It’s been nearly a decade since Jeffrey Eugenides released his Pulitzer Prize-winning, Oprah’s Book Club-approved, mega blockbuster novel Middlesex. The writer’s highly anticipated new novel, The Marriage Plot, is getting the promotion one would expect for such a long-awaited work, including a cowboy-style billboard in Times Square. Eugenides’ varmint-killing pose is a strange juxtaposition considering his new novel’s plot: It’s about a love triangle among three highly intellectual Brown University students in the early ‘80s named Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell. Madeleine is a beautiful, semiotics-obsessed WASP who totes a copy of Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse around with her wherever she goes; Madeleine is in love with Leonard, her charismatic, brilliant, and mentally ill classmate; Mitchell, a sensitive soul from Detroit, is hopelessly devoted to Madeleine. The novel follows the three twentysomethings in their senior year of college and into their freshman year of life.
Slate spoke to Eugenides about whether or not Leonard is based on David Foster Wallace (an issue of some dispute), his own post-collegiate malaise, and his daily writing routine.
Slate: What made you decide to use your alma mater, Brown, as a setting?
Jeffrey Eugenides: I was going to set it at a different college. At a fictionalized college. Then I started writing it, and it seemed too much trouble for what it was worth. I knew Brown better. Who would I be kidding if I fictionalized it and called it B college. I figured there’d been lots of novels about Harvard and other places so why not Brown.
Slate: There’s a set of cultural expectations that people have when you namecheck Brown—like the obsession with semiotics, which was still in full effect when I attended. Did you major in modern culture and media when you were there?
Eugenides: It was called the program in semiotics studies, and it wasn’t a department. It was just starting out, really, which is partially why the craze seemed so at its height, with people taking sides whether this was an appropriate discipline or not.
Slate: The novel seems to gently mock the study of semiotics, but at the same time it has a sense of reverence for it. What was your take on it at the time?
Eugenides: I’m ambivalent. My intention wasn’t just to mock it because I found a lot of value in many of the theorists that I read, and I continue to wrestle with and against their pronouncements. It still has a meaning for me. On the other hand I do remember the way people took to theory as if it were some kind of creed. Almost took it up as a religion. That seemed comic to me and excessive even at the time. It seems more comic to me now that the grip of French theory seems to have loosened.
Slate: In the character of Madeleine, you got the intrinsic melodrama of college girls just right. Did you base your characters on any of your peers?
Eugenides: No, the main characters are fictionalized. Each of them has a large part of me, including Madeleine and Leonard. Some of the smaller characters are drawn from life but the main characters are not.
Slate: A colleague of mine who’s read the book felt the portrayal of Leonard’s mental illness made him realize how highly intelligent people could commit suicide because you captured the depressive brain space so accurately. What did you draw on for that character besides what’s in yourself?
Eugenides: Well, I read up on manic depression just a little bit just to know what kind of behaviors people would have in mania. We’re all well-acquainted with depression, we all know what the low moods are, but the mania was not something I knew much about. I didn’t know that it would make someone dress extravagantly or start to pun, and to stay up and drink. So I tried to find correlatives in my own life for that kind of behavior. I guess it’s like a non-stop drunk college party in your head. That’s how I imagined it. I would take my most wild moments and try to exaggerate them to the maximum and try to imagine what it would be like if you just were taking so much speed and drugs and you kind of overheated. That’s how I imagined Leonard in his mania, and for the depression I just did it in the opposite direction. What are my lowest moods and what were the lowest they could be if I tried to get them to the maximum, stretching from my own experience.