How to Read a Novelist

Jeffrey Eugenides
by John Freeman

For the past fifteen years or so, whenever a novel has been published, John Freeman has been there to greet it. As a critic for over two hundred newspapers worldwide and onetime president of the NBCC, he’s reviewed thousands of books and interviewed hundreds of authors. You might have thought his recent five-year stint as editor of Granta would have slowed him down some, but just weeks ago he was still finding time to sit down with the likes of Jennifer Egan, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, and Aleksandar Hemon as he rounded out the contents of How to Read a Novelist, his book of more than fifty author profiles coming from FSG Originals this October. Over the next two weeks, Work in Progress will publish an exclusive two-part preview of the book. Up first: Freeman’s conversation with FSG’s own Jeffrey Eugenides . . .

—Sean McDonald

Jeffrey Eugenides has a funny idea about how to be a rebel. On a recent knuckle-skin-splittingly cold Monday in Princeton it involves playing me some jazz on a school night. Dressed in slippers and a turtleneck sweater, the hawk-eyed, fifty-two-year-old Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist has tiptoed up- and downstairs to make sure his daughter is getting ready for bed. Now he is flipping through a stack of vinyl in search of something by Dexter Gordon. He racks the record and the horn comes out soft and warming, like the thick-cut glass tumbler of bourbon Eugenides has just handed me.

Thirty years ago, when he was a college student at Brown University, Eugenides’s idea of rebellion was a bit more ascetic. It was the early eighties, and while his fellow classmates were smoking cigarettes and learning how to deconstruct books, or love—any kind of intimately felt idea, really, except the idea that ideas were bogus—Eugenides did something radical. He got religion. “I could have been a punk and had a Mohawk and that would have been normal. But to actually go to a Quaker meeting or Catholic Mass to see what it’s like, was a very strange and rebellious thing to do.”

If you were to characterize this experience along William James’s spectrum of variety it was a lukewarm one, but it was real. Reading led to exploring, and eventually Eugenides made a serious commitment. “I thought that the fascination should not be merely intellectual,” he recalls. “Can I go and devote myself to the sick and the poor in Calcutta or am I not that person? I don’t know yet because I’m only twenty, so let me see if I can do that. I wanted to test myself.”

Eugenides took a year off from college and, in January 1982, packed himself off to India. He arrived in Calcutta and very quickly, very colossally, failed his own test. He was not a saint, not even close. The suffering made him squeamish and he was not very good at self-denial. But the trip and its impetus stayed with him. For twenty years he tried to write about it, and finally, a few years ago, he found a place in his latest novel, The Marriage Plot, which is a tale about crisis of faith—not just in God but in ideas, in people, in narrative—disguised as a novel about love, under the guise of a novel about campus life.

 

The book begins with a love triangle. Madeleine Hanna, its heroine, is a well-bred New Jersey native who is unlucky in love and both drawn to and repelled by the craze for deconstructive theory. The two of these tendencies collide when she reads Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse, a book Eugenides remembers cutting a swath through his classmates’ ideals. “You became very suspicious about love,” Eugenides recalls of its effect, and then laughs, “and yet in the midst of [reading it] you often still fell in love!”

And so it goes for Madeleine. She falls in and out of love with Leonard Bankhead, a tall, mentally unstable genius whose experience of his mind’s fragility tells him that there are no ideas, really, worth believing in. Mitchell Grammaticus watches on from the near distance, agonized that this woman he has fallen for has chosen such an arrogant, unreliable mate. Mitchell’s solution to the problem is to leave the country and, like Eugenides, go to work for Mother Teresa in Calcutta.

Sitting on a sofa in his den, thirty years removed from his own trip, Eugenides is hard on his younger self, the burgeoning ascetic reading Thomas Merton. The young man who believed he could conquer desire by removing it from the equation. So it is for Mitchell in the book. “But there’s a question that arises as to whether it is some kind of desire to not have desire,” Eugenides says. “And that even saintliness is some kind of greed. Certainly we have a lot of difficulties because of all the things we want.”

Even though America is a deeply religious country, Eugenides’s investigation is, within literary worlds, rather unusual. You could almost say unhip. Atheists, by and large, reign, and, aside from Marilynne Robinson and a small number of Jewish literary writers, there are very few who talk about God. “I think it’s odd that no one is allowed to,” Eugenides says, with slight irritation. “Certainly a lot of people are still interested in these questions. And they haven’t gone away entirely.”

