Lily’s King’s latest novel, Euphoria, was published by Atlantic Monthly Press earlier this summer. Inspired by the life of Margret Mead, Euphoria tells the story of three anthropologists caught in a love triangle in 1930’s New Guinea. On the occasion of starting a new novel, King eulogizes the one she’s leaving behind.
WHEN I WAS 22, I moved to Paris. I’d seen it once a few years earlier and vowed to get myself there after college. Though I’d never lived in a city and had never wanted to live in a city, I knew I wanted to be there. That all the male writers whose work had dominated the syllabi of my literary education had lived there in the earlier part of that century meant little to me. I did not connect their youth or their desire to write with my own. For me, Paris was more an instinctive, visceral, greedy impulse: I liked it; I wanted it. After college graduation I stayed in Chapel Hill and worked double shifts at two restaurants until I’d made enough money for a plane ticket and two months’ living expenses. I hoped to find work there before it ran out.
I left my boyfriend behind. I hadn’t yet met him when I vowed to myself to move to France, but by the time of my departure we’d been going out for nearly a year, and I loved him more than I’d loved anyone before. I’d come home late from the restaurants and we’d count my tip money. It was winter and his apartment had little heat so I’d change into this one-piece long underwear I had. My little red suit, he called it. It was so comfortable after 12 hours of waiting tables.
In March I got on a plane to France. I rented a room from an angry old woman with a dog that bit near the Arc de Triomphe until I got a live-in job making lunch and dinner for three kids across the river in the 6th. I hoped my boyfriend and I would survive the distance, and we did for a while, but when I came back to the States for the holidays we broke up while watching The Apartment on New Year’s Eve.
I returned to Paris a few days after that, and in February I met a photographer at a bar. We began seeing each other. He had a room in the basement of his parents’ apartment in the 5th where he’d make me passion fruit tisane. But it did not make me passionate. I was only aware of how much I wanted to be in the middle of a relationship, not at the beginning. I wanted to put on my red suit while I drank my tisane. I wanted to be in something familiar and comfortable and worn in.
A few years later, in grad school in Syracuse, New York, I was reading Antaeus, that lovely, now defunct, literary magazine, and came across a piece which still comes to mind every few years. It was a series of excerpts from the journals of Joyce Carol Oates, and the one that made such an impression on me described her frustrations embarking on a new novel, and how she longed to be back in the old novel, with her old characters; how she missed them — Richard, I remember one of them was called — and missed driving up the driveway to their house. At the time I had only written short stories and I thought she was slightly insane to be having such a longing. I mocked her to myself: Oh, how I miss the driveway! But I never forgot the emotion or her description of it. And now I experience it myself, deeply, painfully, every time I start a new novel.
It is that same yearning I felt in Paris, to be in the middle of something, not the beginning; to be with characters who are intimates, whose impulses you can understand and predict and find comfort in. Leaving a novel behind is like a break-up. You lose everyone attached to them, their friends, their family. You see a blue hat and you remember a story from their youth, which was never your youth, though for a while it felt exactly like it. What are you supposed to do with those memories when it’s over? And how are you supposed to start again? How are you supposed to work up the curiosity and energy and interest in strangers?
I just finished a novel about three anthropologists caught in a love triangle in 1933 while doing fieldwork in Papua New Guinea. When I started this novel I was miserable, missing Daley and Gardiner and Garvey and Jonathan from the novel before, missing their jokes and banter and back porch, their raft of desires I knew so well. I resented that my new characters lived in huts, not houses; that they’d never seen TV, that they hadn’t even heard about World War II. After I’d written a few chapters, I stopped in complete frustration with them and wrote their autobiographies, 20 to 30 page memoirs in each of their three voices. Those pages would never go in the novel, but they got us past the newness and closer to the middle of our relationship.
And now they, too, are gone, copyedits done and headed for binding. I have a new novel in mind. All it is at the moment is six pages of notes I wrote in a small notebook on an airplane last month. This book will bring me back to the States and to the present, and I can already feel the slight heartbeat of the first chapter. And while much of me is ready for the change, there is another part that feels the loss of my complicated anthropologists, feels the thinness of those six small pages.
It is only now, on the cusp of loss, that you understand how well you knew them. They go off, and you are expected to start again with nothing more than a few words scratched out on an airline tray table after a strong cup of tea and maybe too much oxygen. You’re meant to accept what’s gone and begin again, knowing that not all that far from now, you’ll be missing them, wishing you could still be with them, wearing your little red suit, driving up their driveway, or climbing up the notched pole to their hut.