Saturday, October 29, 2011

Eugenides not pushing the envelope this time, maybe feels okay about it

Q: People are starting to notice that a generation of writers, which includes you and Jonathan Franzen, are wrestling with the question of how you create a novel after postmodernism.

Jeffrey Eugenides: Schoenberg said it's still possible to write music in C major, and that’s coming from Mister Experimental himself. That strikes a chord in me; I think with the novel, at a certain point you realize it's still possible to write in C major and have some kind of narrative content. And meaningful characters that readers can, you know it's an old-fashioned term, but people can fall in love with the characters and become caught up in their lives. If you don't have that, you cease to have the kind of novel that can be compelling.

--Interview with novelist Jeffrey Eugenides
in the L.A. Times

This is a real issue. I constantly struggle with the imperative to create new ways of seeing and story-telling, which is what the word "novel" implies, and this traditional approach. I've written before about how I love mid-century writers, and how Larry McMurtry's now obscure early novel "Moving On" was a model for me for many years. The roomy character-driven traditional narrative informed the writing of my first novel, "Make Nice." But in my current project I'm trying to get away from it.

It's a struggle, and not only because I love the mid-century novel (by which I mean the thoughtful character-driven novels of McMurtry, Heller, Highsmith, Roth, Mailer, Salter and others) but because this approach seems so natural to me. But I also love the mid-century departures from this model (Kerouac, Henry Miller) and post-modernists from DeLillo to Acker. (And DeLillo's accomplishment in the 1970s and 1980s is now awe-inspiring to me. He didn't have a model for what he was doing, he really was making up a new way of story-telling.) Not to mention the Latin Americans, including You Know Who.

Having never read a Jeffrey Eugenides novel, I can't say whether it's working for him. Maybe Eugenides is trying to fend off criticism in advance here. Maybe he feels a little bad for not pushing the envelope in his latest work. Without reading it and knowing his work, I can't say.

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