 

Eugenides was baptized Greek Orthodox, but religion was not a big part of his childhood. He was born in 1960 in Detroit, Michigan. His father was a second-generation Greek immigrant mortgage broker, whose success took them out of Detroit into Grosse Pointe. Eugenides’s mother was an Irish American who grew up “extremely, extremely poor in Appalachia,” Eugenides says. Her people, he adds, had come to Detroit from Kentucky to work in the auto industry. Eugenides’s uncle was a tool and die worker. “He was always going to work at a factory and getting fired.”

Detroit then as now was a city with haves and have-nots. In the seventies it began looking for ways to collapse the divisions between its classes. The city considered busing children from wealthier neighborhoods into the city schools, which is how Eugenides wound up going to University Liggett School, a rigorously academic prep school whose purpose was to instill the values of WASP America and prepare its scions for future education in the East, and in the Ivy League.

It turned out Eugenides was not alone in being a partial fit. Parents of all kinds of descents had the same fears—fears Eugenides admits are partially racist—of having their kids go to an inner-city school. “I fit in with this group that came, because we all did not belong there, and we were ethnically various: Italian kids, Greek kids, kids of Arab Americans. We dressed differently, and our families operated differently, and I got a real sense of class structure in America from going to that school, and it made me want to assimilate to a kind of WASP, upperclass behavior that has since almost disappeared in America.”

The school gave him something else valuable, besides the insider-outsider-ness, which has allowed him to watch and participate at the same time. Catullus. It was a poem by Catullus, a love poem, that made Eugenides want to become a writer. Eugenides continued to write poetry for many years. At Brown University, Eugenides even won a prize for poetry. The novelist Meg Wolitzer came in second. But by then his interest had waned. “I never really considered becoming a poet after that point,” Eugenides says. What he really wanted to be was a novelist.

 

It took Eugenides a long time to figure out how to do that. His aesthetic absolutism was stoked when he arrived at Stanford, where Gilbert Sorrentino taught. The writer wanted his students to reinvent how to tell a story. “He hated everything in The New Yorker,” Eugenides remembers, “hated almost everything, was fatigued by it, and was fatigued by it not because he was stupid but because he was incredibly smart, and he could see exactly what the writers were doing.”

Eugenides obliged, but in a pattern that has persisted for his whole life as a writer, he kept his own counsel. So he would write stories that thumbed their nose at realism but didn’t entirely give up on plot or story. It was this approach he took to writing his first novel, The Virgin Suicides, which tells the story of six sisters in Grosse Pointe who commit suicide. The novel tells the story in a first-person plural voice, something that had not been done in American literature with any success.

Yet Eugenides was not going to throw away plot and suspense. “For a while I had them dying each chapter,” Eugenides remembers now. “And it became incredibly predictable. It was just awful. And then I realized you just have one die, and then nobody dies, and then even though the reader knows what happened the reader starts to get to the end of the book and thinks, how are they all going to die?”

In literary terms, The Virgin Suicides was a mild success. It sold through its hardback run and began to backlist in paperback. In 1996, Eugenides was chosen for Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists issue. Among the writers on that list was another Midwestern writer living in New York, Jonathan Franzen. Like Eugenides, he was working on a novel and things were not going well.

Over tennis matches and meals at diners, the two became friends. “He was writing what became The Corrections at that time, and having a really difficult time, and I was writing Middlesex and I was having a very difficult time, and he was throwing away most of the book—he had to redo it. And I went through a similar thing.”

Their disillusionment was born as much from what was not working in their novels, as it was with the novel as a form. “We had a lot of conversations about whether or not the novel is dead,” he says, and both of them came to an astounding discovery for two young novelists writing in the age when the so-called systems novelists, Thomas Pynchon, William Gaddis, and Don DeLillo, were universally assumed to be the smartest guys in the room: The nineteenth-century novel had something.

Eugenides wasn’t, of course, totally ignorant of the form’s history. He had read Crime and Punishment as a teenager and been mesmerized. But it took a long time for him to come back to the time period in a serious, volitional way. He was in his late twenties when he finally got to Anna Karenina, “and that’s when the switch was thrown,” he says. Talking to Franzen, working on Middlesex, he would figure out a way to import its deep absorbing qualities into the twenty-first century.

