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Jeffrey Eugenides Has It Both Ways

In 1993, Jeffrey Eugenides published The Virgin Suicides, a spellbinding novel about five mysterious sisters in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, and the boys whose lives they would forever change. Middlesex, the author's long awaited follow-up, introduces another Grosse Pointe family: the Stephanides. Jeffrey Eugenides Reaching across generations, continents, and genders, it's a broad, comic epic, tracing the path of a mutant gene to one Calliope Stephanides. In Cal, our storyteller, that gene finds expression.

Eugenides explained in part, "I see it as a family story. I used a hermaphrodite not to tell the story of a freak or someone unlike the rest of us but as a correlative for the sexual confusion and confusion of identity that everyone goes through in adolescence."

"[A]n uproarious epic, at once funny and sad," Michiko Kakutani raved in the New York Times. "Mr. Eugenides has a keen sociological eye for 20th-century American life....But it's his emotional wisdom, his nuanced insight into his characters' inner lives, that lends this book its cumulative power."

Dave: So much of The Virgin Suicides derives from the enigma of the five sisters. To some extent, the enigma of girls and women in general. There's a gap of understanding that the boys telling the story can't bridge. In Middlesex, you have the person on that bridge telling the story; Cal, a hermaphrodite, straddles those two worlds. I don't know if that was a conscious decision, but it's such a different perspective to take.

Jeffrey Eugenides: It wasn't conscious, but I guess that one book is the reaction to the other. The first is so imprisoned in a male point-of-view, and the second is a point-of-view that can go anywhere it wants.

When I wrote The Virgin Suicides, I gave myself very strict rules about the narrative voice: the boys would only be able to report what they had seen or found or what had been told to them. I think because it was my first book that helped to limit the possibilities of what I could use. It really constrained the point-of-view. Since the book was about obsession and voyeurism, and also about the things that linger in your mind from adolescence, it seemed an appropriate point-of-view — but I obviously wasn't going to constrain myself for the rest of my life!

With Middlesex, after a certain amount of trial and error, I came up with a narrative point-of-view that could do anything. And I did want to use a hermaphrodite as the narrator. It seemed to me that a novelist has to have a hermaphroditic imagination, since you should be able to go into the heads of men and women if you want to write books. What better vehicle for that than a hermaphrodite narrator? It's sort of like the dream novelist himself, or herself, or itself — already we're into the pronoun problem.

Dave: The first half of Middlesex is primarily concerned with events that occurred before Cal's birth. At what point did you decide to let him tell that story in detail?

Eugenides: It took me a long time to give myself that kind of freedom and permission. I wanted the book to be first-person. In many ways, the point of the book is that we're all an I before we're a he or a she, so I needed that I. For philosophical reasons, I wanted the I.

For practical reasons, I wanted the I because I didn't want that terrible situation where the character is she, then you turn the page and she becomes he — or even the more dreaded s/he. I knew that. And I also wanted to be very close to her metamorphosis, to describe it from the inside.

At the same time, it's a family story and more of an epic. I needed the third-person. I tried to give a sense that Cal, in writing his story, is perhaps inventing his past as much as recalling it. He might make claims that he has a genetic memory or that he knows things, but there are a lot of tip-offs to the reader that he's making it up. He needed to tell the whole story to explain his incredible life to himself. He knew a lot about his grandparents — and perhaps he feels he's been endowed with abilities to go into people's heads who are long dead — but, to a certain extent, he's making it up. It took me a long time to let myself do that.

Dave: When Cal remembers his father's home videos, he talks about a moment when Milton would turn the camera around to see the lens and inadvertently appear in the picture...

Eugenides: ..."bequeathing me my aesthetic"?

Dave: Right.

In the middle of Christmas scenes or birthday parties there always came a moment when Milton's eye would fill the screen. So that now, as I quickly try to sketch my early years, what comes back most clearly is just that: the brown orb of my father's sleepy, bearish eye. A postmodern touch in our domestic cinema, pointing up artifice, calling attention to mechanics. (And bequeathing me my aesthetic.)

Did the implausibility of Cal knowing all the stories about his parents and grandparents bequeath the self-consciousness in his narration?

