Posts tagged ‘Jeffrey Eugenides’

September 4, 2012

I Riff on Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, Which I Haven’t Read (Book Acquired, 8.22.2012)

by Biblioklept

 

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1. Jeffrey Eugenides’s third novel The Marriage Plot is out in paperback from Picador this month. I haven’t read it.

2. I like the cover, a sort of watercolor job on thick textured paper.

3. I read Eugenides’s first novel The Virgin Suicides in 1997 or 1998. I was a freshman or sophomore in college. It was one of those books that everyone had on their shelves (I read my girlfriend’s roommate’s copy in maybe two sittings). I recall liking its style but the story had no emotional impact on me.

I was suspicious of the talent everyone ascribed to Eugenides.

4. I bought Eugenides’s second novel Middlesex in a train station in Rome. I bought it because I needed something to read. I read most of it on trains. This was the summer of 2005 or 2006, I think.

5. Middlesex is one of the first novels I can think of that I read and thought, “Here is a writer trying to fool me. Here is a writer trying to hide a fairly predictable plot under a mask of thematic importance. Here is a writer trying to hide mundane and often clunky prose beneath relevant issues. Here is an author trying to hide a lack of penetrating insight beneath the dazzle of historical sweep.”

6. Middlesex: The seams show. It’s literary-fiction-as-genre. And I have no problem with that. I wish it was weirder.

7. Here’s the back cover blurb for The Marriage Plot:

It’s the early 1980s. In American colleges, the wised-up kids are inhaling Derrida and listening to Talking Heads. But Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English major, is writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, purveyors of the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels. As Madeleine studies the age-old motivations of the human heart, real life, in the form of two very different guys, intervenes—the charismatic and intense Leonard Bankhead, and her old friend the mystically inclined Mitchell Grammaticus. As all three of them face life in the real world they will have to reevaluate everything they have learned.

8. I sort of feel like I’ve already read the novel after reading this. Or maybe I feel like I could guess the trajectory of the novel.

9. Okay, so maybe I should read the first few pages . . .

10. I stopped on page 11, at this paragraph:

The cafe had just opened. The guy behind the counter, who was wearing Elvis Costello glasses, was rinsing out the espresso machine. At a table against the wall, a girl with stiff pink hair was smoking a clove cigarette and reading Invisible Cities. “Tainted Love” played from the stereo on top of the refrigerator.

Espresso! Cloves! Soft Cell! Calvino! Costello!

Okay. Maybe it’s Gloria Jones’s version of “Tainted Love.”

Anyway. There’s something insufferable about the paragraph.

I suppose I need to name or define the “something.”

11. Let me backtrack then, to the first paragraphs of the novel, to its first line even: “To start with, look at all the books.”

I like that as an opening line. I do. And I don’t mind an intertextual read. I’ll even accept this opening gambit as a form of characterization for our heroine Madeleine—this listing of authors—Wharton, Henry James, “a lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope” (a smidgen!), “good helpings of Austen, George Eliot” etc. etc. We learn she reads Collette “on the sly” (who is stopping her?).

The references pile up: The surroundings of College Hill are compared to a “Charles Addams cartoon or a Lovecraft story”; those damn RISD kids are “blaring Patti Smith”; Madeleine has borrowed her roommate’s Betsey Johnson dress; you might recognize Madeleine by her “Katherine Hepburn-ish cheekbones and jawline”; etc.

For, fun, let me pick three pages at random:

On page 75, we find out that someone named Dinky is “a frosted blonde with late-de Kooning teeth.”

Page 187 is clean.

Page 87: Roland Barthes. Harpo Marx. Grolsch beer.

(I can’t help but skim over 86, a motherlode: Kafka, Borges, Musil, Vanity FairThe Sorrows of Young Werther, Derrida).

12. Erudition in a novel can be a fine thing, and works that explicitly reference and engage other works can be marvelous (Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn is an easy example to go to here). But references can also be used lazily as placeholders for real meaning, or even as a substitution for an entire milieu. (This is what I mean by the “something insufferable,” re: point 10).