The germ of The Marriage Plot was born in this reversal. Madeleine is in “the exact same situation that novelists are in, in our period,” Eugenides explains. Just as she is being told love is dead, it is a chemical reaction, “we are also being told that narrative is old hat, that stories have been told. And yet the allure of narrative seems to override some of these intellectual prohibitions against it.”

In other words, storytelling and plot, and deep involvement with characters who feel real, will always be an important thing. It took Eugenides years to figure out how to write Middlesex, the book that grew out of this discovery. He took a fellowship in Germany and moved to Berlin with his new wife, the sculptor Karen Yamauchi, whom he had met on a writing retreat. When the fellowship ran out they stayed. “It was cheap and wonderful and the city felt like my city.”

It was a startling thing for a kid from Detroit to live in a European city, not just because the apartment Eugenides and his wife lived in was reportedly in the same building where David Bowie had spent time in the eighties. The city’s history was tangible, its trains worked. People didn’t leave. “Europeans can’t abandon their cities as we can because they don’t have enough space,” Eugenides observes now. “They can’t just leave the Rust Belt and go to Arizona, like we do. They have to deal with it.”

Some of this knowledge surely made its way into Middlesex, which tells the story of Cal, an intersex child who grows up, like Eugenides, mixed up about where he belongs in Detroit in the sixties. But he’s also mixed up about what kind of sex he is. Sprawling from the tale of Cal’s parents and grandparents, and their trip from Asia Minor to America, to Cal’s quest for an operation, the book is a grand, nineteenth-century-size tale.

Franzen had his moment with The Corrections, which was published in 2001 and won the National Book Award and became a colossal bestseller when Oprah Winfrey selected it for her book club. Eugenides broke through with Middlesex. Arriving twelve years after The Virgin Suicides, which had by then become something of a cult book thanks in part to Sofia Coppola’s extraordinary debut film of it, Middlesex was received with excitement and sales and the Pulitzer Prize. Winfrey selected it for her book club in 2007. Since its publication, it has sold more than four million copies in America. Jeffrey Eugenides was no longer a cult writer.

The wind has picked up outside and Eugenides would like to take a pause to play me another record. After he loads the turntable, he stokes the fire and goes to the wet bar to offer me a beer. It’s a nice spread here, and Eugenides is a generous host. He doesn’t fully settle until I am comfortable and insists if the weather gets too bad I can stay. He nuzzles the dog with a slippered foot. He plays some more music. He gives the impression less of someone happy for company than a man who knows how to enjoy pleasure.

If the commercial success of his books has made Eugenides’s life financially a little easier, it hasn’t changed his writing life. His perfectionism has remained, grown even stronger. “There are just pages and pages. It’s a bloodbath,” he says, his mood dipping as he begins to talk about how hard it is to write well. “I throw away so much.” Eugenides clearly doesn’t like to be pegged as the slow guy, especially when there are others—Franzen, notably, but also Junot Díaz and Marilynne Robinson and Edward P. Jones—who take their time, sometimes even more. But he knows no other way to do it.

“I never can plan my novels. So I have to live the experience of the book with the characters while I’m writing it. And understand where the possibilities of the plot will go.”

Not surprisingly, with this kind of life, one of the biggest obstacles to writing is being Jeffrey Eugenides. It’s not just that writing is hard, but that his success has made it possible for him to imagine the book out there in the field. He can image how it will be marketed and sold, and when that happens, he says, work is dead in the water.

He is not going to complain, though. He knows it could have gone another way, his life and career. “It’s a crapshoot,” he says. “I think of all the people I was in graduate school with, who were really accomplished, and one doesn’t hear much about a lot of them now, and I don’t know what happened. It’s a tough thing. Luck of the draw.”

Now he and Franzen are at the top of America’s heap of novelists. It’s a position Eugenides doesn’t guard, and he knows that eventually there will be a new wave. He can even in some ways see it coming. “Now and then there’s a literary party and I see these guys looking at me, guys I used to be, and I’m sure that they are in that same ferment and state, and ambitious and talking, showing their work to their friends, and I’m sure it’s still going on. The look in their eyes that I see is the same I expect my eyes looked like back in 1992.”

February 2013

John Freeman is an award-winning writer and book critic who has written for numerous publications, including The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, and The Wall Street Journal. Freeman won the 2007 James Patterson Pageturner Award for his work as the president of the National Book Critics Circle. How to Read a Novelist

Sean McDonald is Publisher of FSG Originals and Executive Editor and Director of Digital and Paperback Publishing at FSG.

Illustration by W.H. Chong.