Jeffrey Eugenides, Extreme solitude
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.