As part of Diane's remote author interview series, she had the chance to speak with Ann Patchett in January over video Zoom as a live audience watched. Here's that conversation.
In the late 1920s, anthropology was in its infancy. Then, Margaret Mead published “Coming of Age in Samoa” and the discipline found a star. Mead wrote candidly about sex and female desire, catching the attention of both the academy and the general public. But it was a 1933 field trip down the Sepik River in New Guinea that piqued the imagination of novelist Lily King. During that time, Mead and her second husband collaborated with another man she would later marry. King tells their story of ego, desire and intellectual exploration in the 2014 novel, “Euphoria,” our pick for May’s Readers’ Review. Join Diane and her guests for the discussion.
- Louis Bayard Author, "Roosevelt's Beast". His other books include "The Pale Blue Eye" ,"The School of Night" and "Mr. Timothy," a New York Times Notable Book. He teaches fiction writing at The George Washington University.
- Denise Brennan Professor and chair,department of anthropology, Georgetown University
- Bethanne Patrick Freelance book critic and contributing editor at lithub.com
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Lily King's first three novels are rooted in the culture of late 20th century England. "Euphoria," her latest work, strikes out in a very different direction, set in New Guinea in the 1930s. King bases her story on events in the life of revolutionary anthropologist, Margaret Mead.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining us for this month's Reader's Review of "Euphoria," Denise Brennan of Georgetown University, novelist Louis Bayard and freelance book critic Bethanne Patrick. I invite you to, as always, be part of the program. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Send an email to email@example.com. Follows us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Well, welcome to all of you for a discussion of this really fabulous novel.
MR. LOUIS BAYARDGreat to be here.
MS. BETHANNE PATRICKLovely to be here.
MS. DENISE BRENNANWonderful to be here, Diane.
REHMDid you, Louis, feel, as I did, that this was just a fabulous book?
BAYARDOh, yeah. I devoured this book. I ate it up from the very first page. It moves very quickly. It follows this venerable pattern of the love triangle, which, of course, is a staple of literature and movies for centuries, but it puts it in a very unusual setting, the jungles of New Guinea and gives us these three fascinating anthropologists who have the additional (word?) historical (word?) of being based on real life, anthropologist Margaret Mead and the two men of her life at the time, all carrying on in the jungle and figuring out how they really feel about each other, even as they try to make history in their chosen field.
REHMTell us Nell Stone, Denise.
BRENNANWell, Nell is a tough woman. She goes into places where women weren't going at that time. And we hear, time and time again, from the author, Lily King, how ambitious she is and how she loves to work. I loved Nell. I think, in Nell, we see somebody who's straddling so many worlds, both the male world and the places that women couldn't go in her own society and then we watch her so expertly and so compassionately and yet, at times, quite troublingly try to make sense of this completely other so-called exotic place she goes into.
REHMNell Stone is the stand-in for Margaret Mead. Bethanne, she is, as the book opens, already an accomplished author. She has written about sexuality and young people and people regard her, really, as something special. So what is she doing on the Sepik River in New Guinea?
PATRICKShe's searching for the thing that's going to set her apart. One of the things about Nell Stone that I loved, and I loved this book as much as everyone else here did, is that she is a woman of ambition at a time when women were placed in a certain spot on the grid that was yin and yin, if you will. You know, you had to be all cute and sweet and gentle all the time.
PATRICKAnd I'm not talking about her grid. I'm talking about society's grid. And Nell has accomplished a great deal, but she knows that there's something more. There's something more that she's going after and it's very difficult for her because her husband, Fen, her husband legally, is not someone who appreciates that ambition. He's intimidated by it. It angers him.
PATRICKHe's jealous. He's just plain jealous. And she engenders that jealousy, I think, in lots of different people and I think a woman like Nell makes people uncomfortable no matter what her era.
REHMTell us about Fen. He's from Australia.
BAYARDYes. His full name is Schuyler Fenwick. I love the name Fen because it suggests sort of darkness and sort of an entrapping murkiness and mire, you know. It's something that’s gonna drag you down if you're not too careful.
