AMERICAN literature divides fairly neatly between the hares and the tortoises. The former rarely allow a year to go by without a new work: John Updike’s 68 books, Norman Mailer’s more than 40, Philip Roth’s 32 so far. The latter put minimal stress on the bookshelf: J.D. Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye) and Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird) publishing a single novel each, and Henry Roth maintaining a remarkable 60-year silence between Call It Sleep and Mercy of a Rude Stream.
Without becoming an interview-refusing recluse in the manner of Salinger and Lee, Jeffrey Eugenides (above, born in 1960) has inclined towards the steadier end of the spectrum. In the quarter-century since he won a short-story competition in 1986, he has published only three novels. The Virgin Suicides (1993) and Middlesex (2002) set up the rather pressuring pattern of releasing early in a decade a book that by the decade’s end would be regarded as one of the best of its time. But Eugenides seems likely to have achieved the feat again with The Marriage Plot.
These three volumes, totalling around 1,100 pages, have established the Detroit-born, Greek-American author as one of the most brilliant voices in fiction. Each of the novels represents a departure and development from what went before, but they share a prevailing tone of dark comedy and certain overlapping themes: adolescent sexuality features in all three, while Detroit and suicidal depression figure in two.
The Virgin Suicides (successfully filmed by Sofia Coppola) is a posthumous report on the extraordinary story of the five Lisbon girls, each of whom kills herself in what seems to be a ritual preservation of innocence and potential. Arriving nine years later, and winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Middlesex focuses on a hermaphrodite, Calliope Stephanides, tracing through three family generations over 70 years the gene that left the narrator trapped between genders.
The Victorian marriage plot
A character facing a fateful choice is one of the most common and satsifying plotlines in fiction and Eugenides’ books spin dazzling variations on such dilemmas. The Lisbon sisters select death over life, Calliope Stephanides chooses masculinity over femininity and, in the new book, a young woman dithers between different romantic and sexual paths, trying to choose between two men – one of them hovers between insanity and sanity, the other faith and atheism.
Again gestated for nine years, The Marriage Plot takes the form of a campus and post-campus romantic triangle set in 1982. Madeleine, studying at Brown University in Rhode Island, has taken a course in which a professor argues that the classic ‘marriage plot’ of 19th-century literature, in which a woman sought the most financially or socially advantageous match, has been undone by feminism, contraception, co-education, pre-marital sex and divorce: “What would it matter whom [Jane Austen’s] Emma married if she could file for separation later?” Her further studies include a module in semiotics, in which writers such as Roland Barthes and Claude Lévi-Strauss expose the language and actions of romance as empty gestures.
And yet Madeleine’s problem is that, while trying to be a postmodern woman, she is caught in a Victorian dilemma: weighing the rival love claims of sexy but manic depressive scientist Leonard against conservative but reliable theologian Mitchell. Once more the writer brings off the rare trick of a story that is both knowing and moving.
A recurrent figure in Eugenides’s fiction is the teenager facing an obstacle: shyness, unhappiness, frightening desire, a genetic or psychiatric condition. But – despite returning to young adult protagonists for the third time – the writer is wary (in a trait that shows throughout the conversation) of any suggestion that he is wired to treat certain themes. The latest novel had to feature young people because that is generally when romantic decisions are made. He chose 1982, the time of his own college years, “because I could be confident of getting the details right.”
“The story began,” says Eugenides, “with a line that’s now on page 19 of the finished book…” Under the static of the transatlantic call, I can hear the flicking of pages. “Here it is,” he says. “‘Madeleine’s love troubles had begun at a time when the French theory she was reading deconstructed the very notion of love.’ I think that’s also the problem of the novelist now. How do you write a novel that’s aware of modern critical and philosophical thinking, while also dealing with emotions that are more immutable and don’t seem to accord with the cynicism of academic thought? What I learned from this book is that the Victorian marriage plot no longer functions in society but it still plays itself out in people’s heads.”
The Nine Year Plan
Elegant patterning is such a feature of Eugenides’ work that the nine-year intervals between both the first and second novels and the second and third begin to look suspiciously intentional. “I don’t think anyone would plan such a thing,” he laughs. “But perhaps I should take to saying that, it’s like the Five-Year Plan, I’m on the Nine-Year Plan. I always think it’s going to cease, the next book will happen quickly and I try to get a jumpstart. But, in the end, I don’t think it’s very important how long a book takes. It doesn’t mean the book will be better.”
But have there been moments when you thought you weren’t going to get out of a book you were writing? “I would say that the process of writing is an experience of going between a kind of despair and extreme enthusiasm. You’re excited enough that you continue to do it every day – and you can sort of envisage the finished book – but then you’re constantly not reaching the potential that you’re searching for. So you’re desperate. But there are not quite enough moments of despair to have you quit.”
Eugenides is speaking from New Jersey, where he lives with his wife and daughter and teaches creative writing at Princeton University. Our conversation was delayed by Hurricane Irene – against the most pessimistic predictions, the storm left the houses in the writer’s area undamaged but, 24 hours later, just as they were celebrating the escape, the power supply was switched off for repair work, which put the pumps out of action, flooding the basement and putting the household out of contact. The sequence of events – in which plotline A fails to happen, but is superseded by a surprise plotline B – feels appropriately novelistic.
