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."
TERRY GROSS, host: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Jeffrey Eugenides, is the author of "The Virgin Suicides," which was adapted into a film by Sophia Coppola, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "Middlesex," about a hermaphrodite.
His new novel, "The Marriage Plot," is about academia, literature, religion and love. It opens as three students are graduating from college and entering the world as young adults. Madeline is an English major in love with Leonard, who she discovers is manic depressive. Leonard is a scientist sometimes immobilized by his depression.
Mitchell is obsessed with Madeline, but Mitchell is also absorbed in investigating religion and travels to India to work in a home founded by Mother Theresa for people who are destitute and dying. As we'll talk about later, that part of the story is loosely based on Jeffrey Eugenides' experience working at a home founded by Mother Theresa.
Jeffrey Eugenides, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I want to start with a short reading, and this is the paragraph I think of as the title song of the book because it reveals why the book has the title that it does. So would you read this paragraph for us? And it's about Madeline, and she's the woman who's about to graduate who is an English major, and also studying semiotics.
JEFFREY EUGENIDES: Right. She's an English major. She's about to graduate. She's a little disenchanted with her English studies, and this is why.
(Reading) Her junior year, Madeline had taken an honors seminar called "The Marriage Plot: Selected Novels of Austen, Eliot and James." The class was taught by K. McCall Saunders. Saunders was a 79-year-old New Englander. He had a long, horsey face and a moist laugh that exposed his gaudy dental work.
His pedagogical method consisted of his reading aloud lectures he'd written 20 or 30 years earlier. Madeline stayed in the class because she felt sorry for Professor Saunders, and because the reading list was so good. In Saunders' opinion, the novel had reached its apogee with the marriage plot and had never recovered from its disappearance.
In the days when success in life had depended on marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had had a subject to write about. The great epics sang of war, the novel of marriage. Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel, and divorce had undone it completely.
What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for separation later? How would Isabel Archer's marriage to Gilbert Osmond had been affected by existence of a pre-nup? As far as Saunders was concerned, marriage didn't mean much anymore, and neither did the novel.
Where could you find the marriage plot nowadays? You couldn't. You had to read historical fiction. You had to read non-Western novels involving traditional societies: Afghani novels, Indian novels. You had to go - literarily speaking - back in time.
GROSS: Do you agree with that perception, that there's a certain type of novel that's dead because people just don't live that way anymore, people don't necessarily expect that marriage is the end of the story or ensures happiness or even endures?
EUGENIDES: I do believe it, and this book arose out of lamenting that fact. I've seen people still get away with it: Someone like Vikram Seth, who wrote "A Suitable Boy" was able to do it. And I guess I envied writers like that who came from a world where these kind of social constrictions were still normative, and they could write marriage plots.
I couldn't, being an American born in 1960, and I kind of wished I could. I didn't think that I could. 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.
GROSS: Why did you want to write that kind of novel?
EUGENIDES: Because some of those novels are my favorite novels. "The Portrait of a Lady" by Henry James, and "Anna Karenina," too, I consider a marriage plot. And these books are just so wonderful to be with, either in the case of James, a young woman who is given money and should be given her independence through the money, who gets ensnared by a bad suitor and turns down a few, more likely, maybe better men.
And even more interesting to me is the story of Anna Karenina, who is married and, because of her divorce, you know, ends up being ostracized from society, no longer able to see her children, and finally commits suicide. You know, marriage is the great subject of the novel, and it's difficult to use it anymore. It's frustrating.
GROSS: And this - what's also killing a certain type of novel is semiotics and the study of semiotics. And Madeline, the character in your book, is studying semiotics. And I'm going to ask you to explain what that is, and how it applies in a lot of colleges to the study of fiction.
EUGENIDES: Well, semiotics, you know, the definition of it is the study of signs. And basically, what it is is a way of examining the underlying structures of systems. Now, in literature, it works - I mean, the simplest way I could say it is that instead of reading a text and figuring out what that text means, semiotics examines how the text gives meaning. I could give an example. If there's a love story...
GROSS: Yeah, please, please.