13. There seems to be a trend in genre-bound “literary fiction” novels (again, I mean literary-fiction-as-genre) that lazily tie themselves to another, greater novel, without actually adding to the themes. I’m thinking explicitly of Franzen trying to borrow some of the weight of War and Peace in Freedom and Chad Harbach’s bid for Moby-Dick comparisons in The Art of Fielding. My intuition is that Eugenides is doing the same thing in The Marriage Plot.

14. Of course I’m probably (improbably enough) not the ideal audience for The Marriage Plot, not despite the fact but because of the fact that I happen to dig Talking Heads and Derrida and Barthes and literary theory &c. A romcom that involves a semiotics seminar as a setting is especially unappealing to me.

My wife, on the other hand, snapped up the copy of The Marriage Plot that the kind people at Picador sent me. I had to pull it from her night stand to write this riff. I’ll get her reaction down the line, which will certainly be more informed than my own.

 

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June 12, 2012

Object Lessons from The Paris Review, Where Writers Present Some of Their Favorite Short Stories from Other Writers (Book Acquired, 6.11.2012)

by Biblioklept

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Okay: This one is really cool: Object Lessons features a bunch of short stories, some you may have read, each with a short lead-in (two-five pages) by another writer. So, we get Jeffrey Eugenides on Denis Johnson, or Ben Marcus on Donald Barthelme, or Lydia Davis on Jane Bowles, or Ali Smith on Lydia Davis. You know what, let me just share the table of contents (review down the line):

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May 23, 2012

Books Acquired, 5.17.2012—Or, Here’s What’s New from Picador This June

by Biblioklept

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Nice little batch from the good folks at Picador, including Bill Loehfelm’s thriller The Devil She Knows, Mohamed ElBarardei’s The Age of Deception, an analysis of nuclear politics, and Michael Cunningham’s Land’s End, which I assume is a novelization of the clothing catalog.

Also in the batch: Denis Johnson’s novella Train Dreams, which I read in one sitting this Sunday. It’s a perfect novella, its pathos balanced with humor, its realism tempered in something of the mythic spirit of the American frontier. Full review forthcoming.

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Miroslav Penkov’s collection East of the West looks pretty cool.

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Here’s a description from his website:

A grandson tries to buy the corpse of Lenin on eBay for his Communist grandfather. A failed wunderkind steals a golden cross from an Orthodox church. A boy meets his cousin (the love of his life) once every five years in the river that divides their village into east and west. These are Miroslav Penkov’s strange, unexpectedly moving visions of his home country, Bulgaria, and they are the stories that make up his charming, deeply felt debut collection.

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Donald Antrim’s debut Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World has also been reissued with a new intro by Jeffrey Eugenides. Here’s an excerpt of the novel:

It was Friday, the day of the big theriomorphism workshop Rotary luncheon out at the Holiday Inn. My wife, Meredith, and I and a crowd of red-faced Rotarians and their well-dressed wives (Rotary Anns) sat around hotel banquet tables and listened to a visiting anthropology professor at the junior college say, “Pick an animal, any animal, fish, fowl, beast. Concentrate on aspects of the animal. Is it big? Small? Cute? Does it eat other animals? What color fur? If the animal is a bird, what color are its feathers? What song does it sing?”

“This is stupid,” I whispered to Meredith.

“It’s your fault we’re here, Pete. Why don’t you give it a chance?”

The anthropologist said, “Why don’t we all think about it for a minute? Okay, everybody got one?”

“Yes,” “No,” “Wait,” people said. Meredith whispered, “What’s yours?”

“I don’t know, what’s yours?”

“Coelacanth.”

“The prehistoric fish?”

“I need a volunteer,” declared the professor. Meredith raised her hand, and the man at the podium said, “Yes, back there. Tell us your name and the name of the animal you’ve chosen to become today.”

“Meredith Robinson. Coelacanth. It’s a kind of fish that scientists believed extinct until one was caught off the coast of Africa.”

