In 1982, when he was 21, living in India and volunteering at Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying, Jeffrey Eugenides wrote letters home to Grosse Pointe, Mich., filled with parent-pleasing tidings like the fact that leprosy wasn’t all that easy to catch, after all. “You feel pretty invulnerable when you’re that age,” he recalled last month in Princeton, where he lives with his wife and daughter in an airy, book-lined Tudor house, and teaches fiction writing to Princeton students. “I remember being with lepers and touching their hands and not having it be as contagious as I’d thought it would be from watching Ben Hur.” At the time, he was caught up in an altruistic quest “to see if you could actually live your life doing things for others in a saintly way.” To his parents, the virtue of this goal was not necessarily apparent. “ I sent a lot of letters that really alarmed my mother in those days, and now I understand—as a parent myself—how awful it must have been for her.”
Thirty years on, that correspondence emerges in the author’s long-awaited third novel, The Marriage Plot, in the aerograms his Greek-American protagonist, Mitchell Grammaticus, sends home from Calcutta during his post-collegiate Wanderjahr—“documents of utter strangeness.” In the book, Eugenides delves into the psychology of three college seniors (who, like the author, went to Brown) as they graduate in 1982 into a recession and a love triangle. There’s Mitchell, who loves Christian mysticism and his classmate Madeleine Hanna; Madeleine, who loves romantic idealism and her classmate Leonard Bankhead; and Leonard, a polymathic biology student and manic-depressive, who loves lithium. “Being called to on to describe Leonard’s depression called for as much experimental writing as anything I’ve written,” Eugenides said. And while The Marriage Plot is Eugenides’ most realistic novel yet, he cautioned, “calling a book realistic sometimes masks the extent to which an author has to find new solutions to express people’s thought processes and emotions.”
A month before the book’s release, the author picked me up at the picturesque Princeton train station, looking tall, self-possessed, and quietly whimsical. Though he’s 51, he looks a decade younger; and though he’s lived in Princeton for four years, writing and teaching among literary heavy-hitters like Joyce Carol Oates, Edmund White, Colm Toíbín, and Chang-rae Lee (“It’s scary. Edmund White is really prolific, I’m hoping it’s going to rub off on me,” he jokes), he gives off a European air—a whiff of Berlin. He lived in that foreign city with his family for five years (in a building where David Bowie and Iggy Pop lived in the ’70s) while writing his last novel, Middlesex (2002), which won the Pulitzer Prize, and, with a boost from Oprah in 2007, has sold more than 3 million copies. It was also in Berlin that he began the novel that would become The Marriage Plot.
Though Eugenides also writes short stories—one of them, “Baster,” became the movie The Switch—and a collection of his stories will come out in the next year or so—he prefers writing novels. “There’s a comfort, I guess, to being inside the middle of a book, which is why I stay in a book for such a long time,” he told me. It was when he was at Stanford in his mid-twenties, studying fiction writing after his return from India and his graduation from Brown, that he first dared take on the novel, after Larry McMurtry gave a talk at the graduate school. Eugenides explained, “He said, ‘I think it’s lot easier to write novels than short stories,’ which was amazing to hear because I’d always been scared of writing a novel, and I thought. I wonder if that’s true? I wonder if I should try the longer form?” He tried: the result was his first novel, The Virgin Suicides, (1993) which not only brought him ardent critical acclaim, but was made into a film by Sofia Coppola in 1999.
That book was told in the voice of grown men, remembering their adolescent fascination with five doomed teenage sisters. In his next book, “Middlesex,” Eugenides focused on plot instead of voice, creating an “astonishing” (quoth Oprah’s Book Club) multi-generational epic about a Greek-American immigrant family, centered on a girl who learns in adolescence that she is, as a result of genetic mischance, a he—“one man who had a girlhood,” as he puts it. But in The Marriage Plot, his most interior novel yet, Eugenides enters the psyches of all three of his main characters, granting each of them a distinct, gendered voice—including Madeleine. “Most of the things Madeleine has felt, I have felt,” he said. “I don’t usually start with the idea that women’s experience is so different.” But for Mitchell Grammaticus, who resembles the author more than any character in his previous books, the similarities were more striking. “My friends from college will recognize me,” he says. Like Mitchell, Eugenides wore suits from vintage clothing stores as an undergraduate, “old bums’ suits I’d bought second hand, that smelled like mildew;” like Mitchell, he studied semiotics and religion, and traveled the world. But The Marriage Plot is not a memoir.