EUGENIDES: ...if there's a love story, the old way of reading it would be to think about the characters and the setting, and perhaps what it said about social class. Semiotics, however, would look at a love story and compare it to all of the other love stories that had been written and try to find the correspondences, the things that happened in all of those love stories, and in that way, you know, show the artificiality of love stories.
It works very well for movies. You can think of Rita Hayworth in "Gilda," shaking her hair out in that opening shot, or Marlene Dietrich smoking a cigarette. These are codes that are romantic and sexual, and we learn to read them as viewers.
It's the same with literature. There are these tropes that are romantic tropes. So semiotics would focus on that, and in so doing, it kind of empties literature and the text of meaning, because it does point out how it's fabricated, how repetitive it is. And if you follow this line long enough, you get to deconstruction, where, you know, where a theorist would be looking for internal contradictions or paradoxes in a text that would essentially render the text meaningless.
At the end of this line, you're saying that writing can't really mean anything, because it's internally inconsistent. So if you're a writer going to college and you're learning these things, it puts a shiver of fear in you because it's basically saying that your, you know, your attempt is doomed to fail.
Well, what you're describing is literature classes that are all about finding how a text is meaningless, like finding the reasoning for meaninglessness, as opposed to finding meaning and also finding, like, beauty or wit or...
GROSS: Yeah, that's true. I mean, it becomes a kind of world philosophy, and it seemed to me at the time, for all of its intelligence, a slightly nihilistic one. And anyway, I was kind of on the fence. I enjoyed studying semiotics, and I learned a lot about it, but I was conflicted. So I put a lot of these conflicts into Madeline, who is even more traditional in her literary taste than I was, but who's also attracted by semiotics and the hipness of this new creed that's coming to America in the late '70s.
So one of the teachers - I'm just going to read a little description here of one of the semiotics professors, named Zipperstein. Semiotics was the form of Zipperstein's midlife crisis. Becoming a semiotician allowed him to wear a leather jacket, to fly off to Douglas Sirk retrospectives in Vancouver and to get all the sexy waifs in his classes. Instead of leaving his wife, Zipperstein had left the English Department. Instead of buying a sports car, he'd bought deconstruction.
And it's, I think, a really funny description of, like, the kind of, like, hip, cutting-edge association that semiotics had then.
EUGENIDES: Mm-hmm. It did. I mean, when I got to Brown, the place was riven, because you had older professors who were basically new critics and had been teaching a certain way for 30 years. And then you had this other gang who was down with the semiotic program. And as a student, you were, in a way, 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 that went on to be called something else now.
But I was there during these pitched battles. So I think that's probably why it made such a big impression on me.
GROSS: So what stuck with you about that? I mean, do you still read literature looking for tropes and signs and so on?
EUGENIDES: Not so much signs and tropes, but I'm aware of cliches and I'm aware of experiments that have been done and I'm aware of a kind of deadness to a lot of realism both in the language and in the structure of a book. And it's something I, you know, fight against and also have had to accommodate myself to, because I still am someone who wants to write narrative fiction and even realistic fiction.
So I didn't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and yet I find everything I write - "Middlesex" included - has this sort of subtext that's post-modern, probably coming, stemming from these days.
GROSS: Well, if you're just joining us, my guest is Jeffrey Eugenides, and he's the author of "Middlesex" and "The Virgin Suicides." His new novel is called "The Marriage Plot." Let's take a short break here. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jeffrey Eugenides. He's the author of "Middlesex" and "The Virgin Suicides," which was adapted into a film. His new novel is called "The Marriage Plot."
So there's the character of Madeline in your novel "The Marriage Plot," and she's wrestling with, you know, her love of, like, you know, 19th-century romantic fiction and trying to reconcile that with the semiotics that she's studying. And in the meantime, she falls in love with someone who she doesn't realize yet is manic depressive.
And as the depression starts to take over, she starts seeing a different man than she thought she knew. She still loves him, but he's kind of immobilized by depression. You have a great description. You write: This was depression, this monotone monologue, delivered by an unbathed guy lying on his back in the middle of the floor. And I think a lot of people will have known somebody who fits that description or maybe thinks that they have fit that description at one time or another.