BAYARDSwampy, yes. He seems, at times, positively amoral. He does, in fact, beat his wife. We learn that kind of gradually over the course of the book.
REHMBut you know -- here's what troubled me the most is how much I missed in those first pages because Lily King gives us the hints of exactly that in those opening pages. Nell's glasses are broken. Her ankle is sprained.
PATRICKShe has sores, bruises.
REHMShe had sores all over her. And the author tells us that and, duh, I don't get it.
PATRICKDiane, Lily King is letting you be the anthropologist unobserving and it's -- she's encapsulating here the debates that have waged in the anthropology halls for the 20th century and that's just how much we get wrong. It's an interpretive science. It's not a lab coat experiment. So we see Nell get things wrong and Bankson is continually troubled throughout the book because he never seems to get it right.
PATRICKIn fact, he says I become more asinine as time goes on.
REHMOkay. And Andrew Bankson is the third major character. He's a British anthropologist who, you know, he had been involved with one tribe for quite a while. He didn't like -- he didn't respect his own work.
BRENNANHe didn't respect his own work and he was also all alone. Andrew Bankson is such a fascinating character to me because he grows up in this family that's very tight and the three sons and the father are all scientists, men of science and collectors of everything, mostly natural bits and pieces, but anything they can get their hands on. And because he grew up in that sort of cloistered, lovely world, it really was that golden afternoon when he grew up in England before the war -- World War I, and he doesn't realize if he goes out on his own as a field anthropologist doing this kind of work just how bereft he's going to be at lack of human company.
BRENNANSo when Nell and Fen come into this life, he doesn't realize, at first, what's really happening between him and Nell. He just thinks, oh, company, people, people I can talk to.
REHMI've got to keep them with me.
BAYARDOh, yes. He talks about loneliness pushing out of him like a goiter so not a particularly lovely phrase.
REHMYeah, that's quite a lovely -- yeah, yeah.
BAYARDAnd loneliness is, to me, one of the prime drivers of this book, which is strange because they're constantly surround by their subjects, the people they're observing. They almost never have a private moment and yet they are so fundamentally isolated.
REHMNell and Fen have just really left the Mumbanyo tribe and we learn that the Mumbanyos commit infanticide, which is why she wants to get the heck out of there.
BAYARDOh, yes, yes. There are quite a lot of elusions to dead babies over the course of this story. She dreams about them and she, herself, has miscarried and it's this constant fear. And then, she's also, at the same time, haunted by the death of her baby sister, right? So there's this -- it's a death haunted book.
PATRICKThe baby who was known as Nell's baby, which is really a heavy, but beautiful way of signifying this theme of birth and fertility all through the book. And something with loneliness that I just wanted to point out, Lou, is "Euphoria" is on one side, that's our title, but boredom is a very interesting theme in the book as well and what you do with boredom. Do you -- Nell points out, at one point, where she's making field notes, Denise, that, you know, she can hardly keep going because she's so bored with herself, with her own thoughts.
PATRICKAnd that's tough, I imagine, when you're doing that kind of work.
REHMYou know, bored with her own thoughts and yet she's constantly producing. So I mean, she's constantly watching and listening and carefully taking notes. It strikes me as the antithesis of boredom.
BRENNANShe's never without a notebook. She even fashions a pocket herself in all of her skirts. She's always observing. And, you know, it begs a lot of questions about when we see her sitting with the children, slapping -- playing a clapping game and slapping her left leg with her left hand, but taking notes with the right. You know, you really question how much is she in the moment because she can't turn off the observation.
REHMWe know that Margaret Mead married three times. We know that Bankson stands in for the third husband. Do we know how much of what's been written here is based on fact?
BRENNANThere's a lot of Mead here, but I do want to caution the listeners, Diane, that this is a novel. But I was delighted to see that King read carefully biographies of Mead, but most importantly, King read Mead's work. So I went back to "Sex and Temperament," which is the book that Mead produced that Nell is writing here in King's book. And there's just so much of -- well, for example, there are hot stones and erotic massage amongst the chambray according to Mead.