“Excellent. Come forward. Sit here. Would someone please dim the lights?” I watched Rotary guys watch my wife. Bill Nixon, Tom Thompson, Abraham de Leon, Dick Morton, Terry Heinemann, Robert Isaac—all the usuals, plus others. Jerry and his wife, Rita, sat up front. The professor soothingly said, “Close your eyes, breathe deeply, and tell us about the coelacanth. Everybody else, let’s all breathe deeply too, and be thinking about our own animals. Go ahead, Meredith.”

“Well, it’s four feet long, deep slate blue, with bony, protruding fins and big jaws with scary teeth. It goes back seventy million years. It moves slowly, it dwells in dark water.” The professor nodded. Audience members inched forward in their seats. Meredith said, “At night it swims upside down with its head pointed to the sea bottom, bobbing along.”

“A feeding technique?”

“Maybe.”

“How’s the water?” I could see Meredith’s head settle forward as she softly answered, “Cold.”

“Feel the cold. Breathe that cold. Inhale that water. What do you feel?”

“Colors.”

“Colors?”

“Blue, black, indigo.”

May 31, 2010

“Extreme Solitude” — New Fiction from Jeffrey Eugenides

by Biblioklept

“Extreme Solitude” — a new story from Jeffrey Eugenides at The New Yorker. Read the whole story here. Here’s an excerpt that might ring true to many an English major:

Madeleine had met Leonard in an upper-level semiotics seminar taught by a renegade from the English department. Michael Zipperstein had arrived at Brown thirty-two years earlier filled with zeal for the New Criticism. He’d inculcated the habits of close reading and biography-free interpretation into three generations of students before taking a Road to Damascus sabbatical, in Paris, in 1975, where he’d met Roland Barthes at a dinner party and been converted, over duck cassoulet, to the new faith. Now Zipperstein taught two courses in the newly created Program in Semiotic Studies: Introduction to Semiotic Theory, in the fall, and, in the spring, Semiotics 211. Hygienically bald, with a seaman’s mustacheless white beard, Zipperstein favored French fisherman’s sweaters and wide-wale corduroys. He buried people with his reading lists: in addition to all the semiotic big hitters––Derrida, Eco, Barthes––the students in Semiotics 211 had to contend with a magpie nest of reserve reading that included everything from Balzac’s “Sarrasine” to issues of Semiotext(e) to xeroxed selections from E. M. Cioran, Robert Walser, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Peter Handke, and Carl Van Vechten. To get into the seminar, you had to submit to a one-on-one interview with Zipperstein during which he asked bland personal questions, such as what your favorite food or dog breed was, and made enigmatic Warholian remarks in response. This esoteric probing, along with Zipperstein’s guru’s dome and beard, gave his students a sense that they’d been spiritually vetted and were now—for two hours Wednesday afternoons, at least––part of a campus lit-crit élite.

Almost overnight it became laughable to read writers like Cheever or Updike, who wrote about the suburbia Madeleine and most of her friends had grown up in, in favor of reading the Marquis de Sade, who wrote about anally deflowering virgins in eighteenth-century France. Madeleine had become an English major for the purest and dullest of reasons: because she loved to read. The university’s “British and American Literature Course Catalogue” was, for Madeleine, what its Bergdorf equivalent was for her roommates. A course listing like “English 274: Lyly’s Euphues” excited Madeleine the way a pair of Fiorucci cowboy boots did Abby. “English 450A: Hawthorne and James” filled Madeleine with an expectation of sinful hours in bed that was not unlike the sensation Olivia got from wearing a Lycra skirt and leather blazer to Danceteria. Right up through her third year of college, Madeleine had kept wholesomely taking courses like “Victorian Fantasy: From ‘Phantastes’ to ‘The Water-Babies,’ ” but by senior year she could no longer ignore the contrast between the blinky people in her Beowulf seminar and the hipsters down the hall reading Maurice Blanchot. Going to college in the moneymaking eighties lacked a certain radicalism. Semiotics was the first thing that smacked of revolution. It drew a line; it created an elect; it was sophisticated and Continental; it dealt with provocative subjects, with torture, sadism, hermaphroditism––with sex and power.

