Jeffrey Eugenides Is Open to Any and All Ultra-Experimental Interpretations of The Virgin Suicides

On the verge of publishing his first story collection, Fresh Complaint, the author reflects on his work past and present in his culture diet.

Eugenides (c) Gasper Tringale for FRESH COMPLAINT.jpg
Gasper Tringale

Years before Jeffrey Eugenides published his first novel, The Virgin Suicides, he was an unknown aspirant who’d just moved to New York from San Francisco in the mid-’80s. Shortly after arriving, he found out that a short story that he’d sent around two years earlier, “Capricious Gardens,” would appear in the Gettysburg Review, marking his debut as a published writer. Now the story reappears in Fresh Complaint, his first-ever story collection out on Tuesday, which ranges from new stories written for the book to older ones newly rediscovered.

“I actually have half of another book of short stories finished that I couldn’t get into this volume,” Eugenides explained on the phone from Princeton, where he’s been teaching for the past 10 years. “So the next one will be all newer work, but I’ll probably write a novel before I do that,” he added casually. He shares what else he’s been up to lately, from his extremely specific reality TV obsession and Princeton’s favorite (and only) “den of iniquity,” in his culture diet, here.

Fresh Complaint begins with an older story of yours about air mail letters, and ends with a new one that has iMessage bubbles. What’s it like to write about teens now that you’ve gotten older? Is it harder?

No, I always can write about teens. I’m still plugged into teens; I used to be one, I still am one, but now I also have one, so there’s teens on every side. I don’t find it particularly daunting. Obviously, it’s easier to write about teens in the 70’s, because I remember all the cultural references from then, but in general I don’t find too much of a barrier. And my daughter’s 19 now, so I’ve been re-experiencing or witnessing teenage life in the present day up close.

What’s the first thing you read in the morning?

Like everyone, I check my emails quickly, and then the second thing I think a lot of people I know do is probably read the New York Times.

What books are on your bedside table right now?

See the thing is, why do books have to be on the bedside table? Why can’t they be on the table when someone is fully alert and awake and using his or her intelligent acuity? [Laughs.] There are no books on my bedside—there are books on my reading table. I’ve been reading The Death and Life of the Great Lakes [by Dan Egan], which is extremely interesting and depressing, about invasive species making their way into the Great Lakes and the different ways people have tried to combat them, which always lead to something worse. I’m from Michigan, so I’m quite interested in and familiar with the ecology there. Then there’s The Anthologist, by Nicholson Baker, which is narrated by a poet named Paul Chowder and a funny, wonderfully written book. I’ve also been on a bit of a Javier Marías tear—he’s a Spanish novelist, so I read his last book in English, Thus Bad Begins, and then the one before that, The Infatuations. I’ve also been reading Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, and then last week I was in the library and I picked up Exit Ghost by Phillip Roth.

Do you normally get your books from the library?

There’s only one den of iniquity in Princeton, and it’s a cigar store, where the sad kind of men who smoke cigars gather and sit around. Sometimes, I’m one of those sad men, and I went over there the other day when the weather was nice and I smoked a cigar. It made me mentally alert, and the library is across the street, so I just decided to walk into the library and get a book.

What TV shows have been keeping you up at night?

My favorite television show is 90 Day Fiancé, on TLC. It’s a very terrible show that I like a lot. [Laughs.] It has to do with the K-1 visa—these people in America fall in love either online or on vacation with people in foreign countries, who can come over to the States for 90 days as long as they get married to the person who brought them over. It’s a reality show, so you see the most horrible matches imaginable. The families are always thinking they’re just coming over to get a green card, but the couple is infatuated and are sure it’s true love, even though they’ve only met the person online, and the disparities in looks and sometimes age are extreme. I saw it a couple of years ago, and I just couldn’t believe it. I got my daughter into it, so that seems to be the show I watch.

Do you watch a lot of reality TV?

No, not very much. For some reason, that’s just the show that rivets me. [Laughs.] I’m about to start Ken Burns’s Vietnam documentary, and I’m quite excited about that—that’ll be something of more significance, but if I’m just slumming around, 90-Day is it for me.

