The Library of Michigan has announced its list of 2013 notable Michigan books. This list is an esoteric combination of 20 books that represent the geography and culture of Michigan living.
A Love Letter To Jeffrey Eugenides
Jeffrey Eugenides’ three novels have won him a hodgepodge of awards, including a Pulitzer Prize and a spot in Oprah’s Book Club for Middlesex and a Pulitzer nomination for The Marriage Plot. Yet, despite the notoriety, it is important to talk about this author.
Eugenides’ writing is very much a longstanding ode to Michigan, and as a Detroit native, Eugenides holds a mirth of knowledge on our state. Moreover—and this is demonstrated in his one novel a decade average—Eugenides has a refined style that can only be described as ‘precise’. When reading his work it is easy to see that every word has been meticulously thought out, that sentences have been reconstructed, characters rewired, and settings described with a sense of seemingly raw synesthesia. Perfectionism is an inept moniker, for Eugenides’ Motor City style provides industrial specificity blended with poetic, delicate honesty. I read one of his books in the fall, Middlesex, and I gobbled up his other two, The Virgin Suicides and The Marriage Plot, this month.
Eugenides’ first book, The Virgin Suicides, is based in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, and follows the suicidal struggles of the five Lisbon sisters through the perspective of their Peeping Tom adolescent neighbors. This novel almost reads like an epic poem, and is by far Eugenides’ most lyrical work, bulging with vivid descriptions of the Detroit suburb: the distinct annual influx of mayflies, the importance of ever-present automobiles, and the dwindling population of elm trees. These images seem simultaneously colloquial and ubiquitous, and while the narrators are incessantly spying on their peculiar neighbors, it comes off more endearing than creepy. One is reminded of the awkward, acute, adolescent pain of watching others discover sexuality from afar, the unbearable awareness of physicality, but not of execution. Our narrators fall in love with the Lisbons, morphing them into unattainable seraphs, piecing together a story with the persistence of detectives and the fanaticism of lovers.
Middlesex, Eugenides’ critically-claimed paramount work, follows three generations of a Greek family displaced by Turkey as the Ottoman Empire crumbled. The narrator, Cal, is an intersexual that provides a raconteur’s history of her family and the culmination of her sexuality. This epic tale provides an important view of immigrant movement to Detroit, an eloquent history of the evolving industrial cityscape, and a personal acceptance of identity. While certain historical events may be embellished, overall, Eugenides hits on some major points in Detroit’s tumultuous past that we get to see through personal perspectives.
Eugenides’ most recent work, The Marriage Plot, is his most character-driven novel, and follows the life of three recent college graduates, analyzing and challenging their transition into full-blown adulthood. We are faced with three intermingled protagonists, each one exhibiting different traits of mania and fear, all searching for what to do post-graduation. While The Marriage Plot is chock-full of literary and cultural references that at times overwhelm the reader, they are easily discernible as part of a facade erected by our main characters to exhibit intellectualism. Despite being Ivy League grads, our protagonists are still struggling to exude wisdom, and attempt to do so through knowledge of literature, music, film, and philosophy. Whereas this would be venomous in most novels, Eugenides makes this pseudo-intellectualism relatable, if not mildly sympathetic. We can feel the overbearing swelling of information that our protagonists have been forced to imbibe, and now they are faced with the very real question of “What the hell do I do with this knowledge?” (Disclaimer: for those of you like me that are fresh out of college, parts of this novel may hit home pretty hard. Also, you might start listening to The Talking Heads a lot.)
The simple truth is that Jeffrey Eugenides is one of Michigan’s most important contemporary writers. Eugenides’ constant examination and coalescence of traditional literary tropes, the unique points of view utilized in his novels, and his relentless attention to prose make him a titan of modern literature. His work is remarkably self-aware, and his patience is rarely seen in our fast-moving society. In mimetic fashion, I patiently await his next work, and you should too.
Aram Mrjoian,Feature Writer