More than two decades ago, Jeffrey Eugenides wrote The Virgin Suicides, a book about middle-aged men trying their darnedest to understand the manic pixie dream neighbors of their youth. It was the author’s first novel, and his first interrogation of gender — the role it plays in our desires and our fates. The theme resonates through the rest of his work, from Middlesex, the Pulitzer-winning story of Cal, whose intersex gender is overlooked at birth, to The Marriage Plot, a book about love in a time of Derrida.
Today, he releases his first collection of stories, Fresh Complaint, and many of them center on the same questions: Is romantic love really the most complete form of intimacy? What’s a middle-aged guy to do about his shameful, objectifying desires? Eugenides’s characters are mostly progressive — they accept that gender is a construct, and that healthy partnerships require equality. But they struggle to reconcile that understanding with their own bad behavior. Ahead of the book’s release, Eugenides spoke with Vulture about his impulse to write lovable anti-heroes and his fear that novels are becoming obsolete.
Until now, you’ve been publishing novels. What, in your experience, is different about story-writing?
Novels are more forgiving. You have room to work, to get different ideas, to change your mind, to maybe add a multiplicity of ideas to a subject. But with a short story, you really have to get in and out really quickly. I find that a difficult thing, being essentially a novelist at heart.
But I found the experience of writing these stories very engrossing. The more I did it, the more I began wondering why I ever write novels. Why not just write short stories? They’re extremely absorbing. They’re like two-dimensional chess, so you can really just get into it, and go down into a very deep hole where you’re just rewriting the same story for a long time, and it’s strangely pleasurable.
Your last book, The Marriage Plot, is about a woman figuring out how she should approach love and romance in a world with fewer social strictures. Some of these stories grapple with that question, too, like the title story, “Fresh Complaint.”
I wasn’t conscious of any of the thematics of Fresh Complaint being like The Marriage Plot. That doesn’t mean that they’re not, because obviously we write and there are connections we don’t see as a writer. But I can talk about the impulse for that story.
I guess I wanted to subvert the genre. You have lots of stories where you have an older male preying upon a younger woman, so I was just trying to subvert the conventions of that kind of story. In that respect, it’s like The Marriage Plot, where I was trying to subvert the conventions of the marriage plot.
I think we’ve come to a point in literary history where anything you try to write, you’re quickly aware of the precedents of that kind of story. And there’s only two ways to do something new. One way is to make fun of the convention, to send it up. Which is all well and good, but tends to leave a kind of aroma of irony after it, which is a little bit superior in tone and mocking.
If you still care about your characters, and care about the world, you stay in the realistic mode, but subvert the tale and the normal telling of the tale by trying to express a different side of the experience. I didn’t want to make fun of the marriage plot only to make fun of it. I also wanted to write about young people in love, and what it feels like to be in love. I don’t want my work to just show how false things are, and how inauthentic everything is. Life doesn’t feel inauthentic or false to me. It feels quite real. And I’m concerned with it.
I feel like that’s the purpose of auto-fiction, too — to reveal how artificial fiction is.
You feel like it’s rejecting the imagination?
I think about that, too. As soon as you write something down, you fictionalize it. Auto-fiction or memoir, anything else. You select what you put in. Even someone like [Karl Ove] Knausgaard, he uses lots of novelistic tropes to write his supposedly absolutely true fiction. So I just don’t think it exists, autobiographical reportage.
One thing that interested me about this collection was the abundance of male anti-heroes, like Wally Mars in “Baster” and Charlie D. in “Find the Bad Guy.” You’re critical of their behavior, but you write them with tenderness, too.
Because the stories were written over such a long period, I was somewhat unaware of how often that kind of character cropped up. There’s a lot of depressed, middle-aged guys who are meeting with misfortune or making huge mistakes or are full of regret. And because I would write the stories — maybe one a year, or something — when I was writing it, I wouldn’t think it was like anything else. And then when they were collected, my editor said, you know, there is kind of a line that goes through the story of a young man getting older, and running into trouble. So we arranged the stories in the book to follow that line a bit.
A lot of the stories, I was trying to just be true to my own experience of life. There’s a huge measure of regret and maybe guilt you have for things you’ve done in your past. At the same time, unless you completely want to hate yourself, you have to retain some tenderness towards yourself so you can move on with life. So I treat my characters in the same way. I wouldn’t want to write a character who didn’t have a measure of sympathy from me — and hopefully from the reader.
How would you describe their relationship with masculinity?
