October 21, 2015 2:27 PM - by Lily King - Subscribe

"Just after a failed suicide attempt, Andrew Bankson, English anthropologist studying the Kiona tribe in the territory of New Guinea, meets a pair of fellow anthropologists fleeing from a cannibalistic tribe down river. Nell Stone is controversial and well respected. Her rough Australian husband, Fen, is envious of her fame and determined to outshine her. Bankson helps them find a new tribe to study, the artistic, female-­dominated Tam. Nell’s quiet assurance and love of the work, and Fen’s easy familiarity, pull Bankson back from the brink. But it is the growing fire between him and Nell that they cannot do anything about. Layered on top of that is Nell’s grasp of the nuances of the Tam, which makes it clear that she will once again surpass Fen. Set between the First and Second World Wars, the story is loosely based on events in the life of Margaret Mead." -- Booklist

This is the November book for the Historical Fiction Book Club; future club posts will open on the first of the month (but I promised cortex I'd make it rain today).

LARB interviews King about the work.

Salon review: "“Euphoria” — titled for what Nell describes as “that moment two months in, when you think you’ve finally got a handle on the place,” inevitably “followed by the complete despair of ever understanding anything” — is about love and whether it can be liberated from the desire to possess."

Review and Interview

Reading Group Guide (a bit high-school-essay-prompt-ish but raises some points of discussion.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee (23 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The club page is here if you'd like to join: Historical Fiction Book Club.
posted by pb at 2:33 PM on October 21, 2015

If you Kindle, it's on sale for $6.40.

I've been curious about this since I loved Ann Patchett's State of Wonder and Hanya Yanagihara's The People In the Trees.
posted by matildaben at 3:32 PM on October 21, 2015

This has been on my shelf but not yet on the immediately to-read list, so thanks for this--I'll grab it and pitch in...
posted by thomas j wise at 5:34 PM on October 21, 2015

Okay, excellent; I'm in! This book already has a property I love: it pulled me right in with the first couple of paragraphs. Thanks for helming this, Eyebrows, I look forward to the discussion!
posted by taz at 6:39 AM on October 22, 2015

Ok I was bit leery because I too read The people in the Trees quite recently, but like Taz says the first few paragraphs are enticing enough.
posted by dhruva at 12:24 PM on October 22, 2015

I'd never heard of this, but the description sounds fascinating.
posted by Fence at 12:46 PM on October 22, 2015

This has been on my to-read list for a while--looking forward to discussing it!
posted by snorkmaiden at 8:06 PM on October 22, 2015

Personally, Fen terrified me, because I could see why he was attractive, but at the same time he was SO SCARY in that he is the archetype for a man threatened by a woman's achievement who becomes, as a result, threatening. He's afraid Nell will be more important than him SO HE WILL KILL EVERYONE. On first read I had trouble reading past my fear of him.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:17 PM on October 22, 2015

Yeah, that guy was all the more disturbing for the way his mundanely bad behaviour comes from weakness and not from strength. And the way that we discover that he and his brothers were molesting their sister - we hear about it obliquely in passing and without comment and without us ever hearing of it again.
posted by emilyw at 2:48 PM on October 23, 2015

I am SUPER mad about the end of this book, do I have to wait till November 1st to say why?

Emilyw: thank you, I had no idea what was supposed to have happened there, UGH.
posted by leesh at 5:01 PM on October 23, 2015

No, go for it. I declare everything below this comment to be SPOILER ZONE!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:19 PM on October 23, 2015


OK, so maybe this is my own fault for Googling Margaret Mead and so knowing how things happened IN REAL LIFE, and thus having certain expectations for how the story would go, but I one hundred percent was LIVID that King killed off Nell to further the narrator's MANPAIN. Especially with all the discussion of tragedy as a narrative form--not that Nell's death felt like a tragedy per se, but it DID feel cheap. I would much rather have seen things play out more the way they did in life, even though that wasn't a happy ending either--but this really felt like a way to make the narrator's lot in life EVEN MORE sad, look now he's gonna mend fences with his mommy because he has no one left to love, what sort of ending is THAT.

Plus, the fact that it was presumably Fen's child that killed her, metaphorically, or maybe he realized she was going to leave him and killed her literally? I'm not sure which is worse/meant to get at the reader more. Because it definitely felt like it was designed to make the reader sad, oh no they missed their chance JUST LIKE ROMEO AND JULIET.

