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.
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?
At The Awl, I take a look — a completely unscientific but obsessive look — at some of the ways people are talking about and using slang on Twitter.
And, coincidentally, for Sunday’s New York Times, Ben Zimmer considers how linguists, sociologists, and psychologists are mining the medium for clues to real-time language use.
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.
“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
She read my manuscript and said she loved it, and then she asked why I decided not to write the other part of the story in the same book.
“I thought it was too ambitious,” I said. “I was afraid I couldn’t do it.”
“That’s not a good reason,” she said. “Of course you can do it.”
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…