April 24, 2007

Alphabet Soup–Our Favorite Literary Characters (Part One)

by Biblioklept

A is for Antigone, the incestuous product of Oedipus and his mama Jocasta. In Sophocles’ play of the same name, Antigone is punished for burying the body of her exiled brother Polynices. Like her papa Oedipus, Antigone pushes the limits of cultural boundaries and the conflicts that duty to one’s family and the gods present to social order. Good, tragic stuff.

A is also for Alice, the heroine of not one but two Lewis Carroll classics, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. Full of logic puzzles, cryptic satire, and good old fashioned nonsense, Alice’s adventures work on a range of levels that appeal to both children and adults. She explores altered states and missing signifiers while flirting with death and madness in a surreal dreamworld. (Fans of Carroll’s twisty logic will surely delight in Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid).

B is for Bartleby the scrivener, the eponymous non-hero of my favorite Herman Melville short story. Bartleby is hired by a wealthy lawyer to copy texts, a job at which he excels. But whenever Bartleby is asked to do something other than copy letters, he always replies “I would prefer not to.” This answer incenses the other employs and bewilders the lawyer. Eventually Bartleby stops doing any task, but somehow always remains around the office, almost like a ghost. Just what exactly Bartleby is meant to symbolize is up for grabs–Melville’s text is rich with possible interpretations. Every time I read this one, I get a new perspective. Read the full text here.

B is also for Billy Budd, yet another Melville character. Maybe you read Billy Budd in high school (it made me scratch my head quite a bit my Junior year). Billy Budd is a foundling who grows into the type of man admired by all. When he joins the crew of a ship, he is lovingly called “Baby Budd” by his fellow sailors. However, when he encounters his embittered superior Claggart, his innocence is put to the test; Claggart accuses young Budd of plotting mutiny. Billy is literally struck dumb by the accusation, and he responds by striking Claggart, inadvertently killing him. For this crime he is put to death and revered as a Christ-like figure by the crew. Like the story of Bartleby, Billy Budd resists easy decoding. Simply put, this is a great novella to come back to more than once.

C is for Chinaski. Henry Chinaski was the alter-ego Charles Bukowski used to represent himself in his books. Chinaski was a macho coward, a drunken gambler who was always chasing ladies and losing jobs. Chinaski was (bizarrely) the ideal imagined self for Bukowski, full of faults and shortcomings and egotistical brutality. I recently watched the documentary Bukowski: Born into This. One memorable scene goes something like this: the filmmaker (this is in the early 70s, when the filmmaker first begins shooting the footage that becomes Born into This) follows Bukowski from L.A. to San Francisco, where he’s giving a poetry reading. Bukowski gets drunk on the plane, makes an ass of himself, is a moron at the reading, is a bumbling idiot, etc, etc. However Bukowski writes up the whole event very differently in his Open City column, “Notes of a Dirty Old Man”–he paints a picture of himself having to help this idiot camera guy out; he says the filmmaker is a lost fool. When the filmmaker runs into Bukowski, he’s upset; he says: “Don’t you realize that I have film of the whole thing? I’ve got you drunk on film, looking like a fool!” Bukowski replies: “Fuck you! When I write, I’m the hero of my shit!” So that’s Chinaski: the hero of Bukowski’s shit.

C is also for Calliope, the protagonist of Jeffrey Eugenides’ 2002 novel Middlesex. To be honest, I thought the second half of the novel was weak (in fact I thought the end was downright awful), and Eugenides’ writing was surprisingly rote, even hackneyed at times (I use the adverb “surprisingly” as I was under the impression that he was something different based on friends’ reviews of The Virgin Suicides, which I never read). Nevertheless, poor cursed Calliope is a complex and at times enthralling character to follow. No one realizes Calliope is a hermaphrodite until she (Cal is raised as a girl) turns fourteen and shit gets weird. The gender study implications are interesting here, but what I found truly fascinating about the novel was the way that Eugenides used Calliope as a muse for genetic history; the character is essentially a complex and conflicting comment on the clashing paradigms of different ages and different spaces. Boys and girls, Turks and Greeks, blacks and whites, rich and poor, hippies and squares–as the name of the novel implies, there is never a definite and simple space where identity can rest.

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