Latest Eugenides novel sparks literary intrigue

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It doesn’t take much deduction to figure out that much of Jeffrey Eugenides’ new novel “The Marriage Plot” is rooted in Eugenides’ own 20-something experience.

The novel has brought a flurry of inquiry about how much of its events and characters are rooted in the informal group of writers, including Wallace and Franzen, that Eugenides became a part of in the early 1990s.

“The Marriage Plot,” which centers around three friends in their final year at Brown University as they struggle to understand the post-college world, interweaves Eugenides’ experience at his alma mater Brown, his Greek heritage, his Detroit upbringing and his post-graduate trip to India to volunteer for Mother Teresa.

So when similarities surfaced between the character Leonard Bankhead — a charismatic and intellectually brilliant but mentally disturbed student with a proclivity for chewing tobacco, bandanas, philosophy and literary theory — and Eugenides’ former friend David Foster Wallace, the comparison didn’t seem far-fetched.

However, Eugenides has denied any connection between Wallace and Bankhead. Despite these denials, it seems impossible that Wallace didn’t have influence on Eugenides’ portrayal of Bankhead, however unintentional.

Bankhead even parrots Wallace’s words; in a manic episode, Bankhead asks, “Who took my saliva? Do you have my saliva? Because I can’t find mine right now.” The line is uncannily similar to a quote from Frank Bruni’s 1996 profile of Wallace: “Do you have my saliva? Somebody took my saliva, because I don’t have it.”

The two men, along with Jonathan Franzen — author of 2010’s incredibly highly acclaimed “Freedom” — came together in and around New York City as they struggled for success.

In the past three years, a series of events have propelled this group of authors from regular old literary prominence into mainstream celebrity status: David Foster Wallace’s suicide in September 2008 cemented his literary legacy as an Important Author with a capital “IA,” and the publication of Franzen’s “Freedom” secured his place as a major force as Time proclaimed him the next Great American Author. It’s the release of “The Marriage Plot” that’s galvanized the recent fascination with this group, which seems to have been something like the ’90s version of Fitzgerald and Hemingway’s Lost Generation.

A recent fascinating piece in New York Magazine explored the intricacies of the relationships between Eugenides, Wallace and Franzen. The exhaustive and absorbing article collects the many questions that surrounded the trio and provides an incredibly detailed chronicle of their correspondences, interactions, jealousies and moments of camaraderie.

Franzen, whose novel “Freedom” also features a character bearing similarities to Wallace, has also fielded questions about the literary drama. During the Q&A session with Time book reviewer Lev Grossman at his October 14 appearance at UT’s Bass Concert Hall last weekend, Franzen confirmed the accuracy of the New York Magazine feature.

When asked about Eugenides’ portrayal of Leonard Bankhead and whether he believed Wallace was indeed his inspiration, Franzen said that although Eugenides was “very clever,” Bankhead was not Wallace’s fictional doppelganger.

“I know what it’s about, and I don’t want to talk about it,” Franzen said, perhaps invoking more literary intrigue rather than quieting it. 

Published on, October 19th, 2011 as: Literay friends inspire novel