What’s the last movie you saw in theaters?

I don’t go so often; I did go to something lately, but I just remember that it was a disappointment. [Laughs.] I’ve been watching things from the Criterion Collection on my television lately—most recently Faces by Cassavetes, La Dolce Vita by Fellini, and L’Avventura by Antonioni.

What’s the last thing you saw at the theater?

I saw Daniel Craig on Broadway with the wonderful actress he’s married to, Rachel Weisz, in Betrayal, a Harold Pinter play, and a restaging of A Raisin in the Sun. But those were a few years ago now; I was working with Scott Rudin so I was on his list and got to go to premieres, but then I got off the list. [Laughs.] Hamilton was expensive and you couldn’t get tickets, so then I got mad and decided I wasn’t going to see it. So I guess the last thing I saw was actually an adaptation of my own book, The Virgin Suicides, in Munich. They made an extremely experimental version of it—like the Teletubbies, if the Teletubbies wanted to make the baby cry. These four actors came out with masks on and funny little voices, like the Teletubbies, but then they would vomit, or terrible things would happen. It was quite disturbing. They had some of my novel in there and then they’d also interpolated writings of Timothy Leary and the Tibetan Book of the Dead. You couldn’t tell which was which, so it didn’t really follow my novel at all, but it was called The Virgin Suicides, which is fine by me; I gave my permission, and went out to see it when it ran for three or four months this summer.

What’s the last piece of art you bought, or ogled?

I have artist friends, and sometimes I write for their catalogues and they give me their work—that way I don’t have to buy it, because that costs a lot. So I have pieces in my house by Mark Wallinger and Thomas Demand, and a Matthew Barney photograph he gave me because I appeared in his last movie.

What’s the last museum exhibition that you loved?

This is not the last one, but I saw the Glenn Ligon retrospective at the Whitney before it moved.

Oh wow, that was quite a bit ago [in 2011].

I know, but that’s the answer I want to give, because it’s the one that lingers in my memory the most. I’ve seen many things since then, though I don’t live in New York, so it’s not that easy. But I often see friends’s openings, especially when I’m traveling, so I’m excited to see some things while I’m on my book tour.

How do you get your news, besides the Times?

I have a news feed on my phone, which I’ve tailored to bring both agreeable and disagreeable articles and publications to my attention, just to see what’s going on. So I’ll get lots of the Guardian and then lots of Breitbart or something. [Laughs.] But in general, it’s just the Times or cable news. Right now, I’m trying not to get the news, because I’m overloaded with the news.

Do you have any favorite social media accounts to follow?

No. None at all. My daughter talks about things, and I know that they exist and what they are, but I don’t have any favorites. It just never occurred to me to [get involved with it. I guess I’m old enough where it just didn’t seem that useful or necessary to me, and I had a certain cunning feeling that if you don’t do it, you might be less distracted and therefore more productive. I’ve adapted; I have a smart phone, I have email, I write on a computer. [Laughs.] I’m not a Luddite; I go along with the changing technology for the most part, and maybe it’s because I don’t know much about it, but I think I’m happy I haven’t had Facebook or Instagram or any of those things.

What’s the last song you had on repeat?

I’ve been listening to this amazing album by Marlene Dietrich which was recorded in the 1960s, when she was going back to Berlin for the first time to sing, and also played in New York for the first time. She was frightened by New York audiences, apparently, who were notoriously mean, and a lot of Germans had mixed feelings about her because of her support for the Americans against the Germans during the war. But it turns out that her band leader at that time was a very young Burt Bacharach, so it’s very interesting and sort of nostalgic to hear her songs about Berlin and even Schöneberg, the neighborhood where I used to live.

What’s the last concert you went to?

I’m aspirationally hoping to go to a Beirut concert next time I can. There’s probably nothing I love more than Beirut at the moment.

Last thing: What’s the last thing you do before you go to bed?

Um, I made that big tirade about reading in bed, but I also do read in bed. [Laughs.] think people can read in bed, but not only in bed. That’s my position.

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