CN: Contains brief mentions of suicidal ideation

Forgetting once again the existence of half the human race, Harold Bloom announces at the beginning of The Anxiety of Influence that:

Battle between strong equals, father and son as mighty opposites, Laius and Oedipus at the crossroads; only this is my subject here, though some of the fathers … are composite figures.

He thinks that every generation of new poets are Freudian sons trying to kill their fathers, who are of course in this case the poets of the last generation. Tennyson is trying to kill Keats. The Romantics are trying to kill Milton, who in turn is trying to kill Spenser. Pretty much everyone is trying to kill Shakespeare, who is also everyone’s father. Bloom looks at the western canon, and sees two millennia of willy-waving.

It’s the era of his influence on academia that Jeffrey Eugenides is parodying in his 2011 novel The Marriage Plot when his English-major protagonist, Madeleine, talks to her college boyfriend:

Killing the father was what, in Billy’s opinion, college was all about. 
“Who’s your father?” he asked Madeleine. “Is it Virginia Woolf? Is it Sontag?”
“In my case,” Madeleine said, “my father really is my father.”
“Then you have to kill him.”

Billy’s not a complex character, but he’s funny. And you see his purpose in the plot straight away: to give a sort of Daily Mail view of student intellectuals. With the benefit of hindsight, his naive seriousness is supposed to tell us, postmodernism turned out to be just another transitory youthful cult, no different to New Romanticism or TikTok. Or, at least that’s how it went for Jeffrey Eugenides. But though he spends most of The Marriage Plot parodying the postmodernism of his university days — caricaturing its followers’ turtlenecks, without really interrogating their ideas — his subconscious subtext fits Bloom’s theory of literary tussles as sexually-charged 'battle' completely.

But this time, the father is two years younger than the son. Mitchell Grammaticus is basically his author, a Greek-American from suburban Detroit with a profound interest in religion. Like Eugenides, he backpacks round France and India after graduating; like his in-book rival Leonard Bankhead, he’s in love with the charming, erudite Madeleine Hanna. Leonard, the other corner of the love triangle, bears more than a passing resemblance to Eugenides’ critically-revered contemporary David Foster Wallace.

Franzen and Foster Wallace (centre) at the launch of Infinite Jest, back when denim shirts were socially acceptableTwitter/@thethreadmpr

An early New York Times profile of Wallace opened with him in a cab, asking “Do you have my saliva? … Somebody took my saliva, because I don’t have it.” Leonard, driving to Cape Cod with Madeleine in the second half of The Marriage Plot, asks her “Who took my saliva? … Do you have my saliva? Because I can’t find mine right now.” When he pulls on his bandana and takes his lithium, and Madeleine describes 'his largeness, coupled with the softness—the delicacy, almost—of his voice' it’s hard not to see Leonard as the feather-voiced former tennis semi-pro, transposed to Brown University, circa 1982.

Eugenides didn’t know Wallace personally, but he was sure as hell irritated by his experimental, postmodernist books: in a piece written in 2004 he picked out 'the footnote thing', a technique that was completely idiosyncratic to DFW, as one of 'the moves people make today to seem antitraditional' in novels, but make him yawn. So what actually ties them together? The closest link was a mutual friend, Jonathan Franzen, an author born into sixties suburbia whose style is closer to Eugenides-naturalism but gets Wallace-rave reviews. The three writers are often clumped together as a generation, thought of as the definitional American novelists of the nineties and noughties. (Yes, this is super problematic: don’t worry, we’ll get onto that). 

Lots of critics have run with the generation thing and identified Madeleine, the shared love interest, as a stand-in for Franzen. Given her obsession with the Victorian novel, and Leonard’s playfully literary conversations with her — laughing, for example, about whether they’d add -esque, -ian or -ish to their surnames if they became famous writers — that seems pretty plausible. (I still sometimes think about that conversation, but I’ve decided that the curse of a double-barrelled Welsh surname is that you can’t become an adjective). 

Evidently, Eugenides felt that Franzen and Wallace were his two closest peers at the heights of the American novel, and to be fair to him, between them there are four million-sellers, three Pulitzer nominations, two professorships and a host of younger imitators. But he also saw Wallace as a competitor. It’s not hard to read The Marriage Plot, a neo-traditional novel about contemporary literature, as an attempt to prove realism’s superiority to postmodernity. To frame this competition through the lens of a heterosexual love triangle… 

Well, I think I know what Bloom would say.