[There’s] a project we’re going through now where we might be interrogating masculinity to a certain degree. Think of Dave Wallace’s Brief Interviews With Hideous Men — it’s the same kind of interrogation. We’re at a state now where men are trying to figure out what part of them is to be disowned or changed. It creates a strange turbulence, and out of that turbulence, we’re getting a certain amount of fiction. It’s definitely a move away from the male writers of the previous generation who perhaps were more happy to champion a kind of male imperative.
It’s sort of, you’re caught in the middle of this thing, you want to redefine what it means to be a man in our time, and then going along with that has to involve a lot of self-exposure, and a lot of recrimination and regret for your behavior. At the same time, there’s maybe some resistance to being told how you’re supposed to behave. So the characters are caught between being good and being bad. That makes for more energetic fiction, when you have someone of two minds trying to figure out a problem, as opposed to being really sure about his way and his conduct.
Another character who interested me was Rodney, in “Early Music.” It seems to me that balancing work and creative work and parenting is usually discussed in the context of motherhood, but of course fathers struggle with that, too. Why did you want to write about that aspect of fatherhood?
Well, I was writing a story about, I didn’t know what. I thought he was an essayist, a writer, something closer to me. And he’s married, and he’s struggling with work and fatherhood. And he was just too close to my own experience, and the story wasn’t working. And then I came across this weird little book called Early Music, which was a magazine, a journal about people who played the clavichord and were really interested in early music. I started just reading it and found this intense world of aficionados and enthusiasts that I didn’t know existed. So then I changed the character to one of these people who plays the clavichord, and then learned about clavichords and what they sound like and how you play them, and all the information about all the different tunings. We don’t know exactly how Bach tuned his clavichord. And how much they cost. And then I just started imagining the story through that guy’s eyes.
It’s a story, for me, about writing. Loving something that’s vanishing. And you know, that line where – I’m gonna quote myself wrong – “everybody’s life is early music,” or something along those lines. I was thinking about myself and my writer friends. You can’t help but feel that in a few decades we might be clavichordists. Persisting in this antique mode that is wonderful and incredible to the people who know about it, and perhaps more mysterious to others.
You really think that?
In my depressive moments, I do think that sometimes. Anyway, it was easy for me to access that kind of feeling, of being into something that other people don’t care about. And to get the meaning of your life through something that is universally disregarded. So I was able to write about my life through that mask of the clavichordist.
And I gave him other problems. Money problems. The book is full of money problems, for lots of people, and marital problems as well. I just saw a lot of marriages during the time when I wrote that story, and I think one of the difficulties in marriage now is that you have two people with two careers and two sets of ambitions, and how do those things get reconciled within a marriage? My own parents’ marriage was old-fashioned. My father worked and my mother was a homemaker. Now, things are very different, and there’s the possibility for mutual satisfaction. But I see a lot of struggles, where it’s not equal, and one person has an easier time than the other, and it becomes this kind of competition and battle because of this. I was trying to describe a lot of the difficulties that people are going through now in their marriages, in that story.
This is totally an aside, but I read an interview with Mary Gaitskill where she spoke about her marriage, and she said they would run around the house and yell things like, “One of us needs to be a wife! We need a wife!”
And so people who are well-off, what do they do? They outsource the “wife” by hiring all these people, then they think they’ve solved the problem, but they’ve just pushed the oppression onto somebody else, I’m afraid.
In the title story, “Fresh Complaint,” a lot of the dramatic tension happens via text message. Do you think new communication technologies like texting make storytelling more challenging?
I got asked questions like that about The Marriage Plot because there are letters and things, and people found that so historical. Or the phone call — there’s a long section where she’s waiting for a phone call to come, and not wanting to tie up the line because it’s before call waiting.
Essentially, my answer is: The technology changes, but the experience is the same. For instance, maybe I used to wait for telephone calls to come from people I was besotted with, and that had a certain experience of expectation and anxiety. My daughter, I notice, will have the same experience, but it’ll be, “I texted him but he didn’t text back.” Romance has all the same components to it, but they’re delivered through different means. So I don’t really think it’s a death knell to fiction writing. It’s possible to put text messages into a story and not deflate the drama of the story.
I think it’s an incredible problem for sitcoms, actually. If you think about even Seinfeld. George is always coming over. Like, who would come over to your house all the time when they have to tell you something? Kramer lived across the hall, that made some sense. But Elaine and George? Why are they coming over all the time? [Laughs.] I think you can get around it with fiction, because you can say what’s going on in the person’s mind, and then someone can call or text. It’s less of a problem. It’s worse for movies and TV. Which is why Game of Thrones probably does well — they don’t have to worry about texting.
Well, maybe that’s one reason why fiction won’t go the way of the clavichord.
Yeah, maybe. Maybe so. I hope so. [Laughs.] It’s got a fine and rosy future.
This interview has been edited and condensed.