Why did you want to bring that kind of really serious depression into the novel?
EUGENIDES: Well, the novel began with a sentence about Madeline that goes: Madeline's love troubles began at a time 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. And then I had to imagine: Who is she falling in love with? And I had the idea to have her be in love with a manic-depressive, because this person was, at certain times, 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, you know, greater than most, and so, of course, you know, good fodder for the novelist.
GROSS: Some critics have pointed out that the character of Leonard in your novel has certain similarities to the late novelist David Foster Wallace, who did suffer from depression and actually took his life. You knew him. Is some of the character modeled on him?
EUGENIDES: Well, I'm going to address this here, and hopefully I won't have to again because I've been not wanting to give it too much weight by speaking about it. But I don't write characters and base them on a person, and this is in no way a roman a clef. What I do when I create a character is put in details from all the people 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. I spent a week with him in Italy. So I couldn't really 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.
But, you know, the people are really reading a lot into this bandana. The bandana actually comes from Axl Rose from Guns N' Roses, and the tobacco chewing comes from all of my from my freshman year friends at college who always had a chaw in their mouth.
I mean, there's a reason that Wallace chewed tobacco. It's because a lot of guys did. So I felt that that was really - you know, 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. That's what I noticed in the week I spent with him.
So it's, you know, it's wrong - I really feel like this character is, if you read it, his own person. He's a biologist. His parents are divorced and were alcoholics. There's a tiny little bit of it 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.
GROSS: Well, thank you for explaining that and for going on the record with that. I appreciate it. You seem to understand what it's like to need to take a medicine for manic depression, but at the same time to hate to take it because the side effects are so bad.
You write from the perspective of Leonard about the horrible metallic taste in his mouth and, you know, having his - you know, libido seriously diminished and feeling fuzzy. And at the same time, you write about it from Madeline's point of view, that she's kissing this, like really sour mouth.
EUGENIDES: That's true. I had to do a little research into what lithium would do, and it actually doesn't decrease your libido, but it does other things that make you depressed enough that that would decrease your libido.
And, you know, because the love affair begins with so much passion, this is both troubling to her and, obviously, to Leonard. But I did meet someone once who was bipolar, and she told me that she kind of tried to rig her medicine to keep her toward the upper register of the continuum so that she would have more energy. Obviously, she didn't want to boil over into mania, but she wanted to stay high.
I mean, it occurred to me that manic depression is the only disease that, in certain times, is a benefit and actually good. Schizophrenia's not that way. Depression's not that way. There's nothing good about those. But there is this kind of sweet spot in manic depression that manic-depressives talk about, and that interested me a great deal.
GROSS: So when you were writing the novel, did you want to be near people who had manic depression in some form or another so that you could understand it more?
EUGENIDES: Not really. Oddly enough, the section about Leonard was the easiest part of the book to write for me. And the chapter in Calcutta, which bears more of a close resemblance to events I've lived through, was the most difficult, because I had to keep competing with my own memories.
But with Leonard, I learned, you know, the basics about the disease and what kind of behaviors might be manifested with the disease, and through three months in the summer just went there with him and tried to imagine what it would be like. And I didn't go to meet other manic-depressives or talk to anyone about it.
GROSS: Now, it's interesting you said that when you wrote about the character of Mitchell, his story was competing with your own memories, and that was a problem. Just to back up a second, Mitchell is the character who is in love with Madeline. She cares about him as a friend, doesn't feel like he's really a lover for her, and he's kind of carrying around for quite a long time this obsession with her, this very romantic obsession with her.
And because he is very interested in religion, and particularly in its more mystical side, and because he needs to free himself from his obsession with Madeline, he leaves and goes to Calcutta and works at Mother Theresa's, at a home for the dying.
And you had done that. You worked there for a while. So what's the problem of having your memories conflict with his story? It seems to me it would probably be very helpful to have authentic memories to draw from.
EUGENIDES: It's not that helpful. I'm not really an autobiographical writer, though I use lots of stuff from my life to make my stories seem real. But when I actually write about myself, I get very confused. And with Mitchell, I wrote that chapter many times. It was the slowest and the hardest to write. The problem was that I remembered too much, and I put in every person that I remembered in Calcutta and everything I saw and every amazing sight in Calcutta.