BRENNANThere was a vulva that was the entrance to the men's ceremonial house.
REHMSo lots of dropped of facts here. Denise Brennan is professor and chair at Georgetown University. Short break. We'll be right back.
REHMWelcome back. We're talking about the book "Euphoria" by Lily King. It really is based on a portion of the life of Margaret Mead. It begins with her second husband, and they together encounter the man who becomes, in real life, the stand-in for her third husband. The book, again that title, "Euphoria." We all think it was absolutely a wonderful read. It was selected as one of the 10 best books of the year by the New York Times Book Review in 2014 and won the Kirkus Prize.
REHMI wonder, Denise, can you read for us the passage that begins on Page 106?
BRENNANYes, Diane. Remember Nell says for me people are the point. And Mead in real life said that observing is an act of love, and her own mother had given her notebooks for her to observe her siblings, so -- and her own mother was a sociologist and took Mead to observe the Italian immigrant settlement in New Jersey. So she grew up training her eye.
REHMAnd her ears.
BRENNANBut I think what's so important is that King, by contrasting Mead with -- Nell, sorry, easy to do in this book.
BRENNANBy contrasting Nell with Fen, who on Page 106, King writes, he didn't want to study the natives, he wanted to be a native. And he goes too far in so many instances, which I know we will get to. Nell knows who she is, and she loves to translate and interpret the places she goes, and we see this in her dream on Page 107. King writes, as a little girl in bed at night, when other girls were wishing for ponies or roller skates, she wished for a band of gypsies to climb up into her window and take her away with them to teach her their language and their customs.
BRENNANShe imagined how, after a few months, they would return her home, and after the hugs and tears, she would tell her family about all these people. Her stories would go on for days. The pleasurable part of the fantasy was always in the coming home and relating what she had seen.
REHMAnd Louis, talk about what Fen is interested in.
BAYARDHe is very much a doer, a liver. His wife is constantly reproaching him for not taking notes, and his reply is, like, well, that's because I'm busy living among these people. You see two very contrasting approaches to the same discipline. And I don't think King is trying to say that Fen's approach is wrong, it's just a different way of approaching the same question.
REHMHe also, though, has a rather materialistic ambition.
BAYARDOh yes, yes he does, and I think that does get to the fact that he feels jealous of Nell's success and her celebrity. So he wants to make his own mark, and so he decides he wants to steal this...
BAYARDFlute, sacred flute, with (unintelligible)
BRENNANA gigantic sacred flute.
BAYARDA gigantic sacred flute, which has...
BRENNANNo symbolism at all.
BAYARDNo symbolism at all, no phallic connotations, no Dionysian implications. But it has glyphs in the side that these cultures really do writing, and so he thinks it's going to be his ticket to fame. And he tries to get Bankson to go snatch this thing with him. It's a kind of Indiana Jones maneuver, really.
REHMYeah, right, right, I felt the same thing.
BAYARDAnd then keeps at it with tragic consequences.
REHMBut Bethanne, there was a poem that you wanted to read.
PATRICKWell, I wanted to read this. This goes to - quite close to the end of the novel, there's a brief diary entry in which Nell refers to Bankson as wine and bread and deep in my stomach. And she has told him that that line about wine and bread is a poem that she and her fellow students once loved by American poet Amy Lowell. And the reason I wanted to read this, and it's very brief, is because the last line tells you a great deal about that relationship between Nell and Bankson, and it also tells you a great deal about what Fen does not give to Nell.
PATRICKThe poem is called "A Decade." When you came, you were like red wine and honey, and the taste of you burnt my mouth with its sweetness. Now you are like morning bread, smooth and pleasant. I hardly taste you at all, for I know your savor, for I am completely nourished.
BAYARDThat's nice, that's nice.
