinges on some very big questions: What does it mean to be human? How do we study cultures? What about “primitive” cultures? What role does morality play when looking at various cultures, such as a murderous and “primitive” tribe like the Mumbanyo who threw their babies in the river, or the intriguing sexual practices between married women in the Tam tribe (in which Nell participates)?

There is a real ideological battle here, and I guess I felt like King touched the battlefield, so to speak, but she doesn’t trample on it. Rather, she gets a little confusing. There’s marital infidelity between the “civilized” white folks from Australia, England, and the U.S. What about that serious sex stuff between the Tam women? Did Nell cheat on her husband when she got all orgasmic with the Tam gals, or is it okay when primitive types do their primitive thing?

Lara: Um, she’s totally cheating. Just as Fen “cheats” when he goes out on his own, for his own glory. And, let’s remember, Nell is not primitive. She’s studying them. Maybe she and Fen had an agreement that to immerse oneself in the culture, anything is game. But I would think King would have covered that in the story. Nell cheated. More than once.

Jennifer: If there is such an agreement, we don’t see it.

We do read this:

“Fen didn’t want to study the natives; he wanted to be a native. His attraction to anthropology was not to puzzle out the story of humanity. It was not ontological. It was to live without shoes and eat from his hands and fart in public. . . His interest lay in experiencing, in doing. Thinking was derivative. Dull. The opposite of living. Whereas she suffered through the humidity and the sago and the lack of plumbing only for the thinking.”

They are radically different, but they’re together. Elsewhere, Nell—speaking of the native peoples—says,

“They are human, with fully functioning human minds. If I didn’t believe they shared my humanity entirely, I wouldn’t be here. . . I’m not interested in zoology.”

Is Fen’s experiential approach somehow de-humanizing the tribespeople, or is he actually treating them more like humans than Nell is? Does Nell objectify them?

I think it gets confusing.

Briefly, I think books and movies often inadequately deal with this burning question—and it is burning—What makes humans distinctly human? I just saw, like last night, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. My husband hates those kinds of movies, so I push it every once in a while. But he pointed out something interesting. There’s a scene in which the humans get the power going, and the first thing that happens is that some electric lights crackle on in an old gas station and a radio plays some rock ‘n roll. All of the humans instinctively start dancing. My husband turned to me and said, “Did you notice this? The humans dance. The apes don’t. Why? Because they’re animals. Animals don’t dance. Art is a human thing.” Well, okay. So is art the distinguishing feature of humanity? The film doesn’t go there at all. The question hangs uncomfortably in the air.

Lara: But Euphoria doesn’t need to ask this question as it relates to humans and animals. I think the better questions are As humans, how are we different and how are we similar? Through our differences, can we be moral or virtuous? Clearly, what is acceptable in some cultures is not acceptable in others. Murder should never be acceptable. Sexual practices and their appropriateness comes down to too many different factors like our own beliefs and values. Readers of this book—any book really—bring their own moral compass to the table. And that impacts the reader’s ability to connect, relate, or even like a book.

Jennifer: Are there, then, any universal truths that guide us in our art consumption?

We also saw the movie Selma about a week ago (and you need to go see it). Here, we see crazy violence wrought against black people. The only way that this violence is justifiable at all is if black people are not humans. But they are—and we know it. So that violence is simply intolerable. That movie, too, begs the all-important question: What does it mean to be human? And MLK often spoke to that. The film addresses this because MLK addressed it.

This book, Euphoria, offers mixed messages, I think. Admittedly, I’m asking a lot from it, but I guess that’s my final assessment: so many big ideas floating around. But do they land?

I don’t need to talk about Joseph Conrad. I will say that I liked State of Wonder better, but I’m not so sure she even tackled these big questions at all. She might’ve stayed away from them altogether.

Lara: Are you trying to get me all riled up again about Patchett? State of Wonder was pretty much perfection.

So to wrap things up, we liked parts of Euphoria, but as a whole it falls flat. Maybe if you love anthropology, it will grab you more. Would you be willing to read any of her other books?

Jennifer: Hmm. Yikes. Put me on the spot, why don’t you? You know, I’d be willing. I’m not actively seeking it out. Like I just read Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, and I’ll definitely seek out more of her work.

Euphoria is a good book. I just had very, very high hopes.

Lara: I think we can agree to agree on that point. Oh, and I am checking out Dept. of Speculation because of your glowing recommendation—if the 40 other people ahead of me at the library will finish their copies already.

Next Up!

More of the much-acclaimed when we discuss Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You.

Until then, happy reading Snotties!


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