And suddenly I had 100 pages of this thorny fiction, and I had to pare away so much of the autobiography to finally find the proper shape for Mitchell's story, and it just took forever, and I never knew where the spine of the story was.
So it's odd, but that - the hardest thing is writing about yourself.
GROSS: A lot of people would say the opposite, that, you know, writing about yourself is easier because you know the details of the story. You know the essential truth of it. You've lived it.
EUGENIDES: Well, you need to write about yourself in terms of how you feel and the things you've seen. But when you put it into someone else, another character, you don't - you free yourself from having to be accurate and truthful. You can actually 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 really secretly be fearing that they're not saying the truth about what happened. But with a novel, whatever you say is true. And of course it's just as - I think it's more true than memoir. You're still putting your thoughts and emotions and beliefs about the world into the character, but the facts don't all have to line up.
GROSS: Jeffrey Eugenides will be back in the second half of the show. His new novel is called "The Marriage Plot." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Jeffrey Eugenides. His first novel, the "Virgin Suicides," was adapted into a film by Sofia Coppola. His novel "Middlesex," about a hermaphrodite, was a best-seller and won a Pulitzer Prize. Eugenides' new novel, "The Marriage Plot," is about academia, literature, love, religion and manic depression. It follows three people in a romantic triangle as they graduate from college and begin their adult lives.
So let's talk about your character of Mitchell, and this is the character who's, you know, romantically obsessed with Madeline, who wants to explore religion, and also needs to get away from his obsession with Madeline. So he goes to India and starts working at a center run by Mother Teresa, which you did. And this is - he goes to a place called the Home for Dying Destitutes. And he'd never so much as changed a baby's diaper before. He never nursed a sick person. And now he's nursing people with, you know, leprosy and other, like, terrible diseases and wounds. I'm going to ask you to read an excerpt from that section.
EUGENIDES: (Reading) The bodies at the Home for Dying Destitutes, broken, diseased, were the bodies of Christ, divinity immanent in each one. What you were supposed to do here was to take this scripture literally, to believe it strongly and earnestly enough that, by some alchemy of the soul, it happened: You looked into a dying person's eyes and saw Christ looking back. This hadn't happened to Mitchell. He didn't expect it to. But by the end of the second week, he had become uncomfortably aware that he was performing only the simplest, least-demanding tasks at the home. He hadn't given anyone a bath, for instance. Bathing the patients was the main service that the foreign volunteers provided.
(Reading) Every morning, Sven and Ellen, who had a landscaping business back in Minnesota, worked their way down the line of beds, assisting men to the lavatory on the other side of the building. If the men were too weak or sick to walk, Sven got the beekeeper or the Anglican minister to help carry the stretcher.
(Reading) While Mitchell sat administering head massages, he watched people who looked in no way extraordinary perform the extraordinary task of cleaning and wiping the sick and dying men who populated the home, bringing them back to their beds with their hair wet, their spindly bodies wrapped in fresh bed clothes. Day after day, Mitchell managed not to help with this. He was afraid to bathe the men. He was scared of what their naked bodies might look like, of the diseases and wounds that might lie under their robes, and he was afraid of their bodily effluvia, of his hands touching their urine and excrement.
GROSS: What was your reaction when you started to work at Mother Teresa's and you were exposed to the kinds of illnesses and wounds that your character of Mitchell is?
EUGENIDES: Pretty much the same as that. I remember arriving at first and just getting through the day, figuring out what kind of job I could do, and I was doing the simpler jobs, but feeling very proud of myself for just being there, and then kind of being, you know, hubristic about it. And then as I stayed, I had the same realization Mitchell does, that I wasn't doing the hard tasks and that I was squeamish, and I was trying to force myself past that point.
GROSS: You know, you can find people in your neighborhood nursing home who need to be bathed, who have wounds, who are dying of horrible illnesses and volunteer there. Or you can go to Calcutta and, you know...
EUGENIDES: Yeah. Right.
