Excerpts from Euphoria

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Lily King's fourth novel, Euphoria, is told from the point of view of Andrew Bankson, an English anthropologist doing fieldwork up the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea. Isolated, in despair about his work, and suicidal, he crosses paths with the only other anthropologists in the country, the newly famous and controversial Nell Stone and her husband, Fenwick, who are in want of a new tribe. Bankson finds them the Tam, then returns to the tribe he is studying, the Kiona. The following are excerpts from Nell's journal, written at that time but given to Bankson many years later. While King got the idea for her novel from a chapter in a biography of Margaret Mead that covers a wild, five-month period in the anthropologist's life, Euphoria is very much a work of fiction. 

1/6 But what was all the fuss about Bankson anyway? If he was ever cold or arrogant or territorial, his 25 months with the Kiona must have knocked it out of him. Hard to believe the stories about the string of broken hearts he’s left back in England. Plus Fen says he’s a deviant. What I saw was a teetering, disheveled, unaccountably vulnerable bargepole of a man. A skyscraper beside me. I’m not sure I’ve seen such height & sensitivity paired before. Very tall men are so often naturally removed and distant (William, Paul G., etc.). I am wearing his dead brother’s glasses.

We were standing in the shallows yesterday waving him off and I remembered a fall day when I was about 8 or 9 and my brother & I had played with some new children in our neighborhood for the first time and we were being called to dinner and we stood in the yard with them chilled by the sudden evening but warm from running and I had a terrible fear that we’d never play like that again, that it would never be the same. I don’t remember if my premonition proved true. I just remember the stonelike weight in my chest as I went up the back steps.

I am tired tonight. Trying to learn another language—3rd one in 18 months—probing a new set of people who but for the matches & razors would rather be left alone—it has never felt more daunting to me before. What was it B said? Something about how all we’re watching is natives toadying to the white man. Glimpses of how it really was before us are rare, if not impossible. He despairs at the deepest level that this work has no meaning. Does it? Have I been deluding myself? Are these wasted years?


1/20 Watching the women out fishing, barely any light in the sky yet. Their boats gliding on the flat black water, silver-blue columns of smoke from fires in pots at the stern rise thick and taper to nothing. Some of the women are still wading around up to their breast in the cool water, checking their traps. Others are back in their canoes warming themselves beside the fire.

We got our slit gong beats yesterday. They surprised us with a little ceremony. Fen’s is 3 long wallops followed by 2 quick ones. Mine is 6 beats very fast, like footsteps, they said, imitating my swift walk. Men from Malun & Sali’s clan performed the dances, an old woman beside me complaining that the younger generation hadn’t learned the steps properly.


1/24 Our house isn’t done yet but the children come to me now in the morning, along with anyone else who wants to draw or roll marbles while suffering my halting interrogations. They laugh at me and imitate me, but they do answer my questions. Thankfully, Tam words are short—2 & 3 syllables, nothing like the 6-syll. Mumb. words—but I didn’t bank on 16 (and counting) genders. Fen writes none of it down, absorbs words like sunlight, and somehow innately understands the syntax. He is making himself perfectly well understood, and people are much less apt to laugh at him as he is a man and taller than all of them and the dispenser of most of the salt & matches & cigarettes.


1/30 Our stores have arrived from Port Moresby as well as our mail. One solitary letter from Helen. She probably had 30 from me in the same amount of time. Two pages. Barely worth the postage. Mostly about her book, which is nearly done. At the end she slips in: “I have been spending time with a girl named Karen, in case Louise has already told you.” Which of course Louise had. A very cool letter. And mine to her still so full of apology & regret & confusion. Sometimes I wake up in the night with the thought: She’s left Stanley for me. My heart starts racing—and then I remember that it has all already played out and I see her standing at the quay in her blue hat and I see me coming off the ship with Fen in Marseille. That night at Gertie’s when she asked me if I preferred to be the one who loved slightly more or loved slightly less. More, I said. Not this time, she said in my ear. I am the one who will always love more. I didn’t say, But I love without needing to own. Because I didn’t know the difference then.

There were 3 long pinnaces with our stuff, and they must have scraped up their sides getting through those channels. The Tam thought it was a raid, and we had a tremendous time calming them down. The sight of so many modern items has changed the way they see us (though no signs of Vailala Madness yet), and a good part of me wishes we had just sent for extra paper & the goodies we promised them. But I am grateful for the mattress & my desk, all my work tools, my paints & baby dolls & boxes of crayons so no one has to fight over the purple again, & the modeling clay & cards.

It has been 5 weeks today since Bankson brought us here. He has not come back. He was so good to us that I can’t feel resentful exactly. Fen is more openly miffed, claiming B said he’d come back in a fortnight to go on an expedition with him, so Fen could show him the Mumbanyo. We were probably too much for him with our bickering & our whining & all of my maladies. But we are better now. He saw us at our lowest and in some way I think his presence, his enthusiasm about each of us, has helped us remember what we like about each other. This leg of the trip has been smoother than the others. I think we will come out of it all unscathed, maybe even with a child. My period is now four days late.