“We grow up with these romantic dreams and illusions, either from reading 19th century novels, or from watching movies that are basically the same, and I think we still are influenced by the marriage plot.”
“I don’t think people can really write autobiography,” Eugenides said. “I think it’s innately fraudulent. When you try to describe your own life you inevitably fictionalize it and change things. So it always has seemed more honest to me to write fiction than to write memoirs.” Fiction, he says, gives him the freedom to invent. To college friends who’ve read the new book and corrected him, saying “It really happened like this,” he responds, “My intention wasn’t to make it like it really was.” His intention, he explains, “was to write a novel about three young characters, one of whom happens to be obsessed by the 19th-century novel.”
That character, Madeleine, is writing her senior thesis on the “marriage plot,” the organizing principle of so many 19th century novels, in which the author’s chief objective is to marry off the characters. She understands that her subject is quaintly archaic: in the jaded, brainy 1980s, it’s the chilly logic of literary theory that enthralls campus seminars, not warm appreciation of classic books. One of her professors declares that the novel “reached its apogee with the marriage plot and had never recovered from its disappearance;” adding that such plots only can be found these days in “non-Western novels involving traditional societies.” Half agreeing, Maddy nonetheless tumbles headlong into her own marriage plot, falling for arrogant, troubled Leonard, and shunning Mitchell, a “smart, sane, parent-pleasing boy,” whose obvious eligibility bores her. Eugenides deconstructs their interconnection during one fateful year. And though that year may have occurred three decades ago, to the author, it feels “contemporaneous.” “I didn’t feel any different writing this book than I would writing a short story set in 2010,” he said. “There are just a few technological differences, like cell phones and the internet and email.” He started before he had a title in mind, he said, “with this idea, the line that says ‘Madeleine’s love troubles had begun at a time when the French theory she was reading deconstructed the very notion of love.’ That’s where the story began.” He knew modernists might consider his focus on the marriage plot passé, but suspected they were wrong.
“I think people take marriage extremely seriously still in this country,” he said. “One of the biggest social battles now is gay marriage, somehow marriage still seems to be important, it hasn’t faded away.” For a while, he said, he felt “sorry for myself, as a contemporary American novelist, that I couldn’t use it, when Vikram Seth could. But then I thought, how would you have the marriage plot factor in if you were writing about two men and a woman in a completely different era?” He added, “We grow up with these romantic dreams and illusions, either from reading 19th century novels, or from watching movies that are basically the same, and I think we still are influenced by the marriage plot, even though we don’t live in the time of Anna Karenina anymore.”
Marriage is not the only big theme Eugenides wrestles with in the novel. In addition to convincingly relaying Leonard’s bipolar disorder—“an affliction that has ecstasy in it,” showing the alternating gusts of damage and exhilaration that buffet his mental state, he also recuperates the long neglected theme of religion, which so preoccupies Mitchell Grammaticus—and unnerves his parents.
“I think religion has been incredibly neglected in the contemporary novel,” Eugenides said. “It obviously functions hugely in the country, yet in the secular novel people avoid it. I’ve thought about religion a lot in my life, I’ve had different stages of believing it, of trying to believe it of ceasing to believe it, and hoping to believe it; it’s an ongoing situation. It didn’t seem that something that so preoccupied me and a lot of people should be absent from the novel.” That said, he added, “It’s one of the themes that may lead this novel to be called old-fashioned.”
As he says this, he smiles wryly, and you get the sense that Eugenides knows that literary trends come and go; but good stories remain; and love never goes out of style. Fashionable or not, he says, “The marriage plot is still very much playing out in our heads.”