GROSS: ...work in Mother, you know, in the late Mother Teresa's place. And I would assume that if you're working with Mother Teresa, that there's some kind of, you know, like spiritual edge or beliefs or something that kind of hover over the home. Now, in your average nursing home, that's probably not true. I mean, but did you feel different at Mother Teresa's than you think you might have at your neighborhood nursing home?
EUGENIDES: Well, I felt more dramatic being there. And I think part of my pull there was that it's kind of the Super Bowl of altruism to go all the way to India and help with Mother Teresa, and that other people were coming from all over the world to volunteer, so that there was this sense of a mission. And maybe not everyone was religious who showed up, but everyone came there. And it was obviously imbued with her presence, even though she wasn't physically there while I was there.
And it was - you know, it was - in a way, I was sincere about it. I was doing the best I could, and yet I was also going through a stage and play-acting a saintly life. As you do when you're young, you're trying out a self and seeing if it works and if it sticks. And that's what I was doing. But it was, you know, obviously, it was an incredibly meaningful event in my life, because I've been trying to write about it for 30 years unsuccessfully and finally did it. And now I'm - maybe I've gotten rid of it, but it took a long time.
GROSS: You just put your finger on one of the things that I find most interesting about, like, a person in their late teens or early 20s, is that, like, you know, so many people try on different personalities to try to figure out who am I.
GROSS: I'm not necessarily the person my parents think I am. I'm not necessarily even the person my friends from high school or college think I am. So what can I do that they don't even think I'm capable of?
GROSS: Who am I really? So when you were trying on, like, your saintly self...
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EUGENIDES: Mm-hmm. Yes. Yes.
GROSS: ...like, can you describe who that self was?
EUGENIDES: Well, I do remember thinking that the most radical thing I could do in my college among my friends was to become devout. You know, I mean, that was better than being a punk rocker and having a Mohawk, was actually to say the Rosary in your room. So it had that appeal to me, as though I was really thinking independently and wasn't going along.
And as I put the saintly life on, I mean, William James says an interesting thing, that most religious conversions happen in late adolescence, because at that time, you're individuated enough, you have enough sense of yourself to make radical decisions about your life, and yet you're still unformed enough to be prone to mysticism and kind of a half-cloud person. So I think that's what I was like. I wanted to make a radical decision. I felt mystical. I would meditate and do various things. I felt connected to the universe, as a young person sometimes does, and it felt wonderful to me. It felt like discovering the truth about life, which is also something that happens in your 20s. Every time you're reading a book, you think you've found the system that's going to explain everything. And religion certainly did have that appeal to me.
GROSS: You know, I get the impression with your character of Mitchell that one of the reasons why he's into, you know, this, like, mystical side of religion is that he really wants to - he wants to be liberated from his body. But I think part of the reason why he wants to be liberated by his body is that he's so kind of like sexually obsessed all the time. It's...
EUGENIDES: I know. That's true.
GROSS: You know, it's holding him back, in a way. It's...
EUGENIDES: That's not the autobiographical part. That's the fictional part.
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GROSS: Though you did say in one of our previous...
EUGENIDES: But that's true. Yes. Yes.
EUGENIDES: Yeah. Uh-oh.
GROSS: ...that when went to...
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GROSS: When you went to Calcutta and worked at Mother Teresa's, you said, I wanted to escape my body, my physical existence because of all the difficulties one has with passion and with dating and with all that sort of thing when you're 20.
EUGENIDES: I said that. That's amazing, because I repeat it in slightly different words in this book. I think it's true. It's not the easiest thing to be a 20-year-old male physically, and sometimes you do wish to not have a body anymore.
GROSS: So, now that you're what, in your 50s?
GROSS: Okay. Do you still have a desire to escape your body, like, perhaps for different reasons? Like, the older you get the crankier your body gets.
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GROSS: And it can be so distracting when...
GROSS: ...something here is aching and something there is hurting. And, you know, I know I myself often wish, like, can't the body just like shut up for a while? Like is there...
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EUGENIDES: There's many...
GROSS: ...isn't there any way out of this?