2/1 I understood my first joke today. I was observing the weaving of mosquito bags in the 2nd women’s house. I sat next to a woman called Tadi and I asked her what she would do with the shells she earned and she said her husband would use them to buy another wife. “I cannot make this bag fast enough,” she said. We all fell over laughing.

My mind has circled back again to that conversation with Helen on the steps of Schermerhorn about how each culture has a flavor. What she said that night comes back to me at least once a day. Have I ever said anything to anyone that has come back once a day for 8 years? She had just returned from the Zunis and I had never been anywhere, and she was trying to tell me that nothing we’re taught will help us to identify or qualify that unique flavor that we need most to absorb and capture on the page. She seemed so old to me then—36 she would have been—and I thought it would take me twenty years to learn what she meant, but I knew it as soon as I got to the Solomons. And now I am engulfed in this new flavor, so different from the light but humorless flavor of the Anapa and the thick bitter taste of the Mumbanyo, this rich deep resonant complex flavor that I am only getting my first sips of, and yet how do I explain these differences to an average American who will take one look at the photographs and see black men & women with bones through their noses and lump them in a pile marked Savages? Why are you thinking about the common man? Bankson asked me the second night. What does he have to do with the nexus of thought & change? He turns his nose up at democracy. When I tried to explain that my grandmother was my imagined audience for Children of the KK, I think he was embarrassed for me. These conversations with B keep coming back. Perhaps because Fen doesn’t enjoy talking about work with me anymore. I feel him withholding, as if he thinks I’ll use his ideas in my next book if he says them out loud. It’s wretched now to think of our months on that ship home—the freedom of our talk, our lack of self-consciousness and restraint. It all goes back to this idea of ownership again. Once I published that book and my words became a commodity, something broke between us.

So I play what B & I said to each other in my head like phonograph records. He has been stuck in that brittle English structuralism & head measuring & ant colony analogies, with so little decent field training about how to extract what you need. I fear he has been talking to the Kiona about the weather all these months. He seems to know a great deal about the rains. Which have been mild so far, little more than splatters. I don’t like it when they hold back like this. It sets things on edge. Oma muni. It bodes ill. Malun taught me this today. But she was talking about a particularly crooked yam.


2/4 I have gone through all the mail now. Lush delightful letters from Mary G & Charlotte. Perfunctory ones from Edward, Claudia, & Peter. Boas made me laugh, saying that missionaries are now rushing in droves to the Solomons to convert their wicked souls. I feel in a daze. Lindbergh baby investigation & the maid swallowing silver polish, Hoover evicting the Bonus Army, Gandhi hunger-striking again. And then the book stuff. If I were married to a banker would I be able to relish this success more? Would I be able to show him the letter from the director of the American Anthropological Association or the invitation from Berkeley? All the downplaying I must do starts to rub off on me so that I don’t even allow myself a few minutes of private pleasure before the squelching kicks in. But then he surprises me, plucks out the letter from Sir James Frazer, and says “Good onya, Nelliecakes. We’ve got to frame that one.”

53 letters from readers. Fen read some in funny voices. “Dear Mrs. Stone, I find it rich irony indeed that you purport to ‘liberate’ our children with your graphic descriptions of behavior, the very reading of which will imprison them in eternal hellfire.” Fen’s expression on the word hellfire had me in tears of laughter—it was Mrs. Merne from the ship who tutted about our behavior all the way across the Indian Ocean until she finally got off in Aden. We do well when things are brought round to the ship. Is it always that way with men, that first burst of love or sex the thing that binds you? Do you always have to harken back to those first weeks when just the way he walked across a room made you want to take off all your clothes? So different with Helen. Desire came from somewhere else, at least for me. Someplace deeper? I don’t know. I do know I can lie awake all night and it feels as if someone is cutting out my stomach, the pain of having lost her is so awful. And I am angry that I was made to choose, that both Fen & Helen needed me to choose, to be their one & only when I didn’t want a one & only. I loved that Amy Lowell poem when I first read it, how her lover was like red wine at the beginning and then became bread. But that has not happened to me. My loves remain wine to me, yet I become too quickly bread to them. It was unfair, the way I had to decide one way or another in Marseille. Perhaps I made the conventional choice, the easy way for my work, my reputation, and of course for a child. A child that does not come. False alarm this month.


2/8 In our own house now. With all our stuff & routine & the smell of fresh wood. I am like an old Victorian lady, receiving my visitors in the morning & going out to the women’s houses in the afternoon to do my own calling. My mind slips too easily and often from the children I meant to study to the women here who are such a contrast to the listless Anapa & coarse but powerless Mumb. women. These Tam women have ambition and make their own money. Yes they give some to their husbands for wives, or to their sons to pay a bride price, but they keep the rest. They do the trading, even of the men’s ceramics. And they make their own marital choices, the young men prancing around them like sorority girls. Everything hinges here on the decisions the women make. I see fascinating reversals of sex roles here. Fen (surprise, surprise) disagrees.

