“Extreme Solitude” — New Fiction from Jeffrey Eugenides

“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.

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