Why Jeffrey Eugenides Put David Foster Wallace in His New Novel

Slate's Culture Blog
Oct. 10 2011 10:43 AM

Yes, Jeffrey Eugenides Was Thinking of David Foster Wallace

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From left to right: Jeffrey Eugenides, David Foster Wallace (in 2002), and Jonathan Franzen.

Photo of writer Jeffrey Eugenides by Sean Gallup/Getty Images. Photo of author David Foster Wallace by Keith Bedford/Getty Images. Photo of Author Jonathan Franzen by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for The New Yorker.

You may have heard that a character in The Marriage Plot, the new novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, strongly resembles one of Eugenides’s own literary contemporaries. Here’s how Slate’s Michael Agger describes the character, who’s called Leonard Bankhead, in his review of the book: “He’s a hulking, attractive guy who alternates between silence and bursts of intellectual virtuosity. He chews tobacco. He wears a bandanna. He’s David Foster Wallace.”

David Haglund David Haglund

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

Eugenides says the similarities are coincidental. He told Slate’s Jessica Grose, who asked him about the “rumor”:

It just got started by New York Magazine’s online Vulture site and they stated it not as a question but as a fact and it seemed to flow from that. I’m waiting for it to pass by. Now people are saying there are so many differences between [Leonard and David Foster Wallace], the basic one being that Wallace didn’t even have manic depression. I think they’re reading too much into the bandanna. I was thinking Guns N’ Roses and heavy metal guys but what can you do.
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I can understand why Eugenides might want to be cagey about this. Leonard is, in the end, a fictional character; Eugenides would, I imagine, prefer he be be judged on those terms. There are, as he points out, many differences between Wallace and Leonard (Willa Paskin, who first noted the resemblance on Vulture, acknowledged this). He may simply not want to talk in interviews about Wallace, whose suicide, even three years on, remains a fresh wound for many of Wallace’s fans. Talking about him would be difficult—and, in the midst of a PR campaign, might even seem exploitative, given all the media attention paid to Wallace after his death. That would be unfair: Eugenides has been writing this book for a long time; presumably he put the echoes of Wallace in there while the man was still alive.

Whatever his reasons, though, Eugenides is not fooling anyone. Or shouldn’t be: Leonard clearly, undoubtedly has something to do with Wallace. In addition to all the similarities noted by Paskin (she goes well beyond the bandanna and the chewing tobacco—though, as she writes, “bandanna and chew are not common accoutrements”), Eugenides also takes words that Wallace actually said (in a 1996 profile by Frank Bruni) and puts them in the mouth of Leonard. How something like that could happen unconsciously I can’t fathom.

What's more, Eugenides is not the first writer of his generation to wrestle with Wallace in his fiction. He’s not even the first writer of his generation to place a Wallace-like character in a love triangle opposite a character with strong autobiographical overtones. The first writer to do that was Jonathan Franzen.

When I read Franzen’s Freedom last year, I was puzzled by the echoes of Wallace in the character of Richard Katz. (I wasn’t the only one.) But I figured it was mostly an expression of Franzen’s complicated, personal relationship with Wallace, and not something more programmatic.

However, in a long, engaging piece in this week’s New York Magazine, Evan Hughes convincingly suggests that both Freedom and The Marriage Plot are salvoes “in the debate that has occupied Eugenides’s generation for 25 years, about what exactly fiction is for and how a crew of literary newcomers might revive the American novel, which seemed to many of them in danger of irrelevance.” That debate centers on the matter of modernist (and postmodernist) “difficulty” in fiction versus the more straightforward narrative pleasures of 19th-century-style novels. Wallace talked about this in interviews; Franzen wrote essays about it in both Harper’s (subscription required) and The New Yorker.

Eugenides talked about the subject in Slate. “The moves people make today to seem antitraditional,” he said in an exchange with fellow novelist Jim Lewis, “are enervated in the extreme: the footnote thing, the author appearing in the book etc. I am yawning even thinking about them.” “What I want in a book is a refuge from the noise and confusion,” he added, sounding a bit like Franzen, with whom he made common cause, “plus a reminder that another human being is on the other end of the exchange, someone who isn’t peddling me false consciousness but is bringing, or at least attempting to bring, things into light.”

As Christopher R. Beha says in his smart take on The Marriage Plot for The London Review of Books (subscription required), the “‘footnote thing’ seems a particularly pointed allusion to Wallace.” Elsewhere in the exchange, Eugenides asked:

What’s the great subject of the novel? Marriage, of course. In the West, we’ve lost that subject. Marriages aren’t arranged anymore. Divorce is no longer unthinkable. You can’t have your heroine throw herself under a train because she left her husband and ruined her life. Now your heroine would just have a custody battle and remarry.

“What the multicultural novel has going for it,” he continued, “is the marriage plot. They can still use it!” As its title implies, The Marriage Plot is an attempt by Eugenides to reclaim the subject for a generation and demographic—and to champion the old-fashioned realist novel as a serious pursuit for thoughtful novelists. While making this attempt, Eugenides clearly had David Foster Wallace (among others, I'm sure) on his mind. That’s why Leonard wears a bandanna.

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