euphoriaWhen our society seems to be reeling back from the enlightenment ideals of reason and tolerance, it’s a welcome relief to be offered a “science” novel by a book brother. That is, a work of fiction where scientists and the struggle for scholarship, the striving to create a book worthy of inclusion on a university bookshelf, is central to the storytelling.

Lily King’s story of anthropologists doing groundbreaking work in 1930’s New Guinea was inspired by, or a riff upon, biographies of Margaret Mead, and also the work of Gregory Bateson and Ruth  Benedict. Offhand, I counted thirty-two works of anthropology, many of them standard classics that any student of Anthro 101 would recognize, in the acknowledgements.

But keep in mind the title…this is a book about passion and its collision with….what? Not reason. In this book, intellect and euphoria are closely aligned. A collision with…ignorance, the false choices we make, traumatic loss in families, the hurt we feel when we can’t cope?

The 1930’s: racist and fascist…when the idea that cultural characteristics were inherited along racial lines was taken seriously, with a hierarchy of races, one race in particular (guess which?) being considered far superior to the rest. It was a great chain of being of prejudice. But it was also an era when the idea that all cultures should be studied as equal representatives of the human condition was making breakthroughs.

Lily King brands a triangle of strong, contradictory personalities on this historical matrix. It centers on Nell Stone, a young American anthropologist who has already written a bestseller on the child rearing practices of indigenous cultures that has caused a sensation back home and netted her financial security to continue her work.

Nell’s writes with empathy about the people she studies, trying to put herself in their place, trying to live the culture she is studying. The revenue from her bestseller has bankrolled a relatively comfortable homestead on-site and enabled her to hire locals to do maintenance and serve as research adjuncts. She and her husband Fen, freed from routine chores, are  able to spend full time on research.

It’s not easy being married to a star. Fen’s traumatized by his wife. He’s an anthropologist who doesn’t take notes anymore. Why should he bother to express an opinion of the culture they are studying when everyone back home will only be interested in what Nell has to say? And Nell is brilliant. The euphoria with which she engages in her work is a talisman of her genius and originality.

A shadow triangle adds dimension to our understanding of Nell’s marriage. Nell had a close attachment to Helen, a peer in her field. Helen is as gifted an anthropologist as Nell. They have both produced distinguished books. They are both protegés of pioneering anthropologist Franz Boas and both have been offered distinguished academic positions. Nell was forced to make a choice between Helen and a more conventional relationship with Fen. She chose safety. The relationship with Helen that Nell turned down, socially impossible and probably ruinous to her career in the 1930’s, casts her relationship with her husband under a cloud.

Euphoria has the form of a double triangle. It’s as if the triangle submerged in Nell’s past comes back to haunt her in the form of a new triangle, this time with a man, the disaffected pioneering anthropologist, Bankson, who appears to be based on Gregory Bateson.

Bankson is isolated on his site and underfunded by his university. His pleas for a research assistant have been ignored for years. Working in the field alone with no one to consult, he is desperately lonely. His discipline as a researcher has been compromised. His observation notes are an incoherent mess and he can’t figure out how to pull them together.

Enter Nell and her colleague husband, fleeing at her insistence from a threatening situation at another site. Her husband’s resentment is stoked by their hasty departure. They take a relatively isolated village as their subject at Bankson’s suggestion. There’s an electricity from the start between Bankson and Nell. They discover that they work well together and Bankson’s talent is fired by Nell’s genius. Her marriage is destabilized and she struggles to restore its balance as Bankson becomes a more valuable colleague for Nell than her husband.

The organization of Euphoria is both elegant and exciting. As a writer, Lily King seems to specialize in finesse. I was startled when the third person narration of the first chapter quantum leaps in the second chapter to first person with Bankson. Nell is also presented in first person but in her case in the second degree since her voice is cited through her writing.

King adds depth to each of her three principal characters but in each case by employing  a different strategy. In the case of Nell, it’s with that triangle in her past. With Bankson, background is provided by a family history of two tragically lost brothers and a troubled relationship to his father, to whom he could never seem to measure up. And Fen is a frustrated alpha male who struggles to find a means to roar while attached to a wife who persistently outclasses him.

Lily King presents the local villagers, the subject of the scientists’ study, with eloquence and sympathy as they try to parse out their relationships with the strange Westerners and their dazzling material abundance and alienating modernism…which despite their best efforts…the scientists can’t obscure from the natives. One interesting theory that surfaces is that the role of anthropology is to investigate the reactions of the investigators to the investigated.

Euphoria is a Dionysian flame which ignites intellects and can inspire maenads. There are some pages of Lily King’s novel that I had to hold individually in my hand as I marvelled at their brilliant complexity. Euphoria is truly inspired by the god in its fusion of intellect and passion, family and friendship platonic and not, and by the presentation of anthropology as a living science, growing, evolving, mutating as it burns its scientists out.