The thing that perplexes me about all this is how different, and frankly how much better Wallace is than Eugenides and Franzen at writing. In his short story 'Lyndon', he intersperses a hyper-real fictionalisation of the president told by an imaginary intern with real quotes about LBJ:

He had rolled the card into a tight cylinder and had it deep in his ear, probing at something, looking past me.

'Tomorrow will be drastically different from today.'
—Speech to National Press Club, Washington D.C., April 17, 1959

'The President is a restless man.' 
—Staff member, 1965

'The President is a wary man.'
—Staff member, 1964

The story weaves together research and fiction, a metafictional touch that A) undermines B) reinforces C) complicates the narrative. It’s a very clever evocation of Washington in the sixties, full of observations like 'Kennedy looked like an advertisement for something you ought not to want, but do. … Nixon looked like a Nixon mask.' But, splicing in his stylistic innovation, Wallace can ask bigger questions. Is the Lyndon Johnson of his story any less textual than the real one? Are the real figures you read about in newspapers and history books all that different to fictional characters? Are they any more real?

A Sierpinski triangle Wikimedia Commons

This light-touch postmodernism runs throughout Wallace’s work; he was never as experimental as contemporaries like George Saunders — author of Lincoln in the Bardo, one of the best-received and worst-selling Booker Prize winners — but he injected something unusual into typical forms. Partially, this was a response to the failure of realism, as he saw it, to depict reality: people 'don’t see and understand the world in the way that classic realist fiction tries to capture or mirror' any more, he said. 

But it was also a reaction to the perceived insincerity of fully deconstructed narratives, an attempt to put the human back into the novel. The famous doorstopper Infinite Jest took its structure from a fractal Sierpiński triangle and switches voice with Joycean frequency, but it’s speckled with little human moments that you can’t really imagine Derrida wanting to analyse. The realist novel failed to analyse the world of techno-capital; the postmodern social novel was too insincere. So Wallace tried to find late-twentieth-century techniques to describe what he saw out of the window and on the screen.

Eugenides and Franzen, on the other hand, lent heavily on imitations of the nineteenth. Having come of age in English departments where TS Eliot was effectively the ur-poet, they found the Victorians later in life, and fell for them. As Eugenides said in a mid-noughties interview,

our generation grew up backwards … We read Joyce before we read Tolstoy. The gods we were told about were Pynchon and high modernism. Experimentation was the norm for us. Then we found out what the modernists were rebelling against.

And so, they launched what they thought was a counter-revolution: an attempt to re-establish the old way of doing things, because 'we’ve gone so far out with deconstructing literature that it's almost in need of being reconstructed.' The two of them didn’t work in exactly the same way. Eugenides’ three novels — The Virgin Suicides (1993), Middlesex (2002) and The Marriage Plot (2011) — are wildly different from one another; Franzen’s three after his road-to-Damascus turn to realism — The Corrections (2002), Freedom (2010) and Purity (2015) — are wildly similar.

'The suburbia Madeleine and most of her friends had grown up in': Grosse Pointe, MI, where Eugenides grew up and Middlesex is setInstagram/GrossePointeMichigan

But with the exception of The Virgin Suicides — which has an extraordinary, chorus-like first-person-plural narration, and blows all the other books out of the water — they all share an omnipotent narrator, a wide cast of middle-class protagonists, a liberal sprinkling of Free Indirect Discourse and a focus on heterosexual relationships as the ultimate societal bond. Superficially, it’s a style in the vein of Austen, with just a hint of Shakespeare. On closer inspection, though, it looks suspiciously like the writers of a previous generation who Wallace called 'The Great Male Narcissists' — Norman Mailer, John Updike, John Cheever, writers of horny, misogynistic novels about white suburbia that supposedly spoke for all America. 