Eugenides: I don't particularly like historical novels. I don't like the fraudulent omniscience of most historical novels, taking you back and saying, "This is exactly how it was." When I started doing historical sections, which is something I'd never done before, I had a lot of uneasiness about it, and I had to find a lightness of tone that could tell the story without a solemnity or a seriousness that I find unappealing. The self-consciousness was a way to avoid that kind of omniscience. It came early on.

The book has many different characteristics: some are extremely old-fashioned storytelling traits, but there are also a fair number of postmodern traits, and the self-consciousness is one.

Dave: Middlesex "contains multitudes," one reviewer said of its various storylines and styles. What was it like to work on such a broad canvas?

Eugenides: I wanted to write a comic epic. I started with the idea of writing a fictional memoir of a hermaphrodite. I thought it would be a shortish book of about 250-300 pages. In opposition to the way hermaphrodites have existed in literature previously — as mythical creatures, mainly, like Tiresias — I wanted to write about a real hermaphrodite. I wanted to be accurate about the medical facts.

I went to medical libraries and read a lot of books. The genetic condition that I found happened to be a recessive mutation that only occurs in isolated communities where there's been a certain amount of inbreeding. At that point, I saw the possibility to bring in some of my family's story, the story of Greeks coming from Asia Minor, and I realized I had a large epic.

Since it's about genetics, I thought the book should be a novelistic genome; that is, it should contain some of the oldest traits of writing and storytelling — it begins with epic events, old fashioned, almost Homeric ideas — and as it progresses it should gradually become a more deeply psychological, more modern novel.

Without being too schematic, my idea was to have old traits carried along into the body of the book in the same way we have ancient genes in our body combining in a different way to create different human beings. I hoped by mixing all these elements to come up with something new.

Dave: For such a smart, serious novel — and by "serious" I mean to be taken seriously — it's fairly lighthearted. If you just threw a plot summary at someone, they wouldn't expect it to be as much fun as it is.

Eugenides: In general, that's the way it is with my work. When people hear what The Virgin Suicides is about, they think that it won't be funny at all, and then they read it and they find out that it is. But Middlesex is more broadly comic.

I have a tragic-comic sensibility, I guess. I can't imagine writing something devoid of humor, yet I don't like slapstick that doesn't admit tragedy. I blend them. It's just central to the way I see things.

Dave: The families at the center of both books live in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. Do you know where the Lisbons' house is compared to the Stephanides'?

Eugenides: Yes.

Dave: How long does it take to drive from one to the other?

Eugenides: It takes about five or seven minutes.

Dave: It's not unusual for an author to go back to childhood haunts, but you left Michigan many years ago now. Will you continue to set your fiction there? Granted, Middlesex roams all over the planet, but the heart of the book is in the Detroit area.

Eugenides: Was it Flannery O'Connor who said that all you need to know to be a writer you learn by the time you're fourteen? Somebody.

I have gone away for a long time, but I've seen in my novels no reason to leave Detroit. Detroit is emblematic of so many American realities that seem important to me. It's the place of American ingenuity where lots of inventions came to be — obviously, the greatest one being the automobile, the most American thing. Its cultural production is very American, from Motown all the way through Madonna, Eminem, and The White Stripes. It's a place of great industrial might, but also great industrial decay, and of course extreme racial conflict that's basically destroyed the city. All these things were there, are there, in my hometown. It's a very rich place to set stories because you can get at all these things that seem to be central about America.

I have a perverse love of Detroit, by virtue, I imagine, of growing up there. I feel very connected to it emotionally and my memories are very vivid. No place stirs me quite the same way, even though I'm not often there. Perhaps because I've left I've been able to preserve it in some kind of time capsule. It remains unchanging for me while the rest of the world changes; it's sort of my laboratory. I don't know if I'll continue to write about Detroit again and again and again, but so far I haven't found that I need to leave it behind particularly.

Dave: Are there other novels about Detroit that I should know about? I'll admit to a certain amount of ignorance on this topic.

Eugenides: There aren't too many. The Detroit papers are now saying that this is "the Detroit novel." I certainly don't mind when they say that. They talk about Them by Joyce Carol Oates being another Detroit novel, but there aren't a lot, which is maybe another reason why I like writing about Detroit. Bellow has Chicago... But I don't know. I don't live there now, so it's hard to keep current with what's happening.