I'm mainly angry because I LOVED the book up until then, though obviously wanted more from Nell's POV as a working anthropologist, and less from the rose-colored glasses of the dude who was enamored with her. There's so much interesting stuff here on sexuality, and marriage, and cultures, and stupid anthropologists! Like who things about free love being a thing in the 30s? More of that, less tragic lady-parts-related deaths, ok?
posted by leesh at 7:06 PM on October 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

the story is loosely based on events in the life of Margaret Mead

I was delighted to see this book show up here, and I hope it's not a derail to talk about the events it's based on when all I've read are the linked articles and a review by an anthropologist. But if anyone is curious about Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune, and Gregory Bateson--the folks it's based on--I think Lise Dobrin and Ira Bashkow's "'The Truth in Anthropology Does Not Travel First Class': Reo Fortune's Fateful Encounter with Margaret Mead" [PDF] is a recent article that's both accurate in what it takes from Margaret Mead (chapters 12-16 of Blackberry Winter, her archived papers at the Library of Congress, etc.) and very interesting for how it presents Reo Fortune's point of view. I mean, it's still plausible to read him as a volatile, erratic, jealous figure and her as a great anthropologist just trying to find happiness and keep her ex out of her life, but there's a lot there about Fortune that isn't well-known. And the close reading of Fortune's "Arapesh Warfare" as a veiled critique of Mead makes you go, like, wow, because the argument is that it's both good anthropology and also a deeply personal allegory you'd have had trouble spotting without the backstory (more on this here [PDF]). Then, when the article culminates in the point that Fortune had found himself in a series of double binds, you realize that the authors have arranged their larger argument pretty brilliantly to work well in Batesonian terms. Of course, Gregory Bateson was amazingly wrong about how placing double binds on children could be a cause of schizophrenia, and likewise, it is just as wrong to blame Margaret Mead for Reo Fortune's issues with moving on. But as a symbol of how difficult his personal and professional entanglements were to cope with, the double bind is fairly striking, and in this instance, I also like it as a further example of narrating truth being as artful as narrating fiction.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 7:09 PM on October 23, 2015 [5 favorites]

After reading all the links Monsieur Caution posted, the end makes me EVEN MADDER, because King was very clearly sticking really closely to the historical record before that. I mean, some scenes from her novel are practically cribbed from some of those articles. (I don't mean that in a negative way, just, if you're going to hew that closely to the truth, what's with thinking that ending was a good idea?)

I also totally agree that the tribes in her novel are basically there as window dressing/plot devices, not as actual people. She's much more interested in the love triangle than in the anthropology the participants were engaged in, and that's kind of a shame.
posted by leesh at 9:07 AM on October 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

just popping into the thread to register the ChuraChura-est complaint: there are no monkeys in New Guinea, and they would not be hearing the "caterwauling of monkeys on high branches" as they canoe up-river! But otherwise, I'm really enjoying this book so far!
posted by ChuraChura at 10:00 AM on October 24, 2015 [4 favorites]

I totally read it as Fen being the cause of Nell's death, deliberately or no - I thought it was pretty clear that some kind of assault from him was the cause of her first miscarriage as well. I assumed that he found out she'd thrown the flute overboard and gone into a rage. I agree that the narrative choice of disappearing Nell & the flute & Fen was a bit too tidy, but I can see how it happened - the flute has to go, narratively, and however you get rid of it events kind of unfurl from there. The part I think was going too far was the "he is wine and bread and deep in my stomach" line, which did imply that if she had managed to get off the ship she & Bankson would have lived happily ever after. I think it would have been more effective to keep her as someone who has serial romances with both people and cultures.

I was pretty confused for most of the book as to how scary I was supposed to find Fen - because I agree, he was terrifying, but the other characters didn't seem properly alarmed by him. I understand that Nell made her choice between Helen and Fen when she was at her "euphoria" point with him, but still.

