The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides’ third novel, opens with a look at the bookshelves of his heroine, English literature major Madeleine. It’s stacked with nineteenth-century romantic novels: Edith Wharton, Henry James, Austen, the Brontes.
What would we see if we looked at Jeffrey Eugenides’ bookcase, back when he was a college student?
‘My bookcase was full of obscure Eastern European novels that I could barely read, but if I carried them around, people would think that I was very smart and destined to be a novelist,’ he told Wheeler Centre director Michael Williams at the Comedy Theatre last night.
Eugenides’ hero was James Joyce; when he started loving literature, it was the modernist novels he adored. He read the nineteenth-century classics later. ‘I did it backwards,’ he said.
It was Joyce who made him decide to be a writer, aged 16, after reading Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. ‘I read it unironically. I thought an artist was a heroic thing to be.’
Writing replaced his earlier aspirational career of choice – being an actor. Watching Eugenides on stage, relaxed, seemingly enjoying himself, trading wisecracks with Michael Williams, it’s not so hard to imagine him as a professional performer. He told the audience that his parents, who had been horrified by his decision to be an actor, thought writing a ‘somehow better’ choice.
So, what kind of college student was Eugenides? ‘There were people like Madeleine in my English seminars who were there because they loved to read. I was there because I wanted to be a writer and I had some kind of mercenary idea that I needed to learn how.’
He described a moment where he looked around and had the realisation that his classmates were all socially hopeless; they were the brown cardigan wearers, while across the quad were the cool students. ‘I realised I must be hopeless too, because these were my people.’
But Eugenides must have cut an arresting figure on the college lawns; his Joyce worship wasn’t confined to the page. ‘I wanted to be James Joyce and I thought the easiest way would be to dress like him. I had round glasses, wore old men’s suits and at one point, I even carried a cane.’
Like Madeleine, he took a semiotics class. ‘In the college I went to in the 70s and 80s, French deconstruction theory was coming into fashion.’ He said that as a student, you’d end up caught between the traditional and postmodernist approaches to studying literature, as the professors at the university were divided between the two schools of thought.
‘I wasn’t happy to hear that the novel was dead when I went to college wanting to become a writer.’ But he was attracted to semiotics intellectually and ‘wanted to know what it was all about’.
Michael mentioned the centrality of humour to Eugenides’ three very different novels: The Virgin Suicides, Middlesex and The Marriage Plot.
‘I don’t usually like people without a sense of humour, so I don’t like books without a sense of humour,’ said Eugenides. ‘Though occasionally I find a big, solemn book I like.’
‘If I try to write something with no humour, I almost can’t find my way forward.’
Some critics have been disappointed by the traditional narrative structure of The Marriage Plot, after the daringly original first-person plural narrator of The Virgin Suicides and the sprawling inventiveness of Middlesex. Why did Eugenides choose a more traditional formal approach with his third novel? The answer was intriguing.
‘With The Virgin Suicides, I limited the amount that the narrator could know. I couldn’t go inside the heads of those girls. I don’t think at that point I could have done that, so it made it easier to write the book.’
He sees The Marriage Plot as more advanced than his previous two books: by narrowing the scope to three central characters, he was able to go deeper. ‘While it’s more traditional on the face of it, to me it seemed like an advance in depth and intricacy of character.’
‘Each book teaches you another thing that you might try in the next book.’
Eugenides says that he has five unfinished novels; that the reason his books take so long (so far, he produces roughly one every ten years) is that he’s ‘constantly starting things that don’t work’.
‘I don’t have a voice, or a manner or typical book that I write, so I’m always reinventing the wheel.’
‘This is something a lot of writers have in common: You often feel while you’re writing that you don’t really know how to do it.’
In audience question time, someone inevitably asked about the influence of David Foster Wallace on The Marriage Plot. It’s been often said that his character of Leonard is based on Wallace because he wears a bandana, chews tobacco and is a manic depressive. (Wallace was actually a depressive, not a manic depressive; despite some reports, Eugenides was not a close friend of Wallace.)
Eugenides handled the question with a blend of humour and élan, despite visibly wilting as it was spoken.
‘Never put a bandana on a character, is my advice.’ He’s said elsewhere that he was actually thinking of Axl Rose when he made that wardrobe choice.
‘It wasn’t based on him, it was based on a couple of other people and I guess I disguised it very well because everyone thinks it’s David Foster Wallace.’
‘Is it true that Madeleine’s based on Jonathan Franzen?’ quipped Michael.
‘Yes,’ laughed Eugenides. ‘When I met him he had all these nineteenth-century books – and a terrific figure.’
Michael finished by telling Eugenides about a Twitter thread from earlier that afternoon: Mitchell or Leonard? (Yes, we confess, it originated in the Wheeler Centre office.)
Eugenides seemed to come down firmly on the side of Team Mitchell; perhaps unsurprising, as he admits he’s a character who bears a lot of surface resemblance to himself.
‘Mitchell has gotten a lot of proposals of marriage,’ he said. ‘Readers write saying, If Madeleine doesn’t want him, I’ll have him.’
‘Since he’s sort of based on me, though, I think, Where were you when I needed you?’
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