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A world of metaphors

Jeffrey Eugenides earned plaudits for 'Middlesex.' Now, he ponders his next chapter.

October 10, 2003|Susan Salter Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

The Italian suit that Jeffrey Eugenides plans to wear for a reading at UCLA may be lost. All of Eugenides' luggage, which left with him from Berlin, where he has lived for a decade, may be lost. But he doesn't seem that worried. He's not complaining. After listening to fellow writers Martin Amis and Philip Roth complaining about the horrors of book tours at a party last year, he knows the terrible sound of writers whining about the bad food, the hotels and the planes.

There's a little confusion about the "Do Not Disturb" sign, and there's that computer virus he picked up at a hotel, but on the whole, it's not so bad.

Eugenides' novel "Middlesex" won a Pulitzer this year. It has just come out in paperback, and the author, post-Pulitzer, is giving it another whirl across the country. At a recent stop in Seattle, 2,000 people showed up for a reading and Eugenides was delighted by how many had already read the book, since it has been out just a little more than a year.

"Middlesex" was beloved by critics -- front page of the New York Times Book Review, front page of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, a Guggenheim fellowship. You name it, he's won it. Critics called it a "big-hearted novel" and praised its two main story lines: immigrants arriving in America from Greece, and a wayward gene that makes the novel's narrator, Cal (short for Calliope), a hermaphrodite.

Eugenides' first novel, the dark and amusing "The Virgin Suicides," made its debut in 1993 and appeared in film form in 1999. And he's still young, a baby at 43, a child star in the world of letters.

Even the Berliners, a notoriously literate and hard-to-impress bunch, have had him on the cover of several magazines. One newspaper headline read: "The Pulitzer Has Come to Berlin." He received a letter of congratulation from the mayor. Cab drivers showed new respect.

Not that there was ever any other world for Eugenides, who got his bachelor's degree at Brown and his master's in creative writing at Stanford. At Brown, he hung out with writers Rick Moody and Donald Antrim and studied with John Hawkes. There was a brief flirtation with theater, but it passed. He met his wife, photographer Karen Yamaguchi, at the MacDowell artists' colony. He lived in New York, worked for Bill Wadsworth at the Academy of American Poets, was fired for working on his own novel, taught at Princeton for a bit, and moved to Berlin, where he lives with his wife and daughter, now 7.

Now, he's ready to come back, maybe even to L.A. "We know a lot of strange expatriates living in Berlin," he explains, "so we don't want to stay away too long. My family came from Greece. We've been immigrants once, we don't need to do it again." But the writer has been a bit spoiled by Europe. It's easier to live cheaply, you don't need a car, and then there's the constantly inspiring architecture.

Eugenides has more than just a fascination with the tensions and confusions of adolescents. After his first two novels, he is a scholar of adolescence. "The hermaphrodite is really a symbol of adolescent sexual confusion and chaotic change."

The writer is strolling around Venice, and it is suggested that he pose for a photo in front of a very vivid lingerie store, but he won't. "It's not a novel about sex," he insists. In the book, a brother and sister get married and immigrate to Detroit when the seaport Smyrna falls to the Turks in 1922. Their grandchild, the novel's narrator, is raised as a girl. No one notices the part of her anatomy that she calls her "crocus," a small penis folded inside her labia. She falls in love with her best friend, whose brother desires her. When she is 19, a car accident lands her in the hospital and her true identity is discovered. Finally. But the doctor wants to turn her, once and for all, into a girl. She runs away to live her life as a man.

But it's not a novel about sex.

"When I write, I look for some metaphorical example of what's going on the world. When I was an adolescent in the 1970s, everything was unisex: unisex haircuts, David Bowie, Billie Jean King. Bisexuality became popular." But Eugenides found the literature on hermaphrodites to be mostly cold and clinical. "I didn't want to write about them as if they were freaks."

Like "The Virgin Suicides," "Middlesex" hops in and out of the first person. Other writers speak about being haunted by their characters, particularly when working for many years on a book ("Middlesex" took 10 years). But he says using the first person makes it feel more like a Broadway play, which perhaps fulfills a brief desire back in college to be an actor.

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