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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.

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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.

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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?


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