In praise of one of my current literary heroes, Jeffrey Eugenides

Reading for pleasure

AUTHOR'S PICK Multi-awarded American novelist Jeffrey Eugenides

I’ve been reading constantly since I don’t remember when. Sometimes, I would read up to five books at the same time, reading one chapter here, another chapter just before I slept, yet another chapter just before I left the house, unless I was in a hurry. I have a whole shelf of books in my bathroom.

Although I’ve been reading through it, I haven’t had much pleasure with any book in this never-ending pandemic, except Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence, hauntingly memorable, and Vladimir Nabokov’s Strong Opinions, a collection of interviews, articles, and editorials, the stuff of obsession, I must say.

I do remember enjoying Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers, Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow, Heather Morris’ The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Max Brooks’ Devolution, even Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck and Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror, but now that I’m trying to think of which book I should write about, if I were to write about something not just entertaining or enjoyable but also enriching, I come up not with my current read, Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library but with Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex.

Middlesex is not a new book. It was published in 2002 by this genius of a man, an American novelist and short story writer of Irish and Greek descent, whom I consider also a humorist, a philosopher, the key to my fictional universe.

I am relatively still new to fiction, though I spent my first 20 years or so on earth reading made-up stories, from the fairy tales to guilty reads like Harold Robbins and Sidney Sheldon, from the classics to the contemporary gems — yes, Stephen King included, whose characters inhabited my youth, Carrie, Cujo, the dead dog come alive in Pet Sematary, the forces of good and evil in The Stand, the vicious, child-catching clown in It, and the clever but brooding and bitter Andy in Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.

INSIDE THE PAPERBACK The author with the Very Extra Book Club at the MacArthur Suite of the Manila Hotel for the discussion of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Middlesex

And then I turned 28—or thereabouts. Exhilarated that at last I was an adult, I turned from fiction to nonfiction, gobbling up memoirs and biographies and whatever I could squeeze out of works of wisdom, from Neale Donald Walsh‘s Conversations with God to Judith Thurman‘s Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette, even Maira Kalman‘s The Principles of Uncertainty.

Now I am not too old but not too young, I long for fiction again. I started to wonder why I couldn’t daydream as much as I used to do. I’ve become too busy. Instead of riding buses, like I used to do in my youth, when against my wishes, I would be confronted with so much time doing nothing but watching the same scenery for 30 minutes, for one hour, for more, I now am—and for the past 30 years or so have been—driving a car, fully alert and focused on getting myself from point A to point B or all the way to point Z, if I could skip points B to Y with my foot on the pedal.

So now I long to get lost in otherworlds again, in such worlds as Eugenides’s Middlesex.

I read Eugenides long ago, on the rare occasions I picked up a work of fiction on the way to the beach or to read on a long-haul flight.

Our first encounter was through The Virgin Suicides (1993), which I loved, both the book and the film it spawned in 1999, directed by Sophia Coppola and starring my favorite Kirsten Dunst. But it was while I was right smack in the middle of Middlesex and it was only in Jeffrey Eugenides that I found my new Proust, mon nouveau Marcel, my new literary hero. For me he has dug up the gem of reading for pleasure and pleasure alone that I thought I had long buried in the ground of oblivion, along with my childhood daydreams.

I’d like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic train-car constructions like, say, the happiness that attends disaster.’ Or: ‘the disappointment of sleeping with one’s fantasy.’ —Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex

Middlesex had me at the first sentence. It’s among the most venerated opening sentences in modern literature. It goes like this: “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.” This first sentence should give you a fairly good idea what the novel is about.

Part immigrant epic, part medical mystery, part coming-of-age, and part LGBTQIA+ romance, Middlesex is perhaps Remembrance of Things Past (Proust’s seven-volume novel) that I got to finish reading, that in fact I got to read twice. I’ve been so in love with this book that for my book club, The Very Extra Book Club, when it was my turn to host in early 2020, I chose it to be the raison d’etre of a dinner I set up at the MacArthur Suite of the Manila Hotel, replete with a surf and turf menu of lobster ravioli in truffle cream and Australian beef tenderloin in morel sauce and orchids spray-painted in black in keeping with the gender bender theme.

More than the story, it is the writing. As I pored over the pages, eyes wide open, I took careful note of so many tricks and styles, which make his words jump out to me. I suppose it is because I do love words. Words, rather than their messages or the information they share, are the number one reason I read.

And so here, floating on the cloud of his imaginative prowess and literary precision, allow me to make a humble attempt, using a few particular techniques I might have gleaned from his writing, at a few unworthy sentences in praise of Jeffrey Eugenides.

“A man, with years of memory packed in his thoughts, sits on a park bench and, in all of ten seconds, the equivalent of a hundred words on the page, as the bench stretches to accommodate as many as the man, any man, can imagine, a friend joins him and then another and then more, before the entire street squeezes in, followed by the entire neighborhood, then the entire city that opens up the space to let the entire country in, then the entire continent that invites all other continents, the entire planet, and later, all the other planets that let the entire galaxy tag along with so many other galaxies in tow that before long all of the universe sits there with our solitary man on a park bench, who is alone but with anybody, everybody, anything, everything he could think of to keep him company, in all of ten seconds, the equivalent of a hundred words on the page, maybe fewer, maybe more. This is an old Proustian trick but, without the aid of long sentences, my new Proust, mon nouveau Marcel, my new literary hero, Jeffrey Eugenides, can cast the same spell, do the trick, accomplish the mission with aplomb. Bow!”