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There’s a David Foster Wallace Character in Jeffrey Eugenides’ New Novel

Photo: Keith Bedford/2002 Getty Images
NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 27:  Author David Foster Wallace reads selections of his writing during the New Yorker Magazine Festival in New York September 27, 2002. (Photo by Keith Bedford/Getty Images)
David Foster Wallace Photo: Keith Bedford/2002 Getty Images

Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, his long-awaited follow-up to 2002’s Middlesex, arrives in bookstores in October, but galleys went out earlier this month, and two excerpts from it have already appeared in The New Yorker. The novel, set in the early eighties, focuses on three characters in their early 20s in an unrequited love triangle: The protagonist, Madeleine Hanna, is a graduating senior at Brown who loves nineteenth- and twentieth-century novels and her scientist boyfriend, Leonard Bankhead. She is loved in return by the religiously minded Mitchell Grammaticus. Grammaticus shares some qualities with the author himself. Like Eugenides, Mitchell’s a smarty-pants of Greek descent who attended Brown and grew up in Detroit (he’s also the character who goes to Calcutta to work for Mother Teresa’s charity in the most recent New Yorker excerpt). But the Bankhead character is more recognizable still, as David Foster Wallace.

Leonard Bankhead is a philosophy double major who chews tobacco, wears a bandanna, disdains ironic detachment, and has a history of mental illness that has led to multiple hospitalizations — just like David Foster Wallace. (Also, like Infinite Jest’s Hal Incandenza, Bankhead self-medicates through out high school with marijuana.) Certainly, Leonard is distinct from DFW in a number of ways as well — the particularities of his family situation, his being a total stud, that he’s a manic-depressive, not just a depressive, that he’s not a writer, and all the vagaries of the plot — but the similarities are so iconically David Foster Wallace (a bandanna and chew are not common accoutrements) that Eugenides, who did not have a well-known or documented friendship with Foster Wallace, must intentionally be calling him to mind.

Here’s how Bankhead is introduced, in a semiotics class he’s taking with Madeleine. Like Foster Wallace, he’s a double major in philosophy and a hard science (in Foster Wallace’s case it was philosophy and math English, though he wrote a book about math) and he dips chew. You can find this in one of the New Yorker excerpts.

“He said in a quiet voice that he was a double major (biology and philosophy) and had never taken a semiotics course before, that his parents had named him Leonard…. After he finished his coffee, he dug into his right snowmobile boot and, to Madeleine’s surprise, pulled out a tin of chewing tobacco. With two stained fingers, he placed a wad of tobacco in his cheek. For the next two hours, every minute or so, he spat, discreetly but audibly, into the cup.

Leonard is also interested in subjects that interested Foster Wallace. One example: how the mind processes and understands time. Here’s Leonard talking about time: “When you’re five, you’ve only been alive a couple thousand days. But by the time you’re fifty, you’ve lived around twenty thousand days. So a day when you’re five seems longer because it’s a great percentage of the whole… It’s just a theory.”

While this is a bit more concrete than Foster Wallace ever was on a subject (and is also a real theory, mentioned in an otherwise unrelated New Yorker profile), Foster Wallace was interested in how the passage of time feels. Here he is in “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.”

“I am now 33 years old, and it feels like much time has passed and is passing faster and faster every day. Day to day I have to make all sorts of choices about what is good and important and fun, and then I have to live with the forfeiture of all the other options those choices foreclose. And I’m starting to see how as time gains momentum my choices will narrow and their foreclosures multiply exponentially until I arrive at some point on some branch of all life’s sumptuous branching complexity at which I am finally locked in and stuck on one path and time speeds me through stages of stasis and atrophy and decay until I go down for the third time, all struggle for naught, drowned by time. It is dreadful.”

Here’s a bit of dialogue that shows Leonard’s very Foster Wallace–like suspicion of detachment, that’s also some meta-commentary on why Eugenides might have wanted to create a character like Bankhead. It takes place in the same semiotics class, and is a conversation about Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams.

“I have a comment,” [Leonard] said. “If I was going to write about my mother’s suicide, I don’t think I’d be too concerned about being experimental.” He leaned forward, putting elbows on the table. “I mean, wasn’t anybody put off by Handke’s so-called remorselessness? Didn’t this book strike anyone as a tad cold?
“Better cold than sentimental,” Thurston said.
“Do you think? Why?”
“I’m doing a little thought experiment here,” Leonard said. “Say my mother killed herself. And say i wrote a book about it. Why would I want to do something like that?” He closed his eyes and leaned his head back. “First. I’d do it to cope with my grief. Second, maybe to paint a portrait of my mother. To keep her alive in my memory.”
“And you think your reaction is universal,” Thurston said. “That because you’d respond to the death of as parent a certain way, that obligates Handke to do the same.”
“I’m saying that if your mother kills herself it’s not a literary trope.”

Even William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, which is falling out of the canon faster than John Dos Passos, but is the biggest influence on Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, gets a particular shout-out, in a section that also addresses Leonard’s depression. Leonard tells Madeline about his goal of becoming an adjective, like Kafkaesque, and brings up Gaddis. What kind of adjective would he be? “Gaddisesque”? This leads to a short back and forth with Madeline about reading The Recognitions, and ends with Madeline asking, “What would Bankheadian mean?” Leonard replies, “‘Of or related to Leonard Bankhead (American, born 1959), characterized by excessive introspection or worry. Gloomy, depressive. See basket case.”

One takeaway from all this: Jonathan Franzen, no longer the only big time literary novelist who is going to be taking questions about David Foster Wallace for the rest of his life.

There’s a David Foster Wallace Character in Jeffrey Eugenides’ New Novel