Dave: You mentioned earlier that novelists have to be able to write in the role of either gender. Cal describes faking the walk of a man and, in doing so, realizing that all men are faking their walk to some degree, trying to look more masculine: "My swagger wasn't that different from what lots of adolescent boys put on, trying to be manly. For that reason it was convincing. Its very falseness made it credible."

Other lines of that sort: when Cal is in the men's room, for instance:

To think that a toilet stall had once been a haven for me! That was all over now. I could see at once that men's rooms, unlike the ladies', provided no comfort. Often there wasn't even a mirror, or any hand soap. And while the closeted, flatulent men showed no shame, at the urinals men acted nervous. They looked straight ahead like horses with blinders.

I understood at those times what I was leaving behind: the solidarity of shared biology. Women know what it means to have a body. They understand its difficulties and frailties, its glories and pleasures. Men think their bodies are theirs alone. They tend them in private, even in public.

Those very particular, entirely vivid insights help to make Cal and his discoveries real.

Eugenides: I either invented those scenes or discovered them while I was writing. Basically, I'd try to identify with my character as much as I could. I'd pretend that I'm a girl — or a girl who's found out that she's actually a boy and is trying to be a boy — and I'd ask, What in my experience accords with that?

I think there's a certain amount of play-acting that went on in early adolescence when I was trying to be masculine, trying to be a man; I figured it would be the same if you were a girl trying to be a boy as it was for a young boy trying to be an older boy: acting tougher, walking different. I remember some of those things from growing up. You would notice how you were supposed to do certain things so you wouldn't be sissy or something. All that stuff I had to remember and then I used it in those passages.

Dave: There are scenes of great longing — and longing relieved — in both books. In Virgin Suicides, I think of the scene where Lux surprises Trip Fontaine in his car. In Middlesex, among others, there's the clarinet scene with Milton and Tessie. Something about that state of longing and the moment when it finds expression...Often in your novels the characters are sharply defined by brief little bursts of passion and creativity.

Eugenides: If I were an emotion, I would be longing. That is a kind of human emotion that's very clear to me, and very strong from an early age, as perhaps it is in everyone. Certainly those are easy passages — or easier passages — for me to write. Virgin Suicides is almost one long longing.

Dave: The Virgin Suicides purports to be built upon an enormous body of evidence accumulated by the boys telling the story. That "evidence" creates a tremendous weight of history and sadness and confusion.

Eugenides: It's a record of a failed investigation, in a way. The boys go on, and they collect more and more evidence, but at the end they find out that they haven't understood the girls at all. That's why they're left eternally thinking about them.

Some people have read the book and thought that it accuses the girls at the end. The boys do make accusations about the girls for leaving them, but those are meant to be seen as selfish on the boys' part, and it says as much pretty obviously at the end of the book: "We had never known them. They had brought us here to find that out." That's as close as I come to saying that boys don't hold all the cards.

Dave: But you get the same point across in more subtle ways throughout. I love the line when the girls are signaling to the boys through their window and the narrator, who can't quite make out what's going on behind the glass, explains, "Mary blew us a kiss, or wiped her mouth." That line really resonated for me: the futility of their attempt to connect.

I grew up in a suburb in Massachusetts, and it all seemed so familiar. Not the story, obviously, but the scenery. Suburbs, to some extent, are suburbs.

Eugenides: They definitely are. And they're also villages in Europe because it resonates with them, too.

Dave: Was Father Moody a nod to Rick Moody, your college roommate, and his ancestor Handkerchief?

Eugenides: It wasn't a nod to Handkerchief; it was a nod to Moody, himself.

When I wrote The Virgin Suicides, I never thought it would get published, so I was using names of some of my friends indiscriminately. Also, Rick Moody wasn't very well known when I wrote this, so it didn't leap out to anyone at that point. It was more of a nod to Moody's own religiosity than his purported ancestral religiosity.

Dave: He was purporting that even back then, years before he wrote The Black Veil.

Eugenides: His idea about Handkerchief Moody, as he says in The Black Veil, goes back to college. He knew about that back then and talked about it quite a bit.

Dave: I read in one profile or another that there was in fact an "Obscure Object" at Brown from which you took the name for the love interest in Middlesex.