I didn't really understand the parts at the end about Bankson's rejection of the Grid - was there some basis to his rejection other than its fraught origins and the Nazi thing? In general, I wasn't clear on how to understand his arc. How does this episode move him from being suicidal to apparently being reconciled to anthropology & successful at it?
posted by yarrow at 11:10 AM on October 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

Some unconnected thoughts:

1) The broken romance plot both interested and frustrated me, because this is where the narrative really deviates from the historical record and it's very hard to see why. At some level, this appears to be existential punishment for the characters' intentionally or unintentionally destructive behavior in New Guinea--given what happens to Xambun, I can certainly understand the author not wanting to reward anyone--but killing off Nell while leaving alive the two men in this love triangle is...troubling? Problematic? The ironic epigraph from Margaret Mead doesn't help, as Fortune and Bateson managed to quarrel over her without, y'know, Mead dying.

2) That being said, Stone's and Bateson's puzzling cluelessness about Fen's behavior is an important source of irony: despite all of their work decoding relationships within Tam and Kiona culture, they're all fundamentally terrible at making one plus one equal two when it comes to understanding their own. And it's Bani, one of the Tam men, who states what ought to have been blatantly obvious ("He break her" [245]). This is one of the few moments in the text where we grasp how the observers are being observed, critiqued, and interpreted in their own right by their indigenous subjects.

3) Stone, Fen, and Bateson strike me as embodying three different variations on twentieth-century colonialism. Bateson and Fen are outright destructive, the former because he puts his anthropological knowledge to military use (and therefore destroys one of the tribes) and the latter because he believes that he has the right to take a sacred object for his own purposes (and therefore destroys Xambun while interefering with ritual). In both cases, their actions put the lie to any argument that anthropology is somehow a disinterested pursuit or free from imperialist entanglements. (Fen's belief that he can successfully use a magic spell, something the Tam scoff at, is a particularly extreme example of cultural appropriation!) But while Stone isn't as overtly destructive as the men, her devotion to her work means that she runs roughshod over any signs of resistance--the women who finally curse at her for getting in their way, the old man who really doesn't want to reminisce about a childhood ritual, and, in the end, Xambun, who has had enough of white people by this point. Her study of a people doesn't always extend to paying close attention to the people (which, perhaps, partly explains her strange nonchalance about Fen).

4) The flute is interesting precisely because we never see it independently of Fen's description. Once he has it, he never unwraps it (and is stopped when trying to do so), and then Stone tosses it overboard. Fen sees the flute as somehow crystallizing the essence of the tribe's culture and a means of proving his own masculinity ("[a] man can't be without power" [238]), but the narrative undercuts his claims to understanding what the flute does, not least because he appears to have been drugged when he initially saw it.
posted by thomas j wise at 1:52 PM on October 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've read the book now, and most of what comes to mind to comment on is still anthropology trivia, more or less footnotes to the acknowledgments section. I never specialized in any of this stuff, by the way--anthropology sure, for a while, but none of these topics in particular--so here goes nothing.

As the acknowledgements mention, the character of Helen is based on Ruth Benedict, and her romance with Nell is likewise based on a real relationship that's worth reading about in itself. The part where all the characters read Helen's Arc of Culture is actually a pretty decent summary of Ruth Benedict's Patterns of Culture. I read that book like 25 years ago, and it might be relevant to summarize it in a way that makes its impact on Mead more clear. Staking out a position now sometimes called cultural configurationism, Benedict stereotyped three societies according to what she saw as key cultural themes. Borrowing a bit from Nietzsche, she described the Zuñi as Apollonian and the Kwakiutl as Dionysian. Then she had a section where she described Dobu society as essentially paranoid. A popular book in its time for all the reasons given in the novel, but obviously it's got problems.

Margaret Mead's Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies is the primary book to come out of the fieldwork covered in the novel, and it has similar issues, stereotyping Arapesh men and women as peaceful, Mundugumor men and women as warlike, and Tchambuli men and women as somewhat role-reversed relative to an American point of view. A lot of people, including Reo Fortune and one of the folks mentioned in the acknowledgements, have understandably chipped away at those stereotypes. But I also recall reading somewhere (on some mailing list, I think) an anthropologist confessing that he'd asked Mead about this personally, like "Isn't that all a bit too pat?" and he had to admit she'd completely destroyed him in the painful minutes that followed. So I'd leave room for the likelihood her fieldwork experiences were meaningful and her ability to defend them remained sharp, even if her rhetorical goals in the 1930s didn't hold up as well.

