Jeffrey Eugenides, "Extreme Solitude"
Jeffrey Eugenides’s “Extreme Solitude” (TNY, June 7, 2010) deserves a chance, and it’ll reward it luxuriantly. I say this because the first sentence is terrible: “It was debatable whether or not Madeleine had fallen in love with Leonard the first moment she’d seen him.” That first adjective seems to have been picked by Eugenides’s secret enemy. And the “whether or not” construction is bland and superfluous. I hated it. But get over the sour taste and you’ll find a savory piece that’s told fantastically well.
The story is about, yes, how Leonard and Madeleine met and—maybe—fell in love. Their romance takes place during the eighties and is mediated by Semiotics 211, a course they take at Brown and in which they are pariahs because everyone else dresses in black and compulsively questions things like the significance of his own name. They meet in Semiotics 211, they have sex frequently during the semester, and, at the end, there is a declaration of love and subsequent dashing of hopes through quotes from a Roland Barthes book they read in class. That’s where the title of the piece comes from.
The story is very funny, without traces of having worked too hard at it. The characterizations are masterful. The take on deconstruction, with a concomitant celebration of literature freed from the lit-crit grip, is terrific. For instance, we hear that “Madeleine had become an English major for the purest and dullest of reasons: because she loved to read.” And, after plodding through Derrida in Semiotics 211, Madeleine read novels again, and here’s her reaction: “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.” If you’ve suffered Derrida before, you’ll probably indulge in a secret thrill with these sentences.
The language is magnificent throughout the piece. There are rich descriptions like this one: “One morning in early April, Madeleine was horrified to see a calligraphic smear of blood that had leaked from her way back in March, a stain she’d attacked with a kitchen sponge while Leonard was sleeping.” (Calligraphic is just perfect.) There are trenchant comments, like so: “Listening to Leonard, Madeleine felt impoverished by her happy childhood.” Only occasionally (after the dreadful opener) are there problems with the composition of the piece. Here’s one sentence that went overboard by listing three comparisons when the first one (or any one of the three, really) was good enough: “Tim had the long-lashed eyes and pretty features of an expensive Bavarian doll, a little prince or yodelling shepherd boy.”
Something about the structure does bother me. Unlike, say, Franzen’s story, everything about the characters’ background is relevant here because it’s a story of how they may have fallen in love. It’s part of the central storyline. But, as a story, the central storyline of “Extreme Solitude” seems hastily contrived: the dreary opening sentence serves as vise under whose clasp everything else can be bound together. That problem likely stems from the fact that the story is an excerpt from a novel Eugenides is working on (as he says in a New Yorker interview). The prose is wonderful, but he needed a tourniquet at the beginning and the end (the ending is hasty too) in order to present it as a short story. Still, it’s a very good piece of fiction. It’s very enjoyable.