PATRICKSo this theme of possession really is what ties the book together. Nell is saying she doesn't want to be possessed by any one person, and then in Fen, right, we see his quest with just horrific, grotesque consequences to possess the flute. The language throughout the book King gets spot on, the unfortunate linkages between colonial administration, plantation owners, mine extractors, crocodile hunters, smugglers, all these nefarious individuals who are there in New Guinea to extract, to exploit.
PATRICKFen is -- the way King draws Fen is he's on that continuum of the anthropologist as extractor, as exploiter. But I think it's all tied up, as well, with this theme of possession. The names that he sets out to get, in search to complete his beloved kinship charts, are often taboo to utter. So in his anthropology itself, even when he's just, you know, living, Louis, as you were saying and digging out the canoe, he's also, I would argue, being extractive. He can't stop but possess.
REHMHe is right from the start a non-likeable character, and yet we have to understand that Nell married him. Why did she marry him?
BAYARDIt's one of the frustrating things, and it's true of Margaret Mead, too. Here was this brilliant, accomplished, famous woman, who doesn't -- who is beaten, doesn't protest, goes on for years.
REHMAnd we know that.
BAYARDWe know that, yes. There were letters she sent to her second husband, saying you really shouldn't have hit me where it could be seen because it made -- it will make problems for us. So, you know, at one level she had the same vulnerabilities, the same weaknesses as other battered wives. I think Fen is a charming figure. I think he's a figure of great charm. They first meet on...
REHMHe's a rat.
BAYARDShe is seduced by him. They meet on shipboard, and...
BAYARDI got this whole Cary Grant-Deborah Kerr vibe from "Affair to Remember."
BAYARDI think they met each other at their best, right?
BRENNANI disagree. I think the reason she marries him is because a woman of her time who did want children, Nell wants children, Nell loves children, it's very important to her, and even if it weren't personally important to her, even if her ambition to create and to do something were more important, she is, in context, a woman of her time, and producing children would've been very important.
BRENNANAnd I think she married Fen because she could not imagine having a family with another woman, for example.
REHMDoes he sound to you as though he is physically attractive, physically?
BRENNANNot to me, not to me.
BAYARDShe says at one point that she sees him walking to her, and she just basically can't wait to jump into bed with him. So she's clearly physically attracted to him, yes.
REHMShe is clearly physically attracted to him. Is she physically attractive?
BAYARDWell, Bankson certainly thinks so. Bankson can barely keep his hands off her.
REHMWell, I have the sense that it's because of her mind.
REHMThat he can't keep her hands off her.
BAYARDThat's a good point.
PATRICKKing sets up -- one of the opening scenes is Fen and Nell leaving the Mumbanyo as they've just tossed a dead baby into the ocean, or the river, rather, and they climb aboard one of these traveling boats that's delivering women in silk stockings and bead purses. They are the wives of, as Nell says, she doesn't know who. So she's very careful to not answer accurately their very...
PATRICKTheir questions about the, you know, are those cannibals, are those headhunters. But from the -- we see throughout the book that Nell is almost always dirty. She's almost always in clothes that are, you know, Fen's thrown-away pajama top or bottoms. It's not about her body. It's clearly about her mind.
BRENNANThat's an interesting point, actually, because I started to wonder, I realize that she's not someone who pays a great deal of attention to her appearance, but she does have a few things that she cares about, and I wondered if that was another method of Fen's control, if he was taking things from her, keeping her from wearing certain garments, not allowing her to have a pretty dress because, you know, but obviously she's not someone who cares a great deal about frippery.
BRENNANBut she does care about her blue dress. She does care -- and I love the fact that King has her hair so long. Our pictures, our photographs that are culturally literate, if you will, of Margaret Mead have her with that bob, very severe, and the bangs.
REHMYeah, quite right, quite right.
BRENNANBut in this book, her hair is wild, it's untamed. It's always coming out of its plate. It's all over the place. I love that.