There’s a bit in The Marriage Plot where Eugenides’ anger at the new plurality of voices in fiction bubbles up from below:

Almost overnight it became laughable to read writers like Cheever or Updike, who wrote about the suburbia Madeleine and most of her friends had grown up in, in favor of reading the Marquis de Sade, who wrote about anally deflowering virgins in eighteenth-century France. The reason de Sade was preferable was that his shocking sex scenes weren’t about sex but politics. They were therefore anti-imperialist, anti-bourgeois, anti-patriarchal, and anti-everything a smart young feminist should be against.

He confuses immediate relatability and literary merit: a book you might want to read on holiday isn’t always one you’d want to analyse in a college essay. But you can spot the implications. Eugenides is writing about Madeleine’s suburbia; Eugenides is therefore writing about the very subject that students in the eighties thought was outmoded; Eugenides therefore thinks that the students were wrong, and that novelists should write more about the suburbia that Updike squeezed dry.

The books put this into practice. New elements are incorporated: there’s a hint of female interiority and slightly less male bravado; Cheever’s endless back gardens become Franzen’s 'green monospecific chemical-drenched lawns'. But what happens on them is effectively the same: these are still novels about middle-class ennui, male lust and failing marriages. 

Take a look at Franzen’s career, too: The Corrections is a semi-satirical novel about a collapsing Minnesota family; Freedom is a semi-satirical novel about a collapsing Minnesota family; rather innovatively, Purity is a semi-satirical novel about a collapsing Californian family. Meanwhile, Eugenides’ focus is youth: The Virgin Suicides is a novel about growing up in Detroit’s suburbs; Middlesex is a novel about growing up in Detroit’s suburbs; The Marriage Plot is a novel about going to university after growing up in Detroit’s suburbs. Perhaps next time we’ll have progressed to finding a first home in Detroit’s suburbs.

Jeffrey Eugenides spotting a plot that's not about suburbia off in the distance, probablyTwitter/@Princeton

Again and again, characters traipse round wide avenues gossiping about the neighbours’ children. They take angsty drives where they vent their hidden loves. Maybe they  have a breakdown and spend a night in a motel. I find it really hard to connect to these scenes, perhaps because they’re just so — well, American. A pre-requirement of the Great American Novel, which is patently what Franzen and Eugenides want to write, is that it’s a state-of-the-nation book; the goal is to define what being an American means in the twenty-first century via their domestic narratives, which aim to 'span … the expanse between private experience and public context', as Franzen once manifestoed. 

The publishing houses refer to Eugenides, Franzen and Wallace in the same breath. But it’s telling that only the latter — a part-time philosopher whose books are less fixated on American truths, more on universal ones — has made a real impact on writers outside the States. A very unscientific search of academic work on iDiscover finds 2,700 results for 'Jeffrey Eugenides', 9,009 for 'Jonathan Franzen' and 89,816 for 'David Foster Wallace'. The Corrections and The Virgin Suicides sit comfortably in Waterstones as book-club fodder alongside magic realism by recent UEA graduates, though admittedly, they might make the Pinot Grigio a little melancholic. But Infinite Jest is on university reading lists, not far off Ulysses’ heels as a Book To Read Before You Die; it's so well-known that you can go moderately viral by eating it.

As they’ve aged, Franzen and Eugenides have retreated deeper into literary conservatism, revelling in their high-minded opposition to experimentation of all kinds — Fellini’s masterpiece Amarcord 'was pretty to look at but confused her,' Madeleine says — but never realising that they only hate one kind of experimentation, the one they grew up with. They haven’t spotted that their fiction isn’t a counter-revolution against their 'fathers' in the theory generation, like Knausgaard’s hyperrealism is. It’s just reactionary. 

It’s also wildly commercially successful, which adds a few figures to their bank balances. But popularity means their voices can reach beyond the literati and speak to a wider audience. After his second novel, and just before his move from postmodernism to realism, Franzen wrote about the frustration of saying something but not being heard:

The biggest surprise […] was the failure of my culturally-engaged novel to engage with the culture. I’d intended to provoke; what I got instead was sixty reviews in a vacuum.