EUGENIDES: I just hurt my knee, and now I'm worried I won't be able to go on book tour with my suitcase. So I know what you're talking about. You want to escape your body for different reasons now. It's not the, you know, to escape the fever of your early 20s. And in a way I'm clinging to my body more and more, as opposed to wanting to transcend it.
GROSS: My guest is Jeffrey Eugenides. His new novel is called "The Marriage Plot." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with Jeffrey Eugenides, the author of "The Virgin Suicides," "Middlesex," and the new novel, "The Marriage Plot."
There's a romantic triangle at the core of your novel, and that's, in a lot of ways, it's like the oldest story in the books...
GROSS: ...the romantic triangle. And you know that. That's not new to you.
EUGENIDES: I do. No, I do. I do.
GROSS: That's an old, you know, a really old story. But you had to give it like your personal version of that story. Why did you want to tackle something like a romantic triangle, knowing as you do how potentially tired that story could be, how hard it is to breathe life into it, but at the same time, how constantly real it is, because, like, who hasn't been in that situation and suffered?
EUGENIDES: Well, I never thought the word triangle while I was writing, and I just thought first of Madeline and her boyfriend, and then I had Mitchell there. I mean, it was definitely operating for me, but I wasn't aware of it. But I had this idea, you know, the epigraph for the book, no one would fall in love if they hadn't heard love talked about. So I was trying to deal with this idea of a love triangle, not about - not in the way where it really matters what happens between the characters, but in a way that you could see how their expectations about love draw them together and draw them apart.
And the marriage plot is no longer a possibility for a contemporary novelist but, you know, what I discovered in writing this book is that the marriage plot still plays itself out in our heads. We grow up reading a lot of books like this - 19th century novels - and seeing romantic films, and we might be enlightened, but we still often expect to find the one true love or to spend our lives with a single person. And a lot of our decisions in life are geared that way even now. So, it's still existing.
I mean, the way that I deal with the marriage, a triangle like this is to show that it actually is not exhausted, that these old patterns continue to repeat themselves in our actual lives. And that's the semiotic side of it. And at the same time, it's - this an extremely old-fashioned idea. I mean, the book is a marriage plot, and it isn't a marriage plot. You know, it's old-fashioned, and at the same time, it's not adverse to modernity.
GROSS: You know, since your book is, in part, about how you can't write a certain kind of romantic novel anymore that ends with, you know, with the marriage, and it's assumed that everything is great after that - you know, and reader, I married him. Is that the line that ends Jane Eyre?
EUGENIDES: I believe so. I believe so.
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GROSS: So as I said, at the same time, you're writing about, like, the death of that kind of romantic notion in the light of pre-nups and divorces. So many weddings now seem to enact, you know, a very old-fashioned or traditional, I should say, sense of marriage and romance. You know, with the, you know, the white gown and the veil...
GROSS: ...and the bridesmaids with flowers. I wonder what your thoughts are about that?
EUGENIDES: Well, it's still going on. It's rampant. You know, hopefully it works out for most people. But that's just my point, is that it didn't seem at all that these stories were gone. They transmute. They change. The social conditions change. Women's condition in society changes. And yet the basic core of these romantic dreams, those live on.
GROSS: Can I ask how old you were when you met your wife?
EUGENIDES: I was 34 years old - much older than my people in this book.
GROSS: And had your idea of what love is changed from what it was when you were graduating as, you know, graduating college, which is the place in life that your characters are in the novel?
EUGENIDES: Not particularly. I was, you know, I embarrassingly wept at my own wedding and was given a hanky by the minister.
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EUGENIDES: My wife was stoic through the whole ceremony, but I was blubbering. It was very embarrassing. And so I was not so different than these kids. But, you know, my German editor asked about Mitchell, in particular. You know, why is he so intent on marrying Madeline? You know, he doesn't know her. The first time he sees Madeline, he thinks that's just the one for me. And he thought, this is too soon. You should wait and have him decide to marry her later.