REHMNow the other aspect that interested me, after Bankson helps them to find a new tribe to study seven house down the river from where he is, he comes to visit for the first time, and their home, their modest, little home is all decorated in blue and white, which says to me that she does care...
REHMAbout how things look, but it's a welcoming look, and it's so in contrast with the kinds of clothes she wears.
PATRICKWell, Nell tells Bankson that they had 200 porters bring their belongings when they lived amongst the Mumbanyo, and he didn't believe them. So what's important here is King is showing the kinds of importing of ideas and of things that anthropologists, just as missionaries brought, just as traders brought. And King, you know, raises some really interesting questions about how -- and she puts it in the mouth of Bankson, how everyone in this village must view them with all of these things. This must be skewing their results.
PATRICKSo again, King is drawing the anthropologist alongside the other colonialists.
REHMAnd at the same time, the women and the children of this tribe absolutely adore Nell.
BAYARDThey do. They are all over her.
BAYARDThey are swarming into her lap, literally all over her, and she's relishing it. I think that helps bring out - it shows us that she does have these maternal longings of her own that she's longing to fulfill. But then of course there is this gender segregation, which does -- Fen spends most of his time with the men. She spends most of her time with the women and their children. You get the sense that frustrates her, that she wants to be able to break through that.
BAYARDAnd it's interesting that even in the middle of this, you know, supposedly uncivilized land, these barriers of sex still attain.
PATRICKJust her wanting to bring that together is an idea from outside, is an idea that she's importing. They don't see that. They are perfectly okay with the segregation between the sexes.
REHMExactly. Bethanne Patrick, she's a freelance contributor to lithub.com. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's open the phones and welcome listeners into our discussion. First to Alicia, who's in Cincinnati, Ohio. You're on the air.
ALICIAGood morning, Diane.
ALICIAFirst of all, I would just like to say that this is the first Lily King novel that I had read, but I would just like to commend Ms. King on how verdant and lush and gorgeous a read this book was. I didn't feel that it was too erudite, but I was stunned by the amount of research and detail that went into the narrative. But what I called to talk about was something that you were speaking about earlier, which is this whole notion of possession. That was the overriding theme for me for the entire book.
ALICIABut from the very beginning, when Fin jokes with her and is needling her about the baby being thrown against the boats, I despise him. And then I further despise him when he sort of forces her to have sex against her will. And you learn that just as you're learning about her broken glasses. And I think that, I think part of it is that Fin seems to be trying to possess and control her celebrity, and I think the question as to why did she marry this guy, I think there was a primal, animalistic attraction and that they did meet each other at their best, when they were on that ship.
ALICIABut I feel like she married Fen and put up with him because she felt as though she couldn't do this on her own, in a male-dominated society.
ALICIAThat she would not be welcomed into the tribes, while at the same time trying to breach, you know, the rules with regards to the men's status.
ALICIAAnd the women stay with the women. But I would like to say that one of the most delicious points in the book was when she finds out, you know, that her suspicions are a little bit correct about certain societies being female-dominated and her finding out that all the women in the village are kind of, they're in a -- they're getting high, basically.
BAYARDAnd getting it on.
ALICIAI commend Lily King for being willing to talk about that, for being willing to talk about the sexuality and the struggle. I just can't say enough about this book, and I got so excited when you guys were talking about it today.
REHMI'm so glad. Go ahead, Bethanne.
PATRICKI just wanted to say something about that, Alicia, that I think we haven't touched on yet is Nell's colleague, who sends the manuscript. Is that Helen, the one she's -- she's had an affair with her.
BAYARDThe Ruth Benedict figure.
PATRICKYes, the Ruth Benedict figure. So she sends this pristine manuscript, and this is something Nell, talk about jealousy, we talked about Fen's jealousy, Nell is jealous of Helen's ability to be academic and to be articulate and to be able to put her thoughts down. Nell is always scribbling notes, but she doesn't always have a way to shape them. And I thought that was something, without Fen -- I thought with Fen, she believed that she would have the support she needed to perhaps get more organized, more controlled.