Moving on, the flute thing being a hidden symbol of masculine power seems likely to be inspired by the famous "sacred flute complex" associated with men's cults / masculine power in parts of Melanesia and that sometimes is and sometimes isn't connected with ritualized homosexuality. I haven't checked the novel's references to see if one of them covers it, but this is sort of an anthropology 101 topic the author might have picked up elsewhere (e.g). Anyway, the symbolic qualities of the sacred flute, at least to some folks in real life, make Fen's issues with erectile dysfunction and his desire to possess the flute in the novel seem pretty suspicious. I mean, maybe a flute is just a flute, but the specific symbolism it's charged with in the novel seems like a close match for something from relevant anthropological literature.

Incidentally, the ritual where men dress like women and women dress up as men might have come from a number of sources, but I know it's very prominent ("The most outstanding feature of the ceremonies ...") in Gregory Bateson's Naven, which is mentioned in the acknowledgements.

Finally, the fun bit about explaining Romeo and Juliet and getting a laugh seems likely to have been inspired by Laura Bohannan's "Shakespeare in the Bush," which I know has been anthologized in a number of cultural anthropology readers for undergrads. The novel actually acknowledges Laura Bohannan's novel Return to Laughter, written under the pseudonym Elenore Smith Bowen, and maybe I'm wrong, but I don't recall Bohannan including that anecdote there. I realize the general idea could have come from other places, though. I remember a similarly funny anecdote from Hortense Powdermaker's fieldwork memoirs where she gave up on reading the Bible while doing research on New Ireland, because the endless recitation of genealogies in the Old Testament reminded her too much of her work.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 8:25 PM on October 25, 2015

Oh, it occurred to me that the "Shakespeare in the Bush" connection may support leesh's point that the Romeo and Juliet reference is a weak but perhaps intentional allegory for the whole, given that the play in the source material is Hamlet. Maybe that changed for thematic reasons.

Also, I checked, and the group in Naven does seem to be part of the sacred flute complex. Bateson describes the relevant initiation rites on pages 130-134 of the second edition (1958), ritualized homosexuality, totemic flutes, and all, though the symbolic relationship to male fertility and power isn't spelled out too clearly at least in that section. I don't think that cinches it, but at least we know the author acknowledges the source.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 6:34 AM on October 26, 2015

I really liked this one, although I found it interesting and intriguing rather than gripping, or a book that I'd say I loved.
I thought that Fen was a great character, charming and terrifying at the same time.

I did think the ending was a bit sudden and out of nowhere, but I guess King had to end somewhere and didn't want too many loose threads. I would also have liked to read a bit more about the individuals in the various tribes, but as was mentioned above, the various tribes were there as setting rather than as active characters in their own right.
posted by Fence at 11:54 AM on November 23, 2015

I don't have any terribly interesting thoughts about my reading experience to add, but just wanted to note that I really enjoyed both reading this book (which I found very engaging) and everyone's comments above (particularly as I knew nothing about Margaret Mead, so the points about the historical record and how the novel deviates from it were great).
posted by fever-trees at 9:29 PM on November 23, 2015

OK, so maybe this is my own fault for Googling Margaret Mead and so knowing how things happened IN REAL LIFE, and thus having certain expectations for how the story would go, but I one hundred percent was LIVID that King killed off Nell to further the narrator's MANPAIN. Especially with all the discussion of tragedy as a narrative form--not that Nell's death felt like a tragedy per se, but it DID feel cheap. I would much rather have seen things play out more the way they did in life, even though that wasn't a happy ending either--but this really felt like a way to make the narrator's lot in life EVEN MORE sad, look now he's gonna mend fences with his mommy because he has no one left to love, what sort of ending is THAT.

I'm so glad someone else felt this way! Just finished the book and was really extremely annoyed that not only did she choose write the Mead character as dying, but in fact has her dying young in childbirth.
posted by frumiousb at 4:13 AM on April 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm with yarrow, I assumed Fen killed her (necessitating a burial at sea - no evidence). I would have liked more detail about the love affair between Nell and Fen, to understand why she stayed with him so long. He was written as the bad guy from the start, and she wasn't with him out of fear. Why was she with him?

Can anyone with religious or anthropological knowledge explain why they talked about feeding the flute?
posted by superfish at 6:51 PM on April 16, 2016

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