Eugenides: That was actually a girl that Rick and I liked. This is an amazing story, actually. She was a mysterious girl, so we called her The Obscure Object. Since the book has come out, we've talked about it again, but we hadn't talked about her for years. When we were at Brown, we'd say, "Have you seen The Obscure Object?" Or, "I saw The Obscure Object."

On the day I finished Middlesex, I went to have dinner at The American Academy in Berlin, and during dinner I saw this woman that looked vaguely familiar. I went over to her and I said, "Did you go to Brown?" And she said, "Yes." She told me her name, and I couldn't place it. Then it hit me that she was The Obscure Object, twenty years down the line. I'd just finished the book using her nickname, and I met her on the day I finished. It was quite an amazing coincidence.

Dave: So many of the people you were around back then are successful, widely read. Rick Moody, Donald Antrim...

Eugenides: It's kind of amazing, actually. It surprises me. Not because they didn't seem like they'd make it, but just that I would know people who would publish books.

Dave: You've been in Berlin for how long?

Eugenides: Three and a half years.

Dave: What's that been like for you?

Eugenides: As a person with a family, it's a much easier place to live than New York, which is why we stay: because we have a daughter. There are lots of parks's just an easier town. It's cheaper; we have a bigger house, which makes it easier for my wife and I to have work studios in the house. Things like that. I think it's always good to be outside of your country if you want to see it more clearly, and I've enjoyed that, but mostly it's just been a good place to work while I was finishing Middlesex.

Dave: Are you keeping up with contemporary fiction these days?

Eugenides: To a certain extent.

Dave: What do you like?

Eugenides: Some obvious candidates, I guess. I think The Corrections is a good book. I enjoyed it. I like [David Foster] Wallace; I read Wallace with eagerness when he publishes something. I like other people that get less press like Julie Hecht. Also Jo Ann Beard's The Boys of My Youth.

Dave: One reviewer said that Middlesex belonged alongside The Corrections and Don Delillo's Underworld as the best novels of the past ten years. That claim was interesting to me not so much because he felt that these three books belonged together but rather that implicit in his judgment was the idea that big "epic" novels are best.

Your first novel was more structurally compact and focused; now you come along with a follow-up that's teeming with characters and storylines. Is this novel necessarily better than the first?

Eugenides: I don't know. It needed to be big because it was a big story. I did have an ambition to one day write a comic epic that had lots of parts and swept you along with energy, but it's big because the story was large. I wasn't trying to heave my brick into the pile, or anything like that. And it's not that long. Look at The Crimson Petal — it's more than 800 pages! Mine's looking kind of skimpy, if you ask me.

Dave: I don't like to read reviews or summaries of a book before I read the book, itself, but I'd read the excerpted story in The New Yorker and I had a general idea of Middlesex's plot. Still, it took me by surprise. I hadn't quite expected the novel to be so normal, if that's the right way to put it, and so fun.

Eugenides: People hear that Middlesex is told by a hermaphrodite, and sometimes that repels them from reading it. But I see it as a family story. I used a hermaphrodite not to tell the story of a freak or someone unlike the rest of us but as a correlative for sexual confusion and the confusion of identity that everyone goes through in adolescence.

When people read the book, I think they understand that, but sometimes, just based on the plot summary, they don't. I try to emphasize that to readers because it's a difficult book to summarize, and I think people can get the wrong idea.

Dave: Browsing through the press packet your publicist sent me I found a review of the book from Elle, another from Men's Journal, and others from pretty much every type of source in between — which is unusual. You don't generally find women's magazines and men's magazines reviewing the same book. Much less recommending the same book.

Eugenides: With a hermaphrodite book...

Dave: I know. It's the ultimate crossover book, in every way.

Jeffrey Eugenides visited Powell's City of Books on October 25, 2002.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. My Mistress's Sparrow Is Dead: Great...
    Used Hardcover $9.50
  2. Middlesex (Oprah's Book Club...
    Used Trade Paper $5.95
  3. Underworld
    Used Trade Paper $2.50
  4. The Boys of My Youth
    Used Trade Paper $8.00
  5. The Corrections
    Used Trade Paper $7.50
  6. The Black Veil: A Memoir Used Trade Paper $3.50
  7. Them Used Trade Paper $10.95
  8. The Virgin Suicides
    Used Trade Paper $5.50

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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