Lane Lecture Preview: Jeffrey Eugenides

jeffrey eugenides

This profile is second of three in support of the Lane Lecture Series. Jeffrey Eugenides reads in Cemex Auditorium on Monday, February 25th at 8pm.

In 1983, Jeffrey Eugenides was fresh out of college and living on San Francisco’s Haight Street with Rick Moody, a friend he’d made in his undergraduate days at Brown. He was writing, but he wasn’t getting published, and wouldn’t for seven more years.

Now, in 2013, he’s the author of three novels, The Virgin Suicides (1993), Middlesex (2002), and The Marriage Plot (2011). His awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Pulitzer Prize in Fiction (for Middlesex), he’s a member of The Paris Review’s Board of Directors, and he publishes regularly in The New Yorker. Eugenides is that rare breed of novelist who enjoys both popular and literary acclaim.

The first years may have been difficult, but after earning his MA in Creative Writing at Stanford, Eugenides moved to as yet ungentrified Prospect Heights in Brooklyn. In 1990, The Paris Review finally picked up a piece he’d written, set in his hometown of Gross Pointe, Michigan, and narrated in the first person plural. It was the first chapter of what would become The Virgin Suicides.

FSG published the book three years later. Its opening reads like a reverse-engineered game of Clue:

On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide—it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese—the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.

The ruminative, lyrical novel is told by an anonymous group of teenage boys who attempt to make sense of the five Lisbon sisters’ suicides. Its greatest strength is its voice, which enchanted critics like Michiko Kakutani, who noted, “The narrator’s hypnotic voice succeeds in transporting us to that mythic realm where fate, not common sense or psychology, holds sway.” The book caught the attention (and jealousy) of fellow Brooklynite David Foster Wallace, who, three years shy of publishing Infinite Jest, was at the center of a burgeoning literary scene that included Jonathan Franzen and Mark Costello.

Eugenides joined that scene after speaking with Franzen at a reading in Manhattan. The two starting playing tennis in Central Park and reading each other’s work. Riding the success of The Virgin Suicides, the Brown graduate was told Franzen that he was working on an ambitious, multigenerational novel called Middlesex narrated by its intersex protagonist, Calliope Stephanides.

That book moved away from the kind of formal innovation that Eugenides had absorbed during the height of the semiotics boom at Brown, where the writings of Derrida and Barthes had inspired a group of English professors to split from the New Critics in the department and form The Program in Semiotic Studies. Eugenides has been quoted as saying the experience “was like being the child of divorcing parents: you didn’t know which one you should have allegiance to.”

Whereas The Virgin Suicides seemed to side with the semioticians, putting plot on the backburner and the placing the interpretation of signs at its center, Middlesex moves toward more traditional, plot-driven literature, following the Stephanides clan from a village in nineteenth-century Turkey to the sack of Smyrna, from the bloom and decay of Detroit to the streets of modern-day Berlin, where Eugenides wrote much of the novel.

It’s still very much a literary novel, and peppered with references to Chekhov, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and (surprise!) Dr. Phil. The narrator, Cal, can let the story tell itself, or jerk the reader from the fictional dream with changes in person, tense, and passages like this:

So that now, as I quickly try to sketch my early years, what comes back most clearly is just that: the brown orb of my father’s sleepy, bearish eye. A postmodern touch in our domestic cinema, pointing up artifice, calling attention to mechanics. (And bequeathing me my aesthetic.)

Middlesex catapulted Eugenides to worldwide stardom, selling 1.3 million copies and garnering accolades like the Oprah’s Book Club Sticker and the Pulitzer Prize.

When he joined the Princeton Creative Writing faculty that fall, Eugenides was already at work on his latest novel, The Marriage Plot. He had a team of four readers—his wife, Karen, FSG President and Publisher Jonathan Galassi, Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review, and German publisher Alexander Fest—and, as he told The Paris Review, “worked like a madman, finishing the last two chapters and revising the entire four-hundred-and-fifty-page manuscript” in four months.

As with his first novels, Eugenides took a gamble on The Marriage Plot. He wanted to write a book about books (the novel’s first line is “For starters, look at all the books.”) that was also about real life, a character-driven novel in the realist mode that dramatized the battle between Brown’s semiotic-deconstructionist gang and the New Critics.

The novel begins in on graduation day in 1982, (the same year that Ira Glass graduated from Brown with an honors degree in semiotics) with the beautiful heroine Madeleine Hanna simultaneously writing an honors English thesis on the marriage plot and living in one—she’s torn between Leonard Bankhead, the sexy, brilliant, mentally ill David Foster Wallace look-and-act-alike and Mitchell Grammaticus, an angsty, timid pilgrim who the New York Times called “an authorial surrogate.” Madeleine’s dilemma is described by what Eugenides has called the true first line of the novel: “Madeleine’s love troubles began at a time when the French theory she was reading deconstructed the very notion of love.”

Eugenides uses a deft, if well worn, third-person omniscient and an ingenious narrative structure to propel readers through The Marriage Plot. The narration focalizes through Madeleine, Mitchell, or Leonard in each act, and fans out from graduation day to cover college and the years immediately after. Its serious, intimate tone forsakes the darkly humorous Virgin Suicides and jaunty Middlesex, though Eugenides occasionally pokes fun at the intellectual world:

The boys at college seemed either incredibly immature or prematurely middle-aged, bearded like therapists, warming brandy snifters over candles while listening to Coltrane’s A Love Supreme.

Eugenides is currently working on a movie adaptation of the novel with Scott Rudin, producer of “No Country for Old Men,” “The Social Network,” and “There Will Be Blood”. Tentatively scheduled for 2015 release, The Marriage Plot will be the second film inspired by Eugenides’ work, joining Sophia Coppola’s 1999 adaptation of The Virgin Suicides.

The mustachioed man is also writing a collection of short stories. A handful of them have been published in The New Yorker, including “Great Experiment,” in which a failing Chicago editor working on a distillation of de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” conspires to embezzle money from his libertarian, porn-producing boss with the help of a “pale, perspirey” accountant. Five months ago, the author told, “I have a few more to complete the collection, which will be a very mixed bag of stories, quite different, not all arranged around a certain theme.”

Jeffrey Eugenides returns to his California alma mater on Monday night. What he will pull from his mixed bag is anyone’s guess.

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