Writer Jeffrey Eugenides laments the fact that he was born too late to write a novel about marriage in the style of writers like Jane Austen and Henry James.
"I envy writers who came from a world where social constrictions were still normative and they could still write marriage plots," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "I couldn't, being an American born in 1960. ... I didn't think it was possible to write a Jane Austen novel now, and in fact, it isn't. But I did want to traffic in the same ideas."
Eugenides is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Middlesex. His 1993 novel, The Virgin Suicides, was adapted for film by director Sofia Coppola. His new novel, The Marriage Plot, involves a romantic triangle among three college students. Madeleine is an ambitious English major studying semiotics. Mitchell is a religious scholar from Detroit who travels to India to work with Mother Teresa; and Leonard is a brilliant philosophy student and a manic-depressive. All three are about to graduate from Brown University in 1982.
Eugenides also studied at Brown in the '80s when semiotics — the study of symbols and signs — was just beginning to create a noticeable chasm within the Brown English Department.
"When I got to Brown, you had the older professors who had been teaching a certain way for 30 years and then you had this other gang that was down with the semiotic program," he says. "And as a student, you were forced to choose which cohort you were going with — and finally the professors from the English Department decamped and started the program in Semiotic Studies."
Eugenides says his background in semiotics has helped him look for cliches in language and the structure of novels. It also helped him craft the character of Madeline, an English scholar conflicted about reducing what she loves to study — works of 19th century fiction — into the framework of semiotics. And as she trudges through Derrida and Foucault in class, Madeline also tries to make sense of her love life — which doesn't fit so neatly into categories. As Eugenides writes, Madeline's "love troubles began when the French theory she was reading deconstructed the very notion of love."
"I had this idea of a woman who was becoming skeptical of romance and also at the same time, was falling in love," he says. "And then I had to think: Well, who is she falling in love with? And I had the idea to have her be in love with a manic-depressive because at times this person was the most engaging, the most energetic, the most exciting person she'd ever met, the most intelligent — and at other times, the most depressed, the most needy, the most insufferable. And that just appealed to me as a difficulty in love greater than most, so of course, it was good fodder from the novelist."
"Instead of reading a text and figuring out what that text means, semiotics examines how the text gives meaning. If there's a love story, the old way of reading it would be to think about the character and the setting, and perhaps what it said about social class. Semiotics would look at a love story and compare it to all of the love stories that had been written and try to find the correspondences — the things that happened in all of those love stories — and show the artificiality of love stories.
"It works very well for movies. ... It's the same for literature. There are these tropes that are romantic tropes. ... [Semiotics] kind of empties literature and the text of meaning because it does point out how it's fabricated, how repetitive it is. If you follow this line long enough, you get to deconstruction where a theorist would be looking for internal contractions or paradoxes that would essentially render the text meaningless. At the end of this line, you're saying writing can't mean anything because it's internally inconsistent. So if you're a writer going to college and learning these things, it puts a shiver of fear in you because it's saying your attempt is due to fail."
On writing about himself
"I'm not really an autobiographical writer, though I use stuff from my life to make my stories seem real. But when I actually write about myself I get very confused. ... You need to write about yourself in terms of how you feel and in terms of what you've seen, but when you put it into another character, you free yourself from having to be accurate and truthful. You can make a different kind of truth. Whereas if you write about yourself, there is an actual truth that you're trying to get to that you can never get to. I think that people who write memoirs must constantly be fearing that they're not saying the truth about what happened, but with a novel, whatever you say is true and I think is more true than memoir. You're still putting your thoughts and beliefs about the world into the character but the facts don't all have to line up."
On Leonard, the character who Madeline falls in love with, who has been compared by some critics to the late novelist David Foster Wallace.
"I don't write characters and base them on a person. What I do when I create a character is put in details from all the details I know who might be like that person and then put in a huge amount of myself. So in doing Leonard, I thought about every depressed person I knew. I didn't really know anyone with manic-depression. And I didn't know David Foster Wallace well at all although I [once] spent a week with him in Italy. So I couldn't base it on him because I didn't really know — I didn't even know he was on medications and that he was suffering so much. When he finally committed suicide, I was surprised. And I had started this a long time before the week that I met him.
"People are really reading a lot into this bandanna [that Leonard wears]. The bandana actually comes from Axl Rose, from Guns N' Roses, and the tobacco comes from my freshman year friends at college who always had a chaw in their mouth. There's a reason that Wallace chewed tobacco. It's because a lot of guys did. So I feel they're barking up the wrong tree on that. The thing I did use from him is that he would put his tobacco in his sock and you would see the shape of his Skoal.
"I really feel like this character, if you read it, is his own person. He's a biologist. His parents are divorced and were alcoholics. He wasn't a writer. He does all these things that Wallace never did. He hates tennis. I mean, I don't see him being that close. ... It's being said as though it was intentional, and other reviewers are picking up on it. There's a tiny little bit of [similarity] in there, but I didn't know him well enough to base a story on him and I wouldn't care to do such a thing in the first place."