Jeffrey Eugenides's Marriage Plot

The Pulitzer Prize-Winner Reads from His Absorbing and Nostalgic New Book

Celebrated author Jeffrey Eugenides reads an exclusive extract from his latest novel, The Marriage Plot, a love story that mines the postmodern philosophy of Barthes and Derrida to explore the relationship between three young graduates from Brown University. Set in 1982, the plot hinges on English major Madeleine Hanna, whose semiotics study is the backdrop for a romantic triangle that sees her torn between her adoring best friend Mitchell Grammaticus and tortured biology genius Leonard Bankhead. “The idea of the book is to try to examine the extent to which one’s expectations in romance and love are formed by what one reads and what one sees on film,” says Eugenides. “Just about every movie that deals with romance is: people who don’t understand that they are destined for each other finally coming together and then there’s a happy romantic ending. The tyranny of that form is preying upon the characters in my book.” Here the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex, and the Sofia Coppola-adapted The Virgin Suicides, speaks to NOWNESS about his own school ties.

If you could meet your younger self in college, what advice would you give? 
To do that would be to erase the actual experience of college for me, and at this point I wouldn’t want to. I would have to have had a different life if I told that younger self to do different things, so I’ll just accept what happened. 

Music sets the scene in the book—what band is most evocative of your college years?
Talking Heads. That band and the lyrics of the songs typify my experience of college, and that’s why I used “Once in a Lifetime” for the epigraph of the book. The Talking Heads’ combination of surreal sensibility, existential doubt and a sly intellectual tone to the lyrics was very suited for college kids to admire and appreciate. 

You’re on the faculty at Princeton. Who is the teacher who made the biggest impact on you as a student?
I’ve talked a lot about my teacher Gilbert Sorrentino at Stanford because he was an experimental writer and not interested in writing narrative fiction. He used to say that all the stories had been written. In a way, I took what he said to heart, and yet, it was also in resisting some of the stands he made that I was able to define my own way of writing. Which, interestingly, he approved of far more than I expected him too—at least with my first book.

Name a couple of your favorite “lover’s dilemma” narratives.
The novel Anna Karenina is just about my favorite novel. You have Anna Karenina married to Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin, but falling in love with the handsome Count Vronsky: a great and disastrous love story. I’ve been reading some of the short stories in Colm Tóibín’s The Empty Family, and there’s a story called “The Street” which is about a Pakistani immigrant in Barcelona who lives in a dormitory with six other men, and little by little falls in love with one of the other Pakistani immigrants. You can imagine the taboos. It’s an amazing story written from his point of view, a story about gay Muslim love in Barcelona—something I’ve never read before. It has all the elements of a grand traditional love story and yet it’s completely true to our time.

Illustrative photo by Matthew Donaldson, 2011
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