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Jeffrey Eugenides, Extreme solitude

June 28, 2010

I’ve only read one work by Jeffrey Eugenides, and that was his grand saga of an immigrant family in America, Middlesex. I enjoyed its sweep and the insight it provided into the social history of twentieth century America from an immigrant point of view, and I liked the way he mixed light and dark in his story-telling. “Extreme solitude” is, though, a short story, and was published this month in The New Yorker. It is a rather tongue-in-cheek take on young love viewed through the changing literary theory scene in early 1990s (I think) academia.

The story opens with Madeleine and her realisation that she loves Leonard, whom she’d met in an “upper-level semiotics seminar”. This class is taught by a lecturer who had changed from his long-standing allegiance to New Criticism (and its focus on text) to Semiotics and the ideas of theoreticians like Roland Barthes. Semiotics was only just reaching academia – at least in my neck of the woods – in the very early 1970s and so the tensions between these two approaches to literary criticism somewhat passed me by.

Madeleine, as I’m sure I would have in her place, initially found Semiotics mystifying and unhelpful. After a few seminars she goes to the library to find a nice nineteenth century novel:

to restore herself to sanity. How wonderful it was when one sentence followed logically from the sentence before! What exquisite guilt she felt, wickedly enjoying narrative! Madeleine felt safe with a nineteenth-century novel. There were going to be people in it. Something was going to happen to them in a place resembling the world.

But then, “for reasons that were entirely extracurricular, semiotics began making sense” and it all, of course, has to do with love! She’s reading Roland Barthes’ A lover’s discourse and comes across his description of “a lover’s discourse” as being “extreme solitude”. She connects – because it describes her feelings for the somewhat self-sufficient Leonard. From then on, the story plays in a lovely tongue-in-cheek way with love and particularly with the “signs” or “signifiers” of love (as Semiotics would have it), with the language one uses (as in the loaded “I’d love to” come out with you), and with all those early relationship behaviours that you try to “deconstruct” to find out whether he does or doesn’t.

It’s a pretty straight-forwardly structured short story, and the ending is a little pat. But made its point clearly. I read “Extreme solitude” as a clever and playful take on the limits of theory … and I thought it was fun.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. June 28, 2010 6:28 pm

    I’ve had this story bookmarked ever since it came out, but I’m afraid to read it… it’s silly, but Middlesex is my all-time favourite novel, and so I have insanely high expectations when it comes to him 😛 But I’ll read it at some point. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it!

    • June 28, 2010 6:37 pm

      Yes, I liked Middlesex a lot too, Nymeth – it’s one of those vivid novels that stays with you isn’t it? This is quite different – rather tongue-in-cheek and playful as I said. It doesn’t quite bowl you over but it is a good read.

  2. June 28, 2010 8:11 pm

    I must admit I was not all that impressed with Middlesex, which put me off Eugenides forever. Something about his style left me cold.

    • June 28, 2010 9:30 pm

      Yes, I’ve heard others not like Middlesex but I was engaged from the beginning with the burning of Smyrna. This is different though so you could give it a go? Then again, life’s too short when there are authors one really loves isn’t it?

  3. June 29, 2010 5:14 am

    This story sounds like a winner. I should read it just to figure out what semiotics is. Eigenides’ ‘The Virgin Suicides’ is also excellent; I liked it better than Middlesex.

  4. June 29, 2010 8:18 am

    Thanks Tony. Yes, I’ve heard such good things about The virgin suicides. I should try to get to it one day. As for Semiotics, my true introduction to them was after I started working as a film librarian. Semiotics was all the rage then in film criticism too – late 1970s. I think the concept makes some sense but much of the writing on it seemed impenetrable to me at the time. My sense is that theories like Semiotics, New Criticism are best used in combination rather than as the one and true theory.

  5. June 29, 2010 9:14 am

    The burning of Smyrna is covered by one of my favourite writers, the late Edward Whittemore (I run a tribute site to him) who wrote a harrowing account of it in his wondrous book Sinai Tapestry, so another viewpoint of this little known atrocity was admittedly of interest to me.

    • June 29, 2010 5:07 pm

      Wow, Anne, I have never heard of him. I’ll check out your site. How did you come across him?

  6. June 29, 2010 5:47 pm

    The perfect example of a short story I would think – exploring unique themes, dabbling with philosophy, perhaps raising more questions than it answers? I’ve not read New Yorker for years – I’m sure its worth getting hold of a copy.

    • June 29, 2010 6:49 pm

      Probably is – but then you’d have to find time to read it! I’m in a group that tries to read a short story a month and we usually get them from The New Yorker’s online site.

  7. June 29, 2010 7:59 pm

    Regarding Edward Whittemore, it is explained on the site how I came to discover him. Suffice to say, I fell in love with his books and still read them every two years or so with as much enjoyment as the first time. His prose, in my opinion, is exquisite.

    Actually, Whittemore is one of the best unknown authors of the 20th Century.

    The books are hard to come by. They were reissued in 2002, but those editions are now out of print as well.

    You can occasionally stumble over the British paperback editions of Sinai Tapestry and Jerusalem Poker in second hand bookshops. I always check in every one I visit. They’re often shelved in the Science Fiction section, though they are not in any way of that genre. They are kind of magic realist with a Middle Eastern flavour.

    • June 29, 2010 10:25 pm

      Oh silly me. I read the first para of the home page and then started flicking around looking for the “about” type info, and there it was in the next para. I will keep an eye out for him in second hand shops etc.

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