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Euphoria

Euphoria, by Lily King, has been written to much acclaim, including being the recipient of The Kirkus Prize and The New York Times Book Review's One of the 10 Best Books of the Year 2014. The book is loosely based upon the life of the famous anthropologist, Margaret Mead (Nell Stone), and her time spent in New Guinea, collaborating with fellow anthropologists and her second and third husbands, Reo Fortune (Schuyler Fenwick - Fen) and Gregory Bateson (Andrew Bateson). The novel is a fictional account of their complicated relationships with one another. Though it accurately depicts many details of Mead and Bateson's childhoods, it's ending, SPOILER ALERT AHEAD: veers strongly into the fictional when Fen kills Nell rather than lose her to Bateson. In reality, Margaret Mead died of cancer, not at the hands of her second husband.

Although the love triangle is sure to provide compelling reading, readers should not overlook some of the more problematic aspects of Euphoria. Most notably, King's account of the fictional tribes in her book. "The natives" (as they are continuously referred to throughout Euphoria) are often depicted as being violent and engaging in sexually hedonistic group orgies. The book starts with Fen and Nell escaping from a particularly violent tribe that "blame all their bad luck on the lack of homicide" (King 4); multiple references are made to cannibalism. One cannot help but feel that the terms "barbaric" and "noble savage" are lurking behind many of King's description of "the natives." As someone who has not read Mead, Fortune or Bateson's work, it is hard to determine if King is picking up on racism that may have existed in the works of these three anthropologists; offering a general critique of how indigenous people have often been portrayed in the Western world or continuing to propagate racist stereotypes. Nonetheless, King's accounts and descriptions of "the natives" are unsettling and should not be viewed as historically accurate.

It is accuracy, or the lack thereof, that makes for the most interesting reading in King's book. Euphoria throws into doubt the validity of the entire anthropological field. After living among and studying an indigenous group for close to two years, Bateson questions Nell about the veracity of their pursuit,"I asked her if she believed you could ever truly understand another culture. I told her the longer I stayed, the more asinine the attempt seemed, and that what I'd become more interested in was how we believed we could be objective in any way at all, we who each came in with our own personal definitions of kindness, strength, masculinity, femininity, God, civilization, right and wrong" (King 50). In attempting to understand another culture, anthropologists must set aside their own cultural beliefs and prejudices. Bateson questions how realistic this endeavor is.

Nell's flippant reply only serves to underscore Bateson's point. Nell fully admits to her own arrogance not just in cultural matters, but in general.
"'But I've always thought my opinion was the right one. It's a small flaw I have.'
'An American flaw.'
'Maybe, but Fen has it too.'
'A flaw of the colonies then. Is that why you got into this line of work, so you could have your say and people would have to travel thousands of miles and write their own books if they wanted to refute you'" (King 51).
This exchange between Bateson and Nell highlights not only the difficulty anthropologists face in objectively observing and understanding another culture, but the almost Herculean task that readers face in trying to determine a report's accuracy. In today's political climate where there is ever growing clamor about the scourge of fake news, King astutely picks up on the way readers are at the mercy of a reporter's bias and dependent upon the reporter's second-hand account for any semblance of true information.

Nell herself becomes more aware of the problematic nature of anthropology when writing in her journal, "What was it B said? Something about how all we're watching is natives toadying to the white man" (King 76). As most introductory college level psychology courses will teach, people will often alter their behavior when they know they are being observed. This shift in behavior is known as the Hawthorne effect. In their attempts to learn about indigenous cultures, the three anthropologists try to ingratiate themselves with the locals. This is done either by forming beneficial friendships or distributing limited goods, such as cigarettes or matches, to the locals. In their attempts to buy access into these isolated societies, one cannot help but wonder how genuine the experiences and interactions of these anthropologists were. Throughout the novel, Bateson describes his frustration with the reluctance of tribal leaders to let him observe all aspects of daily life. Some tribes flat out refuse to be observed and of those that do consent, the reader cannot help but wonder if they are putting on a performance for the anthropologists. Indeed, Mead's work today is often viewed as controversial, with both its detractors and defenders. Critics question both the accuracy of Mead's accounts, as well as her unconventional style of observation and recording.

Bateson himself seems to recognize the absurdity of white people wandering around the jungles of New Guinea looking for "authentic" experiences to jot down in their notebooks when he states, "I wondered what they made of this woman who bossed them around and wrote down their reactions. It was funny how it all seemed more vulgar watching someone else do it" (King 119). Nell (Mead's character) too becomes more aware of her limitations to objectively document indigenous cultures, when she admits, "...My role it seems 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" (King 95). What this passage highlights, and what King does a good job of capturing in her story, is the ambition of these three anthropologists. Nell (Mead), Bateson (Bateson) and Fen (Fortune) were academics who were trying to build their careers, professional reputations and economic well-being off of their anthropological work. For much of the novel, Nell is distracted by her ability to maintain a continuous source of grant money, Meanwhile Fortune is obsessed with the idea of becoming rich by selling indigenous artifacts he has stolen. A not so subtle allusion to the fact that most Western museums feature artifacts that have been stolen and appropriated from the very cultures these venerable institutions claim to champion and protect. King does a good job of depicting how Nell, Batesons and Fen's work is not just tainted by their own beliefs and prejudices, but by what they think can make interesting to the general public and their sources of funding at home. Nell's fear of her work being laced with nostalgia speaks to the Western mindset of these "other" cultures as being quaint, primitive and somehow not on par with our own.

If King's book is of any interest then, it is due not to the lurid love lives of its three main characters, but rather in its' insights into the field of anthropology. The book is rife with references to the way Nell conducts her research, which may or may not reflect Mead's own style. For example, Nell comments on the way that verbal communication causes us to lose our appreciation and understanding for non-verbal communication, which is often far more powerful. Nell spends the majority of her days with children because they are eager to show off their knowledge. In contrast to adults, who seldom have the patience to explain basic social mores and vocabulary to a newcomer. These interesting insights cause the reader to pause to think about the ways in which we communicate and structure our societies, as well as the universality of the human condition (i.e. an almost universal reliance on non-verbal communication). By far, however, the most compelling aspect of King's novel is her questioning of the motives and accuracy of the accounts of these anthropologists, who lived and conducted their research in the manner they did. Begging the final question, "When only one person is an expert on a particular people, do we learn more about the people or the anthropologist when we read the analysis?" (King 177).

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