You get the sense from reading his book Middlesex that Jeffrey Eugenides belongs to an upper echelon of writers, and that his novel will be a precious stone to scholars of the future, gleaming amid mangy heaps of chick lit and thrillers.
Consider simply that Middlesex won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, which places it neatly in the company of such works as To Kill a Mockingbird, Beloved and The Grapes of Wrath. But Eugenides didn't burst through the canon's front door; it is his reverence for tradition that's enabled him to create something new. "I always went about writing with a sense that you had to know the tradition of literature if you were going to be so presumptuous as to extend it at all," says Eugenides, who will appear at the Alley Theatre on Monday as part of the InPrint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series.
A hermaphrodite named Cal has helped make Eugenides a best-seller. Calliope Stephanides is the narrator of Middlesex, and he/she deftly guides readers through a Greek family saga, the social history of Detroit and complicated genetics lessons, all the while sounding like someone you can relate to. Eugenides's innovative use of voice has distinguished him: The story in his first novel, The Virgin Suicides, is told in the first person plural, by the collective "we" of teenage boys.
But while Eugenides tinkers with voice and dabbles in sensationalism (virgins! suicide! hermaphrodites!), he firmly grounds his tales with his knowledge of history and literature. He drops terms like "postmodernism" and "relativism" as though they were the most vogue of slang; clearly he has not forgotten his literary and classical studies at Brown and Stanford. Anna Karenina is his favorite novel, and he maintains a lifelong affection for James Joyce (the four-book Middlesex is a mock epic in the style of Ulysses).
But the poise with which Eugenides discusses esoteric academic topics belies the grace and accessibility of his prose, as well as his own humility and sense of humor. He jokes about his days as a freshman in college, when he wore round glasses and walked with a cane to emulate Joyce. Despite Eugenides's recent move from one cosmopolitan hub to another, from Chicago to Berlin, he retains an unabashed fixation on Detroit, his hometown. And his academic pedigree has not kept him from engaging with pop culture: The Virgin Suicides was made into a film by Sofia Coppola in 2000.
Even Middlesex, so rounded at its completion and polished further by awards and fine reviews, was difficult and humbling for Eugenides. "There was a fair amount of staggering in the dark," he says. "My memory of it is more painful than the just reasonably agonizing process of writing The Virgin Suicides."
English majors and seasoned writers will enjoy listening to him -- Eugenides is a writer's writer, as they say. Even if you've read neither of his books, he's still worth hearing, although he won't say for sure what he'll be reading (it looks like he won't give us a taste of his new book, which is in the early stages). Eugenides says he might read from Middlesex, even though he retains a sort of postpartum distaste for the book. "I get the willies when I open it," he says. But you won't.