Characters in the latest novel from Jeffrey Eugenides find themselves shaped by an age where love is always suspect, writes David Mattin
Part way through writing Middlesex - surely one of the best-known literary novels of the past 20 years - Jeffrey Eugenides gave up in despair. He turned instead to another story, about a rich family that holds a party for debutantes. Where Eugenides had been stuck fast on Middlesex, here the pages multiplied: 150 of them in a few easy weeks. Soon enough, though, Eugenides began to feel guilt over this authorial infidelity, and returned to the book he had been writing. And it's good that he did: Middlesex, published in 2002, went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, sell more than three million copies, and earn Eugenides a place among the most important American novelists of his generation.
Those 150 pages, though, were not wasted. They formed the kernel of The Marriage Plot. Ten years in creation, it's one of the most anticipated fiction releases of recent years.
"When I finished Middlesex, I was left with the 150 pages of this new book," Eugenides remembers. "The story had lots of people coming together for a party, and there were two young people called Madeleine and Mitchell.
"I was writing a section about Madeleine, and I wrote this sentence: 'Madeleine's love troubles began when the French theory she was reading deconstructed the very notion of love.' And with that sentence somehow the whole tone of the novel changed, it seemed more contemporary, and I just kept writing her chapter."
The Marriage Plot was born. The novel tells the story of the romantic entanglement of three college students; Madeleine falls in love with the manic-depressive Leonard, who she first encounters in her Semiotics 211 class. Meanwhile, Mitchell pines after the unavailable Madeleine, and takes himself off to Europe in an attempt to forget about her. All this happens at Brown University in the mid-1980s, a time when post-structuralist literary theory was sweeping campuses across the US. This, of course, allows Eugenides some post-structuralism of his own: Madeleine reads Barthes' Lovers Discourse in an attempt to understand whether she is really in love with Leonard. A college professor argues that the novel reached its apogee with the "marriage plots" of the 19-century - Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina - and has never recovered from the damage wrought on such plots by the 1960s. In short, The Marriage Plot is a novel about love that plays with the very idea of novels about love. If all that sounds rather tricksy, fear not: this book delivers great bowls full of the conventional pleasures: deep, complex characters, narrative tension, emotional involvement. No wonder the US publishers Farrar, Straus and Giroux thought it worthwhile to announce publication with a billboard over New York's Times Square.
Eugenides says it was never his intention to write a post-structuralist, "problem of meaning" novel.
"I wanted to capture that feeling of being in love, and this is what being in love is like now," he says. "The idea of being in love is shadowed with all these theoretical, existential doubts that we've picked up by reading the post-structuralists.
"It's as though the doubt that has for a long time plagued religious faith is now a part of romance, too: people still fall in love, but they're not quite sure if they should believe it. Madeleine has grown up with this expectation of finding the perfect person, but then she starts to call that idea into question."
But surely there are some formal ideas here, too? Isn't Eugenides playing with the postmodernist idea that texts, including novels, are always really about other texts?
"I've been influenced by the postmodernists, but I've always resisted the idea that texts can't mean anything about the world. People might say this is a novel about books, but really it's a novel about people who are heavily influenced by what they read, and play that out in their own lives. That is what I remember it was like to be 22.
"There is a melodic line running through this novel. Depending on who you are, you might pay more attention to that, or to the dissonance of the postmodernist aspects. But if a novel doesn't work on an emotional level, it becomes too much an arid intellectual exercise for me."
Still, Eugenides has been well-known for combining formal inventiveness with narrative drive since his 1993 debut The Virgin Suicides. That novel told the story of the suicides of five sisters via a haunting, first-person-plural voice that was compared to a Greek chorus. Middlesex came 10 years later: a multi-generational epic told by Cal, the intersex descendant of the grandparents and parents whose lives he/she presents. Those two novels were wholly different from one another, and Eugenides says that with The Marriage Plot he intended to traverse more new ground: deep psychological investigation of character.
"Two things happen when I finish a novel. First, I rebel against it, and want to write something completely different. Second, I've learnt something while writing the book that I want to do better in the next book.
"I thought that with Middlesex I was deepening my characters; I felt that I really had the ability to manifest character and I wanted to go further with that in The Marriage Plot."
He succeeded, particularly in the way Madeleine, Leonard and Mitchell are brought to such vivid life.
"I poured huge amounts of myself into all three characters, and then built on that by thinking about people I knew," he says. "Madeleine is a combination of every girl I dated in college, and with each scene I can tell you who it is drawn from. Sometimes former girlfriends show up at my readings, and it will happen that the part I'm reading will be drawn from them," he laughs. "Usually they take it pretty well.
"I remember getting out of college as one of the most difficult times in my life. You've been sheltered, and then you're out in the world. Are you going to be a failure, even though you did well in school? I wanted to draw on all that."
Eugenides says he went into college knowing that he wanted to be a novelist. Nevertheless, The Virgin Suicides didn't appear until he was 33. Ten years elapsed between each subsequent book. That has resulted in a reputation for working slowly. Now, at 51, he says that could be set to change.
"I've never been in a hurry," he says. "Maybe I should be in more of a hurry. I'm tired of being the posterboy for slowness. I have a book of short stories almost finished.
"I'm full of doubt all the time, and I write many more drafts than I need in order to convince myself that one draft is the right one. I might write 10 drafts and then choose draft two. If I could learn not to do that, and realise when something is working, I'd move along faster.
"I think inevitably you get the hang of it the more you do it. It feels as though I'm getting to that point."