And I said to him, when I was 18, every woman that I met that I liked I would think, I'm going to marry her, or maybe I will marry her. Is this the one I'm going to marry? And then he thought about it for a while and he said, you know, I was actually the same way. So that's the way I was, and I think I continued to be that way into my 30s. Now, I made 51, I'm, you know, married with a daughter and such things are, you know, just not in my - I'm not constantly going around imagining that, because it's already been sealed and accomplished. So it's not something that I think about. Maybe I would - I don't know. If I was - if I were - had not gotten married till 51, I don't know if I could still be romantic, but fortunately, I don't have to be.
GROSS: So why do you think you wept at your own wedding?
EUGENIDES: I can be emotional, either - you know, either masculine-ly cold or suddenly emotional. I'm a crier at movies. And there's so many men like that. They don't cry, but then suddenly they cry at "Field of Dreams." I'm a little bit like that.
GROSS: What's the last movie that your eyes got moist?
EUGENIDES: I don't know. I...
EUGENIDES: I haven't seen any tearjerkers lately.
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EUGENIDES: I just saw "Contagion." I didn't cry. So...
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GROSS: But when you saw "Contagion," didn't you think about all the contagious people who you tried to be saintly around?
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GROSS: Seriously. When you were at Mother Teresa's.
EUGENIDES: No, it didn't occur to me.
EUGENIDES: I will tell you, this is a terrible admission, but I cried at "Finding Nemo."
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EUGENIDES: There you go. Because it's about a father protecting his children. So now I - that's what gets me now. And...
GROSS: Right. So, you know, there's your novel, as we've been saying, is, in part, about how a certain type of literary romance can't quite exist anymore. But there's a - there is or was a billboard advertising your novel, "The Marriage Plot," in Times Square, New York. And I've seen a photo of it and...
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GROSS: It's a photo of the - yeah?
EUGENIDES: Keep as it as far from your actual experience as you can.
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EUGENIDES: That's what I recommend.
GROSS: So it's a photo of the book jacket, and then there's a picture of you, and I think it's the same picture that's on the book jacket. Am I right?
EUGENIDES: Yes. It's a picture that should have been small on the back of my book.
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EUGENIDES: Not large, on the side of a building.
GROSS: So, it's a picture of you, and you're wearing, you know, like jeans and a shirt - a patterned shirt - and a vest. And it looks like you're walking swiftly, because the vest is, like, blowing open.
GROSS: You're carrying a book in your hands. And the headline over this billboard is: swoon-worthy. And I thought, what? I mean...
GROSS: I mean, the whole novel is all about how you can't really go into that kind of swoon anymore in literature.
EUGENIDES: Well, I can - I think that this book is actually a true love story, and I think it has all the elements of a love story, and I think it satisfies those traditional expectations at the same time as it's obviously aware of them. So in terms of the book being romantic, that's fine. Swoon-worthy is maybe not my favorite description of it. And, you know, the billboard is embarrassing to me. They told me they were going to do a billboard, but my publisher is, you know, famously cheapo, and I figured it would be a tiny little billboard on some side street that no one would see. And then I was doing an interview, and they led me out to see this thing...
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EUGENIDES: ...and I was a little bit surprised at its, you know, grandiosity. And, oh, you know, what can I say? But it's their idea of, you know, I don't know if you hang around publishers much now, but they're in quite a state about the changing media, and they're trying all different kinds of things to get interest in this - trailers. And they're tickled by the - you know, they're tickled at all the attention that the billboard is getting and, you know, they're getting e-mails from Australia.
I also forgot about the Internet, because the last time I published the book, the Internet was not affecting things the way it is now. So I never thought there'd be a picture of it and you, you know, someone like you in Philadelphia would see it, or someone in Australia would see it. I just thought, oh, a billboard on a street somewhere. The guy selling hot dogs will see it, and no one else will see it. So it's surprising to me, not only how big it is, but how big it is...
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EUGENIDES: ...in terms people's awareness of it.
GROSS: That's one of the great things about the Internet is, that it's greatly expanded the possibility for embarrassment.
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EUGENIDES: That's exactly correct.
GROSS: Jeffrey Eugenides, thank you so much for talking with us.
EUGENIDES: My pleasure.
GROSS: Jeffrey Eugenides' new novel is called "The Marriage Plot." You can read an excerpt on our website: freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new album by the young drummer and composer Tyshawn Sorey. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.