Eugenides and Franzen together at the launch party for The Marriage Plot Twitter/@fsgbooks

No challenging, prescient novel since Catch 22 had made a real impact on American culture, partially because literary fiction had become too challenging, he theorised. Now only people with English degrees wanted to read it. It’s a fair point, and one that any novelist has to reckon with: who are your readers? If you’re talking about an issue that’s endemic in society, you’d aim for them to be anyone, hopefully everyone. A slim, moderate bestseller will have a greater impact than a book that’s revolutionary but ignored; take Sally Rooney as an example. Conversations With Friends has a far more radical view of modern relationships than Normal People, but I’d bet that Connell and Marianne’s story has affected a lot more people than Frances and Bobbi and Melissa and Nick’s, simply because it’s been read more.

It’s odd that having decided to write in a more accessible way, Franzen kept denying in interviews that his writing was accessible, claiming his practice didn’t fit his earlier theory. Was that true? Freedom liberally parallels War and Peace — 'when her own Pierre returned from the wilderness … she was ready to love him again' — but the style is less Tolstoy, more Oprah’s Book Club. There was huge controversy, in fact, among the literati when The Corrections was one of Oprah’s choices in 2002. Franzen idiotically said that the selection was a shame because 'he had some hope of actually reaching a male audience,' and only women read Oprah’s 'schmaltzy' and 'one-dimensional' books. She swiftly unchose it. 

It wasn’t the last of Franzen’s controversies: when Freedom got reviewed twice in one issue of the New York Times, it sparked a much-needed discussion of critics’ gender-based selection of novels; later, his bizarre cat-genocide ideas led to a lot of backlash from pet-owners. But, putting aside for a moment his bizarre misogyny, it was his most surprising controversy, because his book was a perfectly fine Oprah choice, just like Middlesex was six years later. There’s nothing inherently challenging about his and Eugenides’ style, nothing that means their books can’t, or shouldn’t, be read by a wide public.

In an interview after the Oprah controversy, Franzen, sounding like a literary snob choosing to ignore that he writes novels for a mass audience, characterised the modern attitude to literature as a bunch of ebook-dumbed people thinking “We really don't have to read novels anymore unless they're by Stieg Larsson.” But just because he doesn’t start every single paragraph with 'Lisbet Salander [verbed] [a noun] [prepostionally to] [another noun] and [verbed] [adverbially]', doesn’t make him Anthony Trollope. Like Larsson’s, his novels are eminently readable; like Larsson’s, that’s a big part of their appeal.

And now we get to the part where I begin to feel a bit ambiguous about these two authors. I disagree with their theoretical approach to the novel, absolutely. But it does make their books so, so readable.

Eugenides was the first modern novelist whose books I read properly. Back when I was sixteen, I picked a copy of Middlesex off the shelves because I thought it was set in the English county and devoured it over the course of a holiday, paying more attention to his (fictional) Detroit than my (real) Cornwall. The Virgin Suicides went cover-to-cover in a single train journey, followed by a trudge through the heavy prose of his short story collection Fresh Complaint, and a despairing slog to the end of The Marriage Plot. Despite their inconsistencies, his books peppered my personal statement; apparently they 'thrilled me' with all their 'wistful, almost Nabokovian nostalgia'. 

'The half-known discoveries that suffuse teenage life': Chelsea Swain and Kirsten Dunst in Coppola's filmTwitter/CriterionChannl

I’ll admit that that sentence was complete posturing — and that I’ve not actually read Nabokov. I didn’t like these books for 'their superb portrayal of the Greek-American psyche,' I liked them because they were enjoyable, and easy. Picking up one of Eugenides’ black-spined paperbacks meant being wrapped up in a world — or, better yet, an atmosphere. The inevitable, tautological sadness of The Virgin Suicides, which like Romeo and Juliet begins by telling you that you’ll be sobbing come the end and then goes on to prove it, mixed in my mind with his ability to capture the half-known discoveries that suffuse teenage life.

He could capture that longing for people you don’t yet know, the one you only feel in your teens; I can’t think of many other writers who can access the consciousness of those slow years so well. But with his The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie-like prolepsis — 'Mike Firkin, who later became a missionary and died of malaria in Thailand' — he cloaked them in future tragedy, as if adult life was just an epilogue to the protagonists’ adolescence. Air’s soundtrack to Sofia Coppola’s lush film adaptation summed up how reading the book felt: the smooth, slow synths and twinkling piano just got the wishful, melancholy aura that it breathed into being, the 4/4 nostalgia that spilled beyond the covers and still perfumes that era of my life. 