REHMHow interesting, and I do think that Alicia makes a great point by recognizing that Nell could not have gone into these areas alone. She needed someone, but boy, she picked the wrong guy. We're going to take a short break here, and when we come back, we'll continue our discussion of these fascinating characters in the book titled "Euphoria." Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. This month's Readers' Review, the novel "Euphoria," by Lily King. Based on and fictionalized with the life of Margaret Mead. One portion of that life. There was talk about that blending of fact and fiction when history is so apparent.
BAYARDHistory is so apparent and history is so interesting. She was inspired to write this book, Ms. King was inspired by reading the biography of Margaret Mead and realizing these three anthropologists were in the jungle having this fascinating
BAYARDTriumvirate. One marriage was dissolving and another was rising in its place and she thought a book has to be written about this. But the novelist's impulse, the historical novelist's impulse is not just to recreate history, but to find a kind of higher truth, so you begin with the facts of what happened. And then you create an alternative reality. This reminds me in a way -- it's an alternative life of Margaret Mead. Basically, if the three people in question had not behaved like adults, this is how it would have gone down.
BAYARDShe follows the historical record pretty closely, for I'd say like the first half to even two thirds of the book. And then she lifts off and takes us someplace that we wouldn't have expected. And it becomes a much more tragic finish than the life story was. But I think she wanted to get at some questions and the only way to get at those questions was to build a fictional scenario on top of the reality.
REHMNow, clearly, Fen suspected that his wife would have an affair with Andrew Bankson. He goes off to do his thing. He suspects, he dreads and he finds reality. She does have an affair with him. They are magnetically drawn to each other.
BRENNANWell, Fen knows his wife. He says to Bankson when they're putting together the grid that no one can possess Nell. In fact, she doesn't belong on the grid at all. She's another type altogether. And in Nell, as in Mead, we saw a very liberated individual from the conventions of the day. She, you know, it's hard to put modern language on that sort of free love, which is how Alan Bloom has described her taking down her liberal ideas about the social construction of gender. And in order to make his argument, he's talked about Mead, herself, as this sexual adventur-ess.
BRENNANSo, in both Nell and Mead, we see somebody who doesn't want to grid her own sexuality.
REHMWe need to explain the grid, because there is such passion in the creation of this grid. It's almost as though they're in an out of world experience.
BAYARDYeah, this is the threesome to which this book has been building the whole way. And again, the sex is entirely cerebral. It's intellectual intercourse and they're all three, for the first time in the book, sort of on the same level. Working in tandem. So there's this genuine thrill to it. I admit, as a reader, when I saw what they came up with, it's like, is that it? Really?
REHMYeah. I don't understand this.
BAYARDIt was like a Myers Briggs raping of human culture.
REHMYeah, yeah, yeah.
PATRICKI think that's exactly it. It, sometimes when we're in a moment of euphoria, an orgiastic moment when we think, wow, this is all popping and fizzing. We're not completely right.
REHMWith it. Yeah.
PATRICKWe're not completely -- we're a little divorced from rational thought and our ideas may not be as great. You need to bring them back. You need to consider them.
REHMBut what was it they were after?
BRENNANWell, King beautifully captures, throughout the book, I think a lot of the intellectual debates inside academia and specifically inside anthropology. About the politics of representation, who has the right to speak for whom. Authorship. Those debates came a little bit later than 1932, where Nell and Fen and Bankson are. But they're there. They are coming out of the Boasian school to prove cultural relativism. To take down the rise of the eugenics movement and claims of racial superiority.
BRENNANThey're just, Diane, trying to piece it all together. It's a jumble. Mary Catherine Bateson, Mead and Bateson...
BRENNANGregory Bateson's daughter.
BRENNANIn a beautiful tender memoir called "With a Daughter's Eye."
REHMI had her on the program.
BRENNANOh, she's just so talented.