But he is working more now that the house is done. I have given him a lot of the good stuff: kinship, social structure, politics, technology, religion. He is focusing too much on kinship, though, just as he focused too much on religion & totems with the Mumb. He thinks he has cottoned onto some pattern which he refuses to share with me. It does give him direction & energy so I can’t complain overmuch.


2/9 Fen & I have just had the fight I’ve been trying to avoid. Nothing that escalated—he is much better now. It really was a Mumbanyo thing. He has focused on that damn kinship theory to the exclusion of all else so that we now have nothing on government, religion, technology, etc. He suspected it was a cross-sexual rope system, men inherit from their mothers and women from their fathers, and got more & more excited about it, interviewing in the men’s houses all day and staying up sometimes all night trying to put it all together, And now it has all crumbled to bits and he refuses to do anything more, won’t figure out what the pattern really is and won’t work on anything else either. I have asked to trade food & nutrition (which I have already covered sufficiently) for kinship & politics, but he refuses. So I will have to take it all on in secret.


2/10 Thick dreams about Helen in Marseille. Over three years ago now but am still stuck there, going back & forth between the two hotels, trying to split myself in half. H. in her blue hat on the quai, her lips quivering. I’ve left Stanley, her first words, and then Fen not giving us the time he’d promised me, coming right up behind me, leaving no doubt, no room for an explanation. Oh rotten days. Rotten. And yet I return to them like an opium addict.

I want too much. I always have.

And all the while I am aware of a larger despair, as if Helen & I are vessels for the despair of all women and many men too. Who are we and where are we going? Why are we, with all our “progress,” so limited in understanding & sympathy & the ability to give each other real freedom? Why with our emphasis on the individual are we still so blinded by the urge to conform? Charlotte wrote that rumors are flying about Howard and Paul, and Howard might lose his job at Yale. And her nephew, getting his PhD at Wisconsin, was declared insane and committed to a state asylum when they discovered he was a leader in the communist party there. I think above all else it is freedom I search for in my work, in these far-flung places, to find a group of people who give each other the room to be in whatever way they need to be. And maybe I will never find it all in one culture, but maybe I can find parts of it in several cultures, maybe I can piece it together like a mosaic and unveil it to the world. But the world is blind. The world—and really I mean the West—has no interest in change or self-improvement, and my role it seems to me on a dark day like today is merely to document these oddball cultures in the nick of time, just before Western mining and agriculture annihilates them. And then I fear that this awareness of their impending doom alters my observations, laces all of it with a morose nostalgia.

This mood is glacial, gathers up all the debris as it rolls through: my marriage, my work, the fate of the world, Helen, the ache for a child, even Bankson, a man I knew for 4 days and may easily never see again. All these pulls on me that cancel one another out like an algebraic equation I can’t solve.


2/12 Great commotion on the water this morning. The women’s boats which had gone out peacefully earlier came rushing back in shouting & splashing and when I got to the beach I saw that all the screaming had been coming from one woman, Sali, her moans deep and her yelps shrill and then a harsh cry like a mountain lion with an arrow through its flank. She staggered from the canoe to land and crouched in the sand to have her baby. A few of the older women spread bark cloth beneath her. They all began singing songs to lure the baby out. I waited for the taboos to set in and people to be sent away, but no one chased me or anyone else away, not even the few men who had gathered beneath trees behind us. I spotted Wanji among them and sent him up to the house for boiling water & towels. I squeezed in beside Malun.

I assisted in this birth. I saw the baby’s head show and retreat, show and retreat like a moon phasing quickly, and then suddenly it pushed through the bright red labia all at once while Sali hollered, then was so quiet I thought she was dead, but then she was screaming again and a shoulder came through, a tiny knob compared to the huge head, and on the next contraction I tugged on that little shoulder and the other shoulder came, followed by the belly and the little fat legs, and there he was, a baby boy, as if brought in on a tide. Malun & her sister laughed at my tears, but I was overwhelmed by life arriving and remembering my sister Katie’s fat legs and full of a wild selfish hope that my body having now seen the simplicity of it could manage that someday. Malun bit off the cord and cinched the stump with a reed. Many hands reached out to wipe the white coating off the baby, and I wondered if this is where the Mumbanyo king of Australia myth comes from, the one in which the first man steps out of his white skin. Wanji finally came with the boiled water and towels but we didn’t need them. As we walked up the beach, Kolun, the baby’s father, came forward and took his child without hesitation, and he curled up like a kitten in the crook of his collarbone. A few men had flutes and played a formless tune. Sali walked without help and chatted with her two sisters and cousin. I wished I could understand all that she was saying but it was too fast, too intimate.


2/16 Sali’s baby died. He wouldn’t suck.


2/17 Fen is being insufferable. He cuffed Wanji for taking a few elastic bands without asking, and now Wanji is wailing and Fen is shouting and Sali’s boy is still dead.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014