'When you’re going through hell, keep going.' - Winston Churchill



Lily King

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jul 23, 2014
Category: Fiction

We think of Margaret Mead — if we think of her at all — as the Julia Child of anthropology. Square of jaw. Hair cut with bangs, like a 5-year-old. Wire rims. More a scholar than a woman.

We forgot that Mead was a vocal supporter of sexual experimentation in adolescence, women’s rights, the legalization of marijuana. And that, in 1933, her intellectual and personal life converged in an experience a lot more daring than most of us have known. Mead and her second husband were doing fieldwork on the Sepik River in New Guinea when they met English anthropologist Gregory Bateson. Their time together was electrifying. Bateson became her third husband.

Lily King has taken this high-octane collaboration and turned it into an intellectual romance novel. That makes it sound academic, a yawn: anthropologists in heat. Yes, it’s that. There are field reports, letters, and scenes of high drama in which the characters talk animatedly and then someone types. Sometimes there are even two people typing.

But the effect is hallucinatory — this is a trip of a novel. My shirt wasn’t soaked with sweat as I read, I wasn’t brushing insects out of my hair, and yet I felt I was upriver with King’s stand-ins for Mead, her husband and Bateson. I’m always delighted when I hit page 256 of a novel and read THE END, but especially so with “Euphoria.” Simply, I was drained. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here. For the Audible audio book, click here.]

The novel begins with a bang. Literally. Married anthropologists Nell Stone and Schuyler Fenwick are just setting off in a canoe when someone throws a “pale brown thing” at them. “Another dead baby,” Fen says matter-of factly. It’s a relief when they arrive back in “civilization,” and, at a Christmas party, run into Andrew Bankson, an anthropologist who is studying the most interesting tribe on this part of the river.

Nell and Fen don’t know what Bankson tells the reader: “Three days earlier, I’d gone to the river to drown myself.” He gloms onto the young anthropologists like a Kardashian attaching itself to a cameraman wearing a suit made of money. “My heart whapped in my throat and all I could think was how to keep them, how to keep them. I felt my loneliness bulge out of me like a goiter.” And so Bankson arranges for Nell and Fen to live with a tribe just seven hours from his camp. Seven hours? Only because he’s got a motor on his canoe.

Think he’ll stay away?

“For so long I’d felt that what I’d been trained to do in academic writing was to press my nose to the ground, and here was Nell Stone with her head raised and swiveling in all directions. It was exhilarating and infuriating and I needed to see her again.”

In her marriage, Nell is the star. She’s written a bestselling book and her husband hasn’t. But their relationship isn’t equal. Fen claims the most interesting parts of the research. He doesn’t share. He has an agenda. In a word, it would be as productive to study her marriage as it would be to delve into the customs of the “natives.”

And here’s Barkson, tall, British, connected, accomplished, brimming with ideas. His arrival at Nell and Fen’s camp is a change agent — erotic, scholarly, violent change. Everything you think will happen happens. And more.

What does the title mean? It’s a observation Nell makes about doing research. “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.”

This book is like that. It goes off the rails at the end, and along the way there’s a dead patch or two, but for most of the novel it’s as if you’re taking the most fascinating anthropology course ever taught — and, after class, over drinks, the rule-breaker of a professor tells you what she’s been up to with her colleagues.

Hot stuff. In every way.


Short takes

Two-thirds of a terrific book about “The Great Gatsby”

Did the film of “The Great Gatsby” leave you with Fitzgerald fatigue? “Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby” will revive you. Better, it will excite you, for Sarah Churchwell, professor of English Literature at the University of East Anglia, has focused on a single year — 1922, the year “Gatsby” was conceived — and delivered an original way to read the book.

1922 was the year the “Twenties” happened, and Churchwell gets it all: the dancing and boozing, the new slang, the lights and noise of Manhattan. And she chronicles, in greater detail than I’ve read elsewhere, Scott and Zelda. He kept detailed notebooks and scrapbooks, and they chart a year of ruin, much of it on the North Shore of Long Island: “February: Still drunk… April… Another fight. Tearing drunk.” His household budget recorded $80 a month to “house liquor” and $100 to “wild parties.” (In 1922, Fitzgerald averaged 100 words a day; elsewhere in 1922, Eliot published “The Waste Land” and Joyce published “Ulysses.”) So when Fitzgerald produced “Gatsby” in 1925, people read it the way we once read Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities” — as a novel of current events. Riveting stuff. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

If “Careless People” is so hot, why doesn’t it get a feature review? Because a third of the book is given to a sensational 1922 crime, the double homicide of an Episcopal sexton and a choir singer. The investigation was botched and the crime was never solved — it was just the kind of scandal that makes headlines and stays news. Churchwell believes Fitzgerald used the case to plot some of “Gatsby.” Maybe he did, but I tired of it quickly; if I had been Churchwell’s editor, I would have begged, on bended knee, for her to cut it. So will you. But if you skip that murder — Lord, that sounds strange — “Careless People” is a revelation.

Tom Fels: Shadow Work

When Tom Fels, my old friend from the sixties, isn’t curating exhibitions or chronicling the era we once shared (most recently, Buying the Farm: Peace and war on a sixties commune) he works in what he calls the “supply side” of the arts, in this case photography. Over the past few years he’s been making three-by-two-foot cyanotypes in a process nearly as old as photography itself, but rarely seen in recent decades. His lush, sensuous work is featured (until September 7) at the Albany Institute of History and Art.

Blackie: The Horse Who Stood Still

I can now reveal that Paige Peterson, the New York artist who became world famous for illustrating my adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic Christmas Carol, has illustrated another book. It too has an unlikely hero: a horse that stood for 28 years, pretty much without moving, in a California field. Blackie had been a rodeo horse and a crowd-pleaser at Yosemite, but it was his late-life career as a fixture in Tiburon that’s celebrated in Blackie: The Horse Who Stood Still. As a child, Paige would bring him sugar and carrots; in this book, with a rhymed text by Christopher Cerf, she feeds us quirk and whimsey. Ideal for kids who have exhausted the Dr. Seuss books and who may not be ready for Tiny Tim.

Reader Mail (Advertisements for myself)

From Paul Zengilowski

My children will turn 19 and 21 in a few weeks and the birthday gift choice falls to me. My wife and I bought them books by the bushel when they were young — some they chose, more often though, we exercised our parental prerogative. That stopped as they entered their mid-teens and felt more confident in their choices than in ours.

I’ve not bought them books in years — with two exceptions. The Only Investment Guide You’ll Ever Need, by Andrew Tobias, was a high school graduation gift. Knowing that having the money talk with them would be fruitless, I passed on to them my financial bible. I’d read it when it was first issued and it has served to keep me mostly on the financial straight and narrow over the last 30 years.

The second exception is their birthday present for this year: The 100 Essentials. Should they read only those two books, I’m confident they’ll enter adulthood with important and foundational knowledge that will serve them well.

from Marcie

You recommended Queen’s Gambit to me about six weeks ago when I asked for the most grabable book you could think of. I loved it. It’s difficult to articulate precisely what the dark magic of that book is, but I found it fascinating — the characters, all of them, were like no others I’ve encountered. The relationship between Beth and her adopted mother was so subtle. I love that Tevis never capitulates to cliché or sentimentality. Elegant. Thank you for urging me to read it.