BRENNANShe writes with great sensitivity about her mother's contributions. The ethnographic detail, the avarice-ness to just try to figure things out. And that when they received -- they really did receive the manuscript from Benedict. And Bateson and Mead really did ignite their intellectual journey together. But Mary Catherine Bateson, the daughter, explains that even later in life, Mead was ambivalent about that jumble that became the grid. And she left it out of any publication.
REHMInteresting. I found myself wondering whether the ideas that she expressed, sort of refusing to define sexuality as belonging in one place to a woman and to a woman only. And her attraction to a man and a man only and vice versa. Have ultimately led to the final expression of where we are with the acceptance in so many states now of gay marriage. Of the understanding that nobody is necessarily locked in to one place.
BAYARDOh yeah, I think there's a direct line from "Coming of Age in Samoa" to the Kinsey Report to Masters and Johnson. And yes, to our current condition of gay marriage and polymorphism and she was very much -- I think she definitely saw herself as a liberator. And I think Nell does too, sort of liberating people from these received opinions of what they should be, whom they should consort with. And so that's -- no wonder she was embraced by the counterculture.
PATRICKWell, and there was a cover story on today's Style section in the Washington Post about people who are choosing less conventional routes to monogamy or less monogamous routes to marriage. One of the people who's founded a website that helps married people find people to hook up with was saying, oh, well, we have a completely new set of rules. People don't want relationships anymore. And the counterpoint in the article was from an eminent anthropologist who said, on the contrary, we still want community.
PATRICKWe still want relationships and I think Fen, Nell and Bankson embody that problem. We want things to be fluid, but we also want connectivity.
REHMAbsolutely. Let's go now to Betsy in Pittsboro, North Carolina. You're on the air.
BETSYYes. Hi. Thank you for taking my call.
BETSYI'm actually in the middle of reading "Euphoria."
REHMOh, so you don't want us to give it away?
BETSYNo. I was very fortunate, back in the '70s and '80s, I worked for the Nova Science Series on PBS. And we did a program about how people in different villages in Papua, New Guinea felt about the anthropologists who were studying them. So, I actually was in Margaret Mead's village and so I thought it might be interesting, you know, to tell you a little bit about what, actually, Perry Village was like.
BETSYWhen you talk about the division of the sexes, they actually have -- their bathrooms are this plank that goes out over the water, this beautiful, turquoise water that you would love to get into, but wouldn't because they go to the bathroom over the water. And when you -- and there is actually like a men's bathroom and a women's bathroom. And my job, at the time, was to proceed the film crew, because there was no way to alert the people in these villages that we were actually coming. And so, in Perry Village, they said, well, okay, when the men come behind me, then you all can use this bathroom.
BETSYAnd the whole rest of the village will use this bathroom. I mean, these people were so kind and so accommodating and I went in there alone and I never felt frightened and I felt welcomed and I'm sure there must have been people in the village who weren't happy to see me, but I never met them. But the answer to the question of how do people feel about the anthropologist who studied them is that it very much depended on their age. When we were in Perry, where Mead is, there's a Margaret Mead building there.
BETSYIt's kind of like their school. They -- JJ, I think his name was JJ, this was a long time ago, but it was a man who had worked closely with Mead. He was still alive. And a lot of the older people in the villages, regardless of what village I was in, they did believe that because I was there, because a white person was there, that something really good was going to happen. That maybe there was going to be a road or a clinic that would give them Malaria pills. Or maybe there would be a school.
BETSYAnd so, they were very welcoming. The young people, on the other hand, felt like well, you know, Mead made her career. I was making a documentary. You know, people go and do their PhDs or whatever and that we were benefiting and therefore, the village ought to benefit.
REHMInteresting. Melissa, you wanted to comment.
REHMForgive me. Denise.
BRENNANI think what's missing in the book, really, is the so-called native's point of view, which is what Malanowski launched anthropology in the United States around. I read the book with my colleagues at Georgetown. We had our own Readers' Review, Diane.
