MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
And I'm Guy Raz. Early in Jeffrey Eugenides' new novel, "The Marriage Plot," one of the characters says that gender equality was bad for the modern novel. Sexual liberation, divorce and so on - they all eliminated a major plot device, a device that made the Victorian novel - well, Victorian. And that is whether or not the main characters will get married. Think "Pride and Prejudice."
But set against this thesis, Eugenides has done precisely what the book says is no longer possible. He's actually written a story that keeps you wondering who the heroine will eventually choose.
The book is set in 1982 and it revolves around three characters, all students. There's Madeleine Hanna. She's an ambitious and beautiful English major. Mitchell Grammaticus is a Greek-American kid from Detroit who studies religion. And Leonard Bankhead is a brilliant, charismatic and troubled young science and philosophy student.
We meet them just as they're about to graduate from Brown University and the story begins inside Madeleine Hanna's dorm room. Here's Jeffrey Eugenides reading that opening passage.
JEFFREY EUGENIDES: (reading) To start with, look at all the books. There were Edith Wharton novels, arranged not by title, but date of publication. There was the complete modern library set of Henry James, a gift from her father on her 21st birthday. There were the dog-eared paperbacks assigned in her college courses, a lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope, along with good helpings of Austin, George Elliot and the redoubtable Bronte sisters.
RAZ: Jeffrey Eugenides, welcome to the program.
EUGENIDES: Thank you.
RAZ: You started writing this book in the '90s and I've read that it started out as a completely different story.
EUGENIDES: I had. I had. It was a different book. It was about a rich family having a debutante party and all the people were coming home to celebrate the party and one of the daughters in that family was Madeleine and, as I began to write her section, which I had envisaged would only be three or four pages, I just kept going with her and started writing about semiotics, her boyfriend trouble and, little by little, I realized I had another novel on my hands.
RAZ: Madeleine is an English major at Brown at a time when French literary theory was very trendy and you paint this picture of these English majors walking around campus with dog-eared copies of Foucault and Barthes and talking about how the 19th century narrative novel is irrelevant.
First of all, was that what it was like back in the early '80s? You were student at Brown at the time and you studied this.
EUGENIDES: That was what it was like. French theory, you know, was crashing on American shores in the late '70s and '80s and a lot of my professors were kind of smitten with it. And you would have two different kinds of professors, the old new critics who were against it and then the new semioticians. And it was kind of a, you know, battle in the English department.
And at Brown, finally some of the people left the English department and started the Department of Semiotics. It has a new name now, but I was there during those, you know, pitched battles.
RAZ: Were you skeptical about those theories at the time or did you sort of assimilate them and embrace them?
EUGENIDES: I was a little more of a semiotician than Madeleine, not quite as skeptical. I read the theory, as everyone else did, to try to find out what it was about to make myself feel smarter, to get a more durable critical methodology to apply the literature I was reading. But I also distrusted certain of the statements - that the author was dead, that it was impossible to write narrative anymore.
I had a more conservative or romantic view of literature and I've been trying in my career to reconcile both that side, the theoretical side, and I don't know what to call it, but a kind of inborn love of narrative and storytelling.
RAZ: All three of the characters in this book are very likeable in different ways and I want to ask you about one of them, Mitchell Grammaticus. He is the one, of course, who cannot quite win Madeleine's affection, even though her head tells her he is the right one. He seems, at least on the surface, to be pretty autobiographical. He's a Greek-American kid from Detroit. He spends time in India working with Mother Teresa, which you did after college.
How much of you is in him or vice versa?
EUGENIDES: Well, I left out the fact that Mother Teresa and I briefly dated, so if I was actually going to tell the real autobiographical story, it would be somewhat different.
RAZ: Got it.
EUGENIDES: But it's true. You know, all of these characters - when you write a novel, you divide yourself into two or three different parts and each of these people has many of my experiences and many of my thoughts. But on the surface, unquestionably, Mitchell Grammaticus resembles me. I could have done things to disguise it, made him blonde, made him Italian or something, but it seemed beside the point. So I plead guilty to a certain amount of that.
RAZ: The other main character is Leonard Bankhead. He's this brilliant and, of course, troubled philosophy and biology major. He's the one Madeleine falls for. Can you read a scene, it's the scene where Madeleine tells Leonard she loves him and Leonard picks up Madeleine's copy of the book, "A Lover's Discourse" by Roland Barthes, which talks about the meaninglessness of that expression.
EUGENIDES: (reading) I love you. Je t'aime. I love you. As she read these words, Madeleine was flooded with happiness. She glanced up at Leonard, smiling. With his finger, he motioned for her to keep going. The figure refers not to the declaration of love, to the avowal, but to the repeated utterance of the love cry.
Suddenly, Madeleine's happiness diminished, usurped by the feeling of peril. She wished she weren't naked. She narrowed her shoulders and covered herself with the bed sheet as she obediently read on. Once the first avowal has been made, I love you has no meaning whatever.
Leonard, squatting, had a smirk on his face. It was then that Madeleine threw the book at his head.
RAZ: And that scene eventually creates a spiral of circumstances that take us through much of the book. Professor Saperstein(ph) is the one who teaches semiotics. What do you think he would have made of this book if he had his students discuss it? What would he say about it?
EUGENIDES: Saperstein would probably not like this book in its entirety. He'd be happy. I mean, you can read this book two ways. You can read it as a deconstruction of "The Marriage Plot" as a post-modern novel, but you can also read it as a traditional realistic novel. So I think he would, if he was in a kindhearted mood, he might read it as a kind of sly, French novel. But it's actually not a sly French novel. It's actually a very sincere American novel.
RAZ: That's Pulitzer Prize winning author, Jeffrey Eugenides. His new novel is called "The Marriage Plot." Jeffrey Eugenides, thank you so much.
EUGENIDES: Thank you.