Writers who take their time between books broadly divide between those who suffer long spells of drought before a spurt of creativity and those who are working methodically on the next project for all the time they are absent from bookstores. Eugenides says that Middlesex did take nine years to write, while he was engaged on the most recent novel for four or five years, although there was a complicated false start.
“There was actually another book as well, which I’d started a long time ago. During Middlesex, I put the book down and started writing something else. Then went back to it after Middlesex. As I was writing that book, one of my characters – namely, Madeleine – seemed not to belong in that book and took on more significance.”
The first version, of the young woman studying the death of love, was of an ensemble novel about a family preparing for a debutantes’ coming-out ball. “She was one of the children, coming back for the party. What was going to be a four- or five-page section of back-story – her life at university and trouble with boyfriends and the fact that she was studying semiotics – became 75 pages and had a tone and life and energy and freshness that seemed better than what I’d written of the other novel. So I followed that, little by little.”
This long and methodical writing process – in which a walk-on character in an abandoned book can walk off with one of her own – continues during the completion of the book and explains the lengthy absences from the shelves: “I rewrite chapters over and over, looking for the right shape. I’ll often write nine drafts of the same section and then, on the eighth draft, realise that the first or second draft had a bit that worked fine, so that goes back in. I’m unable to tell in early drafts what works and what doesn’t. There are many ways to make mistakes and I make them all before I decide what should be left in.”
In Middlesex, for example, there was a substantial excised section about a scientist on a research trip. A sequence in The Marriage Plot in which Mitchell backpacks through Europe contributes 40 pages of finished print but was reduced from 150. Another striking aspect of The Marriage Plot is the number of books the characters reflect on: stacks of novels and semiotic criticism for Madeleine, Darwinism and science for Leonard, theology and spirituality (a biography of Mother Teresa of Calcutta is crucial) for Mitchell. Did Eugenides do all that reading before he could start writing? “Most of the novels, lit crit and theology I had read before. I had to go to the Princeton library and bone up on some Victorian literary criticism. The part I knew nothing about was the yeast genetics Leonard is interested in, so I had to read about that and talk to yeast experts, which thankfully they have in abundance at Princeton.”
But works the younger Eugenides had studied (he read English Literature at Brown, with a side-course in theology) are put to previously unimagined purpose in fiction. A passage in A Lover’s Discourse by Roland Barthes that deconstructs the meaning (or lack of meaning) of the phrase “I love you” is incorporated in a remarkably dark love scene. “A Lover’s Discourse was the book I most enjoyed when I took Semiotics in college,” he says. “So I remembered that line.” Did you ever use it with a girlfriend in the terrible way that it’s used in the novel? “Well, being a novelist precludes me from having to answer that,” he chuckles.
Art imitating life
As often with Eugenides, humour illuminates a serious point: the writer has always resisted autobiographical interpretations. He does, though, say that he toured Europe while a student and that he worked as a volunteer for Mother Teresa in Calcutta. “The hardest parts of the book to write,” he says, “were the ones that resembled my own life. I find that, when I write autobiographically, I just don’t know what to leave out. I tend to include every memory, every person I met, so that the whole thing becomes shapeless. I’ve been trying to write about that [Calcutta] experience for 30 years and finally, now, I managed to get it in a shape that worked fictively.”
The details are very precise in that section, and Eugenides says it all comes from within rather than research: “I have a good memory for things that happened long ago, less good for last week.” Apart from the apparent nine-year plan, another tempting sense of design across the three novels is that each employs a different storytelling style. The organising voice of The Virgin Suicides is ‘we’; in a rare example of group narration, events are recollected by a group of schoolboys as a whole. Middlesex employs first-person narration, although unconventionally; the ‘I’ covers two different identities, as the character changes sex. The Marriage Plot turns to the third person, with various ‘he’ and ‘she’ perspectives succeeding each other in relay.
This aspect of his output will surely prove tempting subject matter for essays as the books of Eugenides increasingly become set texts for actual Madeleines on campus. So has he deliberately worked through the conjugations? “I think my aim is always to write a book as different from the last as possible. Middlesex spanned about seven decades so the only directive I gave myself was to write a book that would be tightly dramatised with a rather short timeframe, which has come out as about a year. And I wanted the book to be imbued with the music of my characters’ thinking, so that meant staying close to their points of view.”
Despite his publishing rhythm, readers will not have to wait until 2020 for the next book by Eugenides – a volume of short stories is almost completed. And then there is that abandoned manuscript from which Madeleine sprang. “For a long time, I assumed I would go back to that novel. While writing The Marriage Plot, I actually comforted myself that I had the other one to go back to. But now it’s not what I want to write next.” So, see you in 2020, then? “I think it’s going to be quicker than that, but I never know.” Readers will wait. While glad he hasn’t been a one-book wonder, we may settle for a four or five-book wonder.
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides is out 11 October, published by Fourth Estate.
Jeffrey Eugenides will be appearing at the UEA Literary Festival on 3 November at 7pm.