BRENNANAnd we were all deeply troubled about, you know, we just don't hear from the local people. It's there, and in fact, I think one of the more subtle moments in the book is we do see a group called the Wokups, who refuse to be studied. As you remember, they're in the canoe, the three, looking for the new village, and the Wokups say, oh no, no, it's a bad time. We're going to have a swamp raid. You may spend the night, but you have to go on your way for your own safety.
BRENNANAnd it's a very clever scene in, that King draws, where you see local people fully aware of what the white man brings.
REHMBecause it reflects the reality of what actually happened from time to time.
BRENNANWhat is happening up and down the Sepik River at this time through the Australian Colonial Government and Administrators are these men they keep on referring to as these officers who go into these villages and arrest people or take -- or recruiters come to the mines. We see this with the returning figure in Zamboon, who had been taken to the mine. We also see, and this is one of the few places in the book where we hear from one of the local people. At the end, when Taket is talking to Bankson and explains that Zamboon couldn't have committed suicide, which is Fen's explanation.
BRENNANHe speaks through his own view that the village couldn't have killed a white man, because then the colonial police would have come down on them in full force.
REHMWould have come, sure. Yeah. There are so many details in this book that I just marvel that Lily King managed to weave into this story.
BAYARDYeah, there are some wonderful details. You're right. And I think she started with no particular knowledge of anthropology at all. So, she clearly did a considerable amount of research. What I admire about her is how disciplined she uses the research. We never get bogged down and that may get to the point that the native characters, the villagers, are not as deeply characterized, because she keeps that focus very tight, through the whole book, on the three protagonists.
REHMAnd you're listening to The Diane Rehm Show. Bethanne, what did you think about the way that the story itself was told? Certainly narrated by Bankson, and then you had these journal entries by Nell herself.
PATRICKI loved Nell's journal entries. They give you such a window into the time that she takes for herself, which is very little. That's a very sacred bit of time. Just like the sacred time that the women spend...
PATRICKYes. For themselves.
PATRICKBut the way the story was told, and this is something I'd really like to emphasize. I read one review in which the critics said, it's a misstep to give so much background about Bankson's family. And I disagree with that. And the reason I do is twofold. First of all, I think it's important for us to understand Bankson as this man of science and this man who was trying so hard. But second, this book really, Lou, you said, you know, she takes off. She lifts off. There's a certain point in the book where things really start speeding along. This is a book you have got to read until the end.
PATRICKDo not allow yourself to say, oh, why am I hearing so much about this or that? Towards the end, Lily King brings and weaves together, you know, you were saying, Denise, that she makes anthropologists of us all. And she, as an anthropologist, or author, or whatever you want to call her, is putting together an artifact that is so beautiful and so self-contained and that's what I loved about the narration.
REHMWhy does she call the novel "Euphoria," Louis?
BAYARDWell, I will read that section where she first defines it, if I may. She's explaining to Bankson her notion of this concept. She says, it's that moment about two months in, when you think you've finally got a handle on the place. Suddenly, it feels within your grasp. It's a delusion. You've only been there eight weeks, and it's followed by the complete despair of ever understanding anything. But at that moment, the place feels entirely yours. It's the briefest, purest euphoria. I admit, I'm troubled.
BAYARDDenise talked about some of the troubling aspects of the portrayal of anthropology. When she says, the place feels entirely yours. And there's a sense in which, I think King is very aware of this, that the anthropologists who have the latest wave of invasion, the latest wave of imperialism. The way that amazing sequence where he's taking them down the river like a realtor looking at all the different tribes. You know, oh, there's no beach, oh, I don't like their arts. How about there?
BAYARDAnd I think Bankson says that the so-called primitive world is being parceled up by anthropologists. And they are looking to do conquests of their own, intellectual conquest.
REHMWell, I promise you, if you haven't already read "Euphoria," by Lily King, you have a real treat coming for you. Denise Brennan, Louis Bayard, Bethanne Patrick, thank you for bringing the book alive for our listeners.
PATRICKThank you, Diane.
BRENNANThank you, Diane.
REHMAnd thanks all for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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