I felt just as engrossed reading Middlesex, which starts by naming its intersex protagonist after the muse of epic poetry, and often reaches that scale. I felt I actually knew what Grosse Pointe, Michigan looked like in 1970; I’d been to Berlin in 2002 and Smyrna eighty years before. Despite its vast scope of time and geography, it was relatable. The changes that 5-alpha-reductase deficiency brings about in Cal’s body are unique to intersex people, but they’re also a more intense version of anyone’s puberty, and his performed adult gender is everyone’s. He himself says at one point that 'my swagger wasn’t all that different from what lots of adolescent boys put on, trying to be manly'. His life as a girl and then a man didn’t seem unusual. They felt like something I myself had lived. 

I still think it’s a good book, though the flaws are more obvious in retrospect: a reliance on soap-opera clichés; the way it follows a hugely problematic self-hate-then-dropping-out-and-drugs trans narrative that can only find its resolution in conforming to a heteronormative culture. Perhaps I just like it because I feel nostalgic for the book I once thought it was.

Middlesex’s one undeniably positive effect, when it was published in 2002, was a huge jump in public consciousness of intersex people, and the way their bodies are too often medicalised by a flawed science based on binary gender. Sometimes a novel has the power to show (not tell) you how it feels to be affected by a force or a structure you’ve never personally experienced; as Sally Rooney recently said, that might be the only truly political thing that fiction can do.

Ruisdael's Wheat FieldsWikimedia Commons
Van Gogh's The Night Café Wikimedia Commons

It’s part of the imaginative act of reading, the way you don’t even see the words on a page as you scan it, because your mind’s eye is filled by a dream projected from the sensibilities and senses of people who never existed. Reading Eugenides, the effortless prose made that projection even more powerful. I almost didn’t notice I was reading sometimes, such was the elegance of his sentences. 

Or maybe elegant isn’t the right word for something you don’t notice. Joan Didion’s sentences are elegant: in a breathtaking way, a way that makes you stop and re-read them and wonder how on earth she could construct such perfect strings of words. 'I was interested only in the picture of her in my mind: her hair incandescent in the floodlights, her bare toes curled inward on the stone ledge' (The White Album) is a sentence that pulls you up short. 'Quickly, she climbed the front stairs, finding the bathroom and locking the door behind her' (The Marriage Plot) is not. 

Didion’s words are affecting in the way Van Gogh’s paintings are affecting, a way that calls attention to the artist’s complete mastery of their form. You notice her words like you notice his brushstrokes in The Night Café; they’re fundamental to the pleasure you take from the art. Perhaps Eugenides is more like a landscape painter, an artist who creates an illusion of a real place. You find Ruisdael’s Wheat Fields beautiful because the scene as a whole is beautiful; the technique is just there to facilitate the image. 

Franzen’s style is similarly invisible; sometimes it’s actually hard to tell their prose apart, all long run-on sentences with just the right number of commas and maybe a colon. Both of them have a knack for writing an opening that will catch you with a promise of what’s to come. Take the beginnings of Middlesex and Freedom:


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Mountain View

Read about another of Coppola's adaptions: Mier Foo on The Custom of the Country

I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974. 

The news about Walter Berglund wasn’t picked up locally—he and Patty had moved away to Washington two years earlier and meant nothing to St. Paul now—but the urban gentry of Ramsey Hill were not so loyal to their city as not to read The New York Times.

Who, what, where, when; hook, line, and sinker. You’re drawn in, and the prose unfurls, always moving forwards without ever making its presence felt, and two hundred pages fall away like an afternoon in lockdown. If literature wasn’t somehow more virtuous than TV, their novels would be called bingeable.

It was hard to dislike Franzen and Eugenides, really, when I had such fond memories of lying on a sofa with their books, whiling away the hours in a mindset not far from meditation. The best literature can show you someone else’s life, involve you in their petty dramas and deep emotions, so when you return to your own life you can see it with a new perspective, a deeper empathy. I was in search of a quick fix of that when, despite online invectives proclaiming Now Is Your Chance To Finally Read Ulysses, I turned to Freedom and The Marriage Plot as quarantine reads after three years away.

[Inhales].

Oh boy.