Jeffrey Eugenides has created a singular impression for someone who has published one novel in his whole career -- one novel in the last decade, and very few interviews all the while. He lives in Germany with his family, writes the occasional book review or pop music essay; and nearly ten years after publishing his buzzed-about debut novel The Virgin Suicides, he gets around to offering a second: Middlesex. From the interest surrounding this dilatory sophomore effort, you'd think he'd been in the public eye all along.
His continued cultural currency was doubtless sustained by the 1999 release of Sofia Coppola's stylishly hazy adaptation of The Virgin Suicides; but what else can account for it? His stories, that's what. Eugenides has that Nabokovian gift for combining the prurient with the tragic. The Virgin Suicides was a relatively brief, dreamlike narrative about five sisters in suburban Michigan in the early '70s, all of whom killed themselves. It offers a speedball of irresistible American themes: coming of age in suburbia, family dysfunction, suicide and sex.
With chorus-like narration by the neighborhood boys who lust after the Lisbon girls, the novel earned comparisons to earlier, classical forms. The New York Times' Michiko Kakutani wrote of the novel, "By turns lyrical and portentous, ferocious and elegaic, The Virgin Suicides insinuates itself into our minds as a small but powerful opera in the unexpected form of a novel."
Well received though his first novel was, Eugenides clearly sought to do something more ambitious with Middlesex -- and something more bizarre, hence the aforementioned media interest. Having traversed the awkward terrain of adolescence once already, the author explores the singular discomfort of that period as experienced by a hermaphrodite. Grander in scope than his first novel, Middlesex goes well beyond courting a freak-show curiosity, guided by Eugenides into a person's quest for identity and a family history that begins in Greece, 1922.
So far, Eugenides has shown a definite thematic loyalty that might wear thin in more prolific, less enterprising authors. As it is, he is too original and surprising to dismiss.
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Jonathan Safran Foer's novel Everything Is Illuminated grew out of his creative writing thesis project, which was advised by Joyce Carol Oates and Eugenides.
Eugenides considered becoming a priest or a monk, and worked alongside Mother Teresa in India for one week during a traveling break from college. He explained to the Calgary Herald, "I was so unformed in my personality and was trying on different personas; being a saint was a bit tight on my shoulders, though. At 20 you can really change your philosophy of the world by reading a single book, or by one chance meeting."
Eugenides, who got the idea for The Virgin Suicides when his nephew's babysitter revealed to him that she and all her siblings had attempted suicide, wrote the book while working as an administrator at the Academy of American Poets in New York. The first chapter was published in the Paris Review in 1991, getting him an agent and, two days later, a book deal.
In a 1995 piece for the New York Times entitled, "Hand Me My Air Guitar: I'm Still a Jethro Tull Fan," Eugenides paid homage to one of his favorite bands. "Being a Tull fan is a chronic condition," he wrote. "As with malaria, a swampiness reclaims the veins without warning."
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In the summer of 2004, we asked authors featured in Meet the Writers to give us a list of their all-time favorite summer reads, and tell us what makes them just right for the season. Here's what Jeffrey Eugenides had to say:
Contrary to the popular idea that summer reading should consist of books that are, well, popular, I've always found summer the perfect season for
tackling serious books.
Summer reading assignments at school may have
ingrained this habit in me, but I'm glad it's now automatic. Wintry books like Milton's Paradise Lost or Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment keep the mind nice and cool during the dog days.
A friend of mine always gives himself a summer reading project. He reads all of Saul Bellow, say, or all of Proust. If you read junk on the beach, you'll instantly forget it. If you read a classic, it will become part of your achievements that particular
summer. Climb Mt. Ranier during the day. Climb Anna Kareninaat night. (Better yet, after breakfast just take Tolstoy into the hammock with an iced coffee and stay there until cocktail hour.)
I have suitably heroic memories of the summer I read The Iliad and The Odyssey back to back. Anything by a Greek makes good summer reading. Ditto, for some strange
reason, anything by a Russian. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov is an excellent book to read in transit between a number of cities. The form of
the novel, which consists of a line-by-line annotation of a fictional poem, works well when you're stopping and starting.
The Waves by Virginia Woolf is inseparable from a summer I spent in Paris when I was twenty. The music of that very musical book was something that happened to me in Paris; something I did. That's what you should aim for: to have two summers each summer, one of them a literary adventure. The last thing you need on
vacation is a vacant mind.
In 2002, we asked Jeffrey Eugenides to name his ten favorite books. He answered:
It's impossible to choose only ten books, of course, but these would be among my favorites:
- The Aeneid, Virgil. I read this in Latin class, line by line, during my senior year of high school. The slow pace of translating the book had the benefit of making me aware for the first time of the complexity and patterning of a great literary work. Our teacher used to test us by giving us snippets of text and making us identify who the speakers were and which part of the poem they came from. We had to memorize The Aeneid almost, and so it has stayed with me. It's also a great story, of course, complete with a burning city, a love gone wrong, and a trip down into the underworld.
- Varieties of Religious Experience, William James. An astounding compendium not only of the different shades of belief but of the varieties of human character.
- Middlemarch, George Eliot. A very witty and super intelligent book. The character of Casaubon, the scholar who can never finish the book he is working on, was an frightening example to me of what might happen if I never finished Middlesex. So I finished it.
- Anna Karenina, Tolstoy. Simply the best novel ever written.
- The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James. I've discussed my affection for this book before and refer the interested reader to the Salon archives. [Eugenides wrote, in part: "The Ciceronian sweep of James' sentences got me on a musical, emotional level; and the information they so beautifully delivered gave me a sentimental education, as well as a lesson in subtlety and restraint." –ed.]
- Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov said he wanted to put the reader in a state of "aesthetic bliss" and Lolita has always done that to me.
- Herzog, Saul Bellow. A great, funny, wise, big-hearted novel about a professor writing letters "endlessly, fanatically, to the newspapers, to people in public life, to friends and relatives and at last to the dead, his own obscure dead, and finally the famous dead." A novel with a strict form that remains fluid and volcanic. Bellow's prose is in my mind one of the great achievements in modern American literature.
- Portnoy's Complaint, Philip Roth. The funniest book ever written. I am a great fan of all of Roth's books and admire the range of his fiction, unrivaled by any other American author today.
- The Boys of my Youth, JoAnne Beard. A touching and exacting reclamation of the joys and tribulations of adolescence and girlhood.
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