On the eighteenth birthday of my stepdaughter, A.

My stepdaughter, A., continual bringer of joy, turns eighteen years old today. A few of you have been reading about her since the days of the beautifully and artfully burned pancakes, the puppet Wikipedia, and the giraffe in the wineglass, since The Gashlycrumb Tinies debacle, the Mythic Creatures disappointment, and the Hurricane Charley near-miss.

You’ve suggested books for her and followed our travels and learned of our shared loathing for Amy in Little Women. So I thought you’d like to know.

If I could, I’d show you some of her poetry, but she’s private about that. So here we are descending the stairs in New Orleans last winter. Isn’t her umbrella fabulous?

The interbreeding of Middlemarch and Barthes

I reviewed Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, which I enjoyed but had hoped and expected to admire more than I did. Here’s an excerpt.

Jeffrey Eugenides has always sought to infuse his fiction with the pleasures of “old-fashioned” storytelling. He strives for a “Classical shape,” a “pleasing and elegant form,” for “something that seizes you, that grabs your attention and gives you a ride through a book.” Yet his stories are also highly self-conscious, given to “postmodern play” (but not “the continuing sense of relativism that I got so tired of”); the narration invariably calls attention to itself in one way or another. The Virgin Suicides, for instance, issues forth from the perspective of a mesmerizing but inconsistent communal “we.” And Middlesex, the captivating story of a Greek-American family that begets a girl named Callie who becomes a boy named Cal, combines what Eugenides has called a third-person heroic epic with a coming-of-age tale, fusing the two with a film-reel chattiness (which hasn’t aged well).

Compared with the sweep and whimsy of these earlier stories, his latest, The Marriage Plot, is tighter, more sober, and surprisingly message-driven. The book does live and breathe, but through its characters, not through its agenda, which is to prove that the romantic preoccupations of the nineteenth century are as relevant in our day as they were then, that love and spirituality are still our most important problems, and that the question whether and whom to marry is not passé but as fraught and as vexing as it ever was. At its best The Marriage Plot conjures the heat and confusion of young, troubled love in all its dreadful complexity. At times, though, the story is so constricted and pedagogical, it feels like a controlled experiment involving the interbreeding of Middlemarch and the criticism of Roland Barthes.

My full reaction is over at B&N Review. See also: Laura Miller in Salon, calling The Marriage Plot “a headlong, openhearted, shameless embrace (make that a bear hug) of the old-fashioned novel, by which I mean the kind written before 1900)”; Carolyn Kellogg in The Los Angeles Times, comparing The Marriage Plot with Freedom and saying that “Eugenides benefits by the comparison: This book is sweeter, kinder, with a more generous heart”; and Christopher Beha in The London Review of Books, arguing among other things (and I recommend paying to read this excellent, extremely critical review) that “It would be more sporting if at least one campus theorist could be seen acting in good faith. Instead, experimentalism is only ever a fashionable gesture.” The New Yorker ran an excerpt, and Eugenides spoke with his editor, Jonathan Galassi, about the novel last year.

Image of Times Square Eugenides billboard taken from The Village Voice.

Julian Barnes on memory and invention in fiction

Julian Barnes headshot by Ross MacGibbon

“For the young — and especially the young writer — memory and imagination are quite distinct, and of different categories. In a typical first novel, there will be moments of unmediated memory (typically, that unforgettable sexual embarrassment), moments where the imagination has worked to transfigure a memory (perhaps that chapter in which the protagonist learns some lesson about life, whereas in the original the novelist-to-be failed to learn anything), and moments when, to the writer’s astonishment, the imagination catches a sudden upcurrent and the weightless, wonderful soaring that is the basis for the fiction delightingly happens.

These different kinds of truthfulness will be fully apparent to the young writer, and their joining together a matter of anxiety. For the older writer, memory and the imagination begin to seem less and less distinguishable. This is not because the imagined world is really much closer to the writer’s world than he or she cares to admit (a common error among those who anatomize fiction) but for exactly the opposite reason: that memory itself comes to seem much closer to an act of imagination than ever before. My brother distrusts most memories. I do not mistrust them, rather I trust them as workings of the imagination, as containing imaginative as opposed to naturalistic truth.”

– Julian Barnes, Nothing to Be Frightened Of


  • On the melding of fact and invention in fiction
  • On the melding of fact and invention in fiction II
  • Welty v. Maxwell on autobiography in fiction
  • On creating the feeling you want the reader to feel

  • Eating rattlesnake, Harry Crews-style, for NYT Mag

    In the food issue of the New York Times Magazine, out this weekend, writers answer various questions. Mine was “How does rattlesnake taste?” Obviously I roped Dana, Max, and Nick into finding out with me, and obviously we intended to follow (to the extent possible) my former teacher Harry Crews’ instructions.

    Tracking down a diamondback in New York City proved impossible, even after I took to Ask Metafilter. Unlike Crews’, our snake arrived in the mail, skinned and gutted, stripped of head and tail. Coiled on the cutting-board, it looked like a garden hose made of filleted haddock. Continue reading…