In Fort Greene, a bite of Madeleine with Jeffrey Eugenides

Jeffrey Eugenides. (via Guardian.co.uk)
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Alex Seedman

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The Greenlight Bookstore on Fulton Street in Fort Greene is a popular enough venue in the early-evening after-work hours, but last night it was packed with browsers waiting for the arrival of novelist Jeffrey Eugenides.

It was to be his second reading in support of his new novel in New York in two nights, but the night before was at the Union Square Barnes and Noble, which is like the Madison Square Garden of reading spots; this promised to be special, like seeing someone performing an intimate smoky cabaret instead.

The sea of horn-rimmed glasses that formed in the stacks awaiting Eugenides' arrival got denser and churned into new territory of the store: No room in front of Aristotle or Beattie or Celine or even Zola, they were now being pushed into the aisles of the children's section.

Eugenides' new novel, The Marriage Plot, was nearly a decade in the making; he's important enough because of 1993's The Virgin Suicides and 2002's Middlesex.

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But it almost seems as though his career was building toward this: The Marriage Plot is enough of an event to have caused an actual billboard in Times Square. Its plot was deemed worthy of dissection in a big New York Magazine article that probed the literary friendships of Eugenides' early writing years for answers. Critics are raving, deeming his book about books “dazzling” (Kirkus Reviews) and “immensely readable,” (The Daily Telegraph.) Michiko Kakutani declared in the Times that he was "more adept" than J.D. Salinger in "channeling teenage angst." (Slightly dismissive, that, as you read on.) Many have compared his latest work to the late David Foster Wallace, which is a brave compliment considering Wallace’s hyperloyal fan base, and also confusing since there is so much speculation that Wallace forms the basis of one of the novel's protagonists.

Eugenides took the podium to disruptive applause a little after 7:30 p.m.

“Thank you,” he said, smiling. “It’s incredible to be here. It’s a bit of a homecoming for me. I’m from Brooklyn. I moved here in 1988. Of course, now I’m always in Jersey, so I’m always depressed. But it’s good to be here.”

These were all things his crowd already knew.

“One of the characters is called Madeleine," he began. "She’s graduating from college and going off into the real world and one of her boyfriends is called Leonard, and the only thing you need to know about this is she’s been studying semiotics in 1982.

"It was actually law at Brown in 1982 that you had to study semiotics. They still have that law in the books, I’m told. But this is when it was new. When I got to Brown, they were having this battle because you’d have these professors who were New Critics who would read essays they’d written 30 years before on yellow paper on Shakespeare, and you’d go from those courses to the courses on semiotics where another cohort in the English department had decided that the New Criticism was over and that they would become constructionists and deconstructionists. There was this big battle when I was there and Madeleine is sort of stuck between it.”

The book's epigraphs, including a quote by François de La Rochefoucauld that reads, “People would never fall in love if they hadn’t heard love talked about,” juxtaposed with lyrics from a Talking Heads song, offer a clearer introduction to the tone and purpose of his text. The novel, though centered around a traditional love triangle between three Brown grads, is also guided by literary criticism not only as a plot element but an organizing principle of the novel, exploring the traditional tropes of Austen, Eliot and James (Madeleine's theses topic) and the “marriage plot,” a theoretical trope that contends with the possibility that the form became obsolete as the institution lost its profundity with the onset of divorce; whatever the students and professors in this novel say, the novel they are characters in reads like an argument against the thesis.

Eugenides’ monotone delivery shifted to one of animation and passion as he read a passage from the beginning of the novel, in which Madeleine uncharacteristically and immediately falls in love with the obnoxiously philosophical Leonard (whom Eugenides, when reading the dialogue, embodied a bit too perfectly). (Kakutani would have it that the tone of the novel shifts just as completely at the arrival of this scene.)

The crowd snickered often, much like your high school English teacher would when she read Animal Farm aloud.

Eugenides finished the reading with some classic literary slapstick involving a lover scorned and a flying Barthes text on love.

He didn't take questions, from the audience or from a reporter; his publicist intervened and just said "He's very tired."

The crowd didn't seem to mind (who can stand those things anyway?) as they filed in line to have Eugenides sign their books.