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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.

By J.P. O'Malley / November 23, 2011

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).

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“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.

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?

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