Jeffrey Eugenides talks about 'The Marriage Plot' and pokes fun at literary theorists

Jeffrey Eugenides talks about his novels – and themes of death, suicide, and Detroit.

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    Author Jeffrey Eugenides says he briefly considered becoming a religious scholar before choosing to write novels instead.
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Jeffrey Eugenides published his first novel at 33 after he was fired from his position as executive secretary at the Academy of American Poets. The reason he lost his job? He was spending too much time at work honing the manuscript of his debut novel "The Virgin Suicides” (1993).

“Middlesex,” his second novel, earned Eugenides a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2002.

“The Marriage Plot,” just released in October, is Eugenides' third novel which took him nine years to complete. The story centers around three college students – Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell – all of whom graduate from Brown College in 1982.

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The book is a postmodernist take on the original marriage plot within the Victorian novel. A lot of the time, it is also a novel about other novels, in which the characters spend their time discussing Derrida, Tolstoy, Austen, and Hemingway. The second half of the book moves away from literary theory, and in some colorful scenes set in Paris, Calcutta, and New York, Eugenides explores the difficulties of dealing with mental illness, failed romance, and one man’s battle with his faith in religion. And of course Eugenides also returns to his central source of inspiration: the coming-of-age story.

Eugenides recently spoke to the Monitor about the extent of free will, why semiotics is needlessly convoluted, and how reading James Joyce nearly made him choose a career in religion over a career in writing.

Your new novel moves more towards realism than your previous work. Why the change in style?

I’ve always considered myself a realist at heart. I’ve never written a book that violated physical principles. My books often have an atmosphere of the fantastic or
the surreal, but actually nothing happens in them that couldn’t happen in reality, so I don’t know if this book is that much of a departure in terms of realism.

What is the reason for putting so much literary theory at the start of your new novel?

There was a lot of literary theory in my life when I was in college, and as soon as I graduated, it began to fade away, as it does in my novel. It was a very passionate time for reading, as I recall, and a time when what you were reading was influencing the person you thought you were, or becoming, so I couldn’t imagine these characters without all the books they were reading.

The French literary theorists you speak about in the book – Derrida, Foucault and Barthes – are they writers you return to, and do you respect their work?

Jacques Derrida is a very important thinker and philosopher who has made serious contributions to both philosophy and literary criticism. Roland Barthes is the
one I feel most affinity for, and Michel Foucault, well, his writing influenced my novel, “Middlesex.” They are important writers for me, but I resist some of their more dire conclusions: the end of the novel, the inability to convey meaning in a text, and the death of the author.

Are you also poking fun at these writers at the same time?

There is no question that the style of the semiotic writers was needlessly convoluted. It almost became ridiculous. I make a certain amount of fun in the book at that. There are easier ways to describe things.

Why do you write so much about death and suicide?

I think the suicides in my first book came from the idea of growing up in Detroit. If you grow up in a city like that, you feel everything is perishing, evanescent, and going away very quickly. The suicides of those girls in that book represented the dying of my hometown. I almost wasn’t writing about suicides as such, but the brevity of life, or the impermanence of all things. With this book, it’s more that I was interested in mental illness and insanity than suicide.

Do you see Detroit as a microcosm of America, an empire that is perishing?

I see Detroit as emblematic of a large swath of the United States, not the entire country. The cities that were once powerful and are now greatly reduced – Milwaukee, Cleveland, Detroit, St Louis, Cincinnati. They are all in dire straits. I think Detroit is a microcosm, or a reflection of a lot of American culture, from
Motown all the way to Eminem. It seems like a really interesting city in that way.

Would you say the group of writers that you were mixing with in the '90s (Jonathan Franzen, David Means, and David Foster Wallace) influenced a
culture of writing that was happening at the time?

We were never a group of writers that influenced each other, at least as far as I’m concerned. I met Franzen because our editor introduced us. While he was
writing “The Corrections,” and I was writing “Middlesex,” we had a big exchange, talked about the novel, and the perils of the death of literature. We were a support system for each other, and he kept me from my darkest thoughts about the death of the novel. I didn’t know Wallace at all, Franzen knew Wallace. I was already formed as a writer by the time I met any of those guys.

Is the character of Leonard in “The Marriage Plot” based on David Foster Wallace?

Anyone reading Leonard’s character who thinks it connects with David Foster Wallace’s life I would say is mistaken.

What about the bandanna that Leonard wears in the novel, and the fact that he suffers from depression also? Isn’t that similar to David Foster Wallace?

The bandanna that Leonard wears, I put that on him because of Axl Rose, the singer from Guns N’ Roses. There are some things in Leonard that are reminiscent of Wallace, like Leonard putting the tobacco tin in his boot. Wallace used to put his tobacco tin in his sock. But the totalities of the two characters are completely different. Leonard’s parents are divorced, Wallace’s were not; Leonard is from Portland, Wallace was not; Leonard grew up very poor, Wallace did not; Leonard is a biologist, Wallace was not; Leonard gets married at 22, Wallace did not; Wallace was a writer with depression, a very different disease to manic depression. I could go on and on. If you look at the two of them, they are not very alike.

You write about genes and biology in this book, as you do in your second novel “Middlesex." What are your own views on the gene-centered view of
humanity?

If you talk to geneticists, they are constantly finding that your genes are being switched on and off because of the environment. Genes alone do not determine an exact path in your life. It’s a strong influence, and you can’t discount it, but it’s not that simple, it’s much more complex. The part that’s not determined is where free will exists, and I think it is important to remind people of the extent of our free will. An entirely mechanistic view of life is not only inaccurate, it is rather depressing, I think.

Was the character of Mitchell in “The Marriage Plot” based on a younger Jeffrey Eugenides?

One part of Mitchell’s story that comes close to my life is that I did take a lot of religious studies courses in college and got very interested in religion and thought
about converting to Catholicism, even though I was brought up as a Greek Orthodox. I thought I wanted to become a scholar of religion, and I chose not to do that, and to keep pursuing writing. In a very grandiose, self-dramatizing way, I thought of Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” rejecting the priesthood and becoming a writer in the same way. That’s the level to which Joyce influenced me. It’s amazing because it changed certain decisions in my life. That is my point about “The Marriage Plot.” You read books and they change your life.

J.P. O'Malley is a freelance writer based in London.

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