Sunday, June 13, 2010

The New Yorker: "Extreme Solitude" by Jeffrey Eugenides

The June 7th issue hasn't arrived. I've complained (again) to The New Yorker. I've finally given up waiting and have read the story online (or, to be honest, I was going to read it online but it's a little long so I printed it out, which is exactly what I do not want to have to do).

The story is a good one. Very good (although, as is often the case, it seems, I don't love the ending).

It's the 80s. Madeleine meets Leonard in an upper-level semiotics seminar at Brown and they begin to date. She's falling in love with Leonard, although she is also repulsed, and doesn't quite understand her feelings until she reads a Barthes book assigned for the seminar: "the lover's discourse is today of an extreme solitude." This make sense to her. (It even makes sense to me.) But as Spring arrives, they're pulling away from each other. So Madeleine makes a gesture, one to which Leonard reacts in a way she wishes he had not -- pointing to more from the text of the Barthes book.

While the outer story here, girl meets boy and girl gets mad at boy, isn't remarkable, the story appeals because the characters of Madeleine and Leonard draw the reader in. They're solid; we can see them and even smell them. But the reason the story works for me is the inner story, its attempts to "deconstruct" the love affair and to put it in lit-crit terms, whether or not it even makes sense to do so.

Having said that, the ending is a bit unsatisfying. (I really do need to read more Eugenides, though; this was a good introduction.)

June 7, 2010: “Extreme Solitude” by Jeffrey Eugenides


Paul said...

Very much a story aimed pretentiously at the literary elite -- "xeroxed selections from E. M. Cioran, Robert Walser, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Peter Handke, and Carl Van Vechten."

As to your suggestion of reading more Eugenides, I personally don't think that's a great usage of one's time.

Paul Epstein

Anonymous said...

I got the feeling throughout the story that Eugenides was laughing at his characters, or at least making fun of them, which is never appealing.

The ending seems a bit tidy - do you think it's a short story, by the way, or something culled from a larger piece and edited to 'fit'?

The story didn't have the effect of encouraging me to read more of his work.


Clifford Garstang said...

I am of course suspicious of every story in TNY, but I was not able to find any evidence that Eugenides has a new novel coming out although the contributor's notes say he's "working on a third" novel. (His last one was publihsed in 2002 -- I'm actually glad he's not as prolific as some of his contemporaries.)

I didn't personally think he was laughing at his characters as much as he was laughing at semiotics.

That final action is probably supposed to make us think that Madeleine has given up on Barthes--she's thrown the book away--and also given up on Leonard, as she is charging him with a crime, of sorts (throwing the book at him, in prosecutorial parlance). But, yeah, too tidy.

Anonymous said...

Ah, maybe your legal experience came to bear in seeing that throwing the book at him reference, it passed me by. Reading online doesn't help!

One positive aspect of the story, as distinct from many recent TNY stories, was the narrative voice not being in the tone of an immature sounding 18/19 year old. There seems to have been a preponderance of them this year...

Good to read your reviews as always.


Leslie said...

The Virgin Suicides is one of my favorite novels.

allison said...

The story is related to his third novel, so it seems.

Clifford Garstang said...

Allison, thank you for that information!

F. Escobar said...

I thought the story was marvelously well written: the critique of the excesses of deconstruction, even though it has been done before and well elsewhere, was terrific and satisfying. The characterizations were phenomenal (I agree Eugenides wasn't laughing at the characters, but at semiotics). The story was very funny. Unlike, say, Franzen's recent piece, the swathes of backstory were entirely relevant because the point of the piece was the relationship between Leonard and Madeleine. For that reason, everything that shed light on their relationship was relevant.

However, even before seeing Allison's link, I was convinced it had be to an excerpt. I hated the first sentence (debatable? whether "or not"?--usage books rightly castigate this last one). Reading on, I realized it had to be a quick way to set up a framework for the rest of the story, so that all its plush details and all its cleverness could be naturalized within the piece. Thus, the structure of the story seemed contrived. The unsatisfying ending is probably a result of that, since the action simply cuts off. The rest of the action, and where it's going, will probably come up in Eugenides's third novel. Still, "Extreme Solitude" is great prose, and a pleasure to read. (No wonder it's still on the "Popular" list of TNY's website, weeks after publication).

Incidentally, have you seen how the excerpt fashion has spread? One Story (which says specifically that it publishes short stories, and not plain "Fiction" like TNY) just this year has run a story from a forthcoming anthology of interconnected stories and a straight-up excerpt from a novel that was published soon after the piece made it to One Story.

Clifford Garstang said...

I dropped my ONe Story subscription about a year ago, so, no, I didn't see that. I can forgive the story from a linked collection, since I do a lot of that myself. I can even forgive an excerpt if (a) it's labeled as such, or (b) it truly stands alone. I think the Eugenides piece stands alone better than most excerpts we see in the New Yorker (including the 2 in the special Fiction Issue), but when the magazine KNOWS it's an excerpt they should tell the readers.

F. Escobar said...

One Story did set the record straight by announcing that "Stiltsville" (One Story 134) was an excerpt from a novel. The interview did the same for "Snow Men" (One Story 131), which is said to come from an anthology of linked stories. The problem with the latter piece is that its high point is kept almost unintelligible from readers of the single story, since it appears to be looked at from a different, vital angle in another of the linked stories. Last year, at least two other stories came from linked-story anthologies ("Finding Peace," One Story 127) or from an unpublished novel ("Bomb Jockey," One Story 130).

The problem with the last three I mentioned is that their endings are explained outside of the story itself. In the case of "Bomb Jockey," for instance, the protagonist's death was not clear in the story's murky ending, but apparently it's discussed in other chapters of the novel that contained the excerpt. For the author, the ending was clear; for the One Story interviewer (and for this reader), it was not. That's very likely a side effect of excerpting.

Going from a novel to a standalone excerpt is not easy, but it can be done. In Eugenides's case, the strength of the prose carries it through despite the simple and even hasty structure. I agree with you: it's a very good piece of fiction.