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Just Kids

Jeffrey Eugenides insists his new novel is not a roman à clef. But it might have been: The writers of his generation had youths tangled enough for ten novels.

David Foster Wallace in 1996.  

When Jeffrey Eugenides moved to New York, he was 28 years old and things were not looking good. After graduating from Brown in 1983, he and Rick Moody, a college friend, had driven out to San Francisco with no real plan other than making a go of it as writers, and lived together awhile on Haight Street, listening to the sound of the electric typewriter coming from the other room. Eugenides stayed in the city for five years and didn’t publish a thing. He calls these “the lost years” now. “My life just didn’t seem to go forward.” In 1988, Eugenides moved into a cheap place with roommates on St. Johns Place in pre-gentrified Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, when muggers freely worked the area. A $75 payout on a scratch-off lotto card was a bright spot of that summer. Eugenides would look out over the darkening rooftops at the Manhattan skyline and think, How can my writing take me from here to there?

That same summer, Jonathan Franzen, also 28, was living in Jackson Heights, Queens, and feeling “totally, totally isolated.” The neighborhood was an immigrant jumble, and Franzen was a solemn, intellectual guy from St. Louis without much occasion to leave the house. He had gotten some attention and money for his debut novel, The Twenty-Seventh City, but the axis of the planet had not obediently shifted. He was frustrated with living in “shared monastic seclusion” with his then-wife, he says, when he got a fan letter from a writer he knew of but had never read. David Foster Wallace, then 26, was having dire troubles of his own and wrote to praise what Franzen had done in a “freaking first novel.” It was the first time Franzen had ever heard from a peer, he says. “And I was desperate for friends.”

Gradually, he found some: first Wallace, then William T. Vollmann, David Means. Through Wallace, who also knew Vollmann, he met Mary Karr and Mark Costello. Later Franzen would connect with Eugenides, Moody, and their other college friend Donald Antrim. A scene was taking shape and growing. Some had published work when they met, but many hadn’t; some were closer than others, some more competitive. The crowd was overwhelmingly male, very close in age, largely from the Midwest, and engaged in a kind of generational struggle to make sense of the postmodern literary legacy—of Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, and others—that they found both consuming and unsatisfactory, especially as a guide to writing about the new, weird America of the eighties and nineties.

Those writers seem even more a distinct literary cohort now in the wake of Wallace’s suicide in 2008; Wallace was the youngest of the bunch and the one most openly at war with himself over the way forward for fiction, and his death seems to have galvanized them all. Karr, who had a stormy relationship with Wallace in the early nineties, wrote him into her memoir-in-progress, Lit, though she used only his first name. Franzen sat down and channeled his anger over his close friend’s death into a fourteen-month sprint to write his sprawling 2010 novel, Freedom, which features a character with a likeness to Wallace. He also published a raw and searching New Yorker essay on their complicated friendship. “The depressed person then killed himself, in a way calculated to inflict maximum pain on those he loved most, and we who loved him were left feeling angry and betrayed,” Franzen wrote. “Betrayed not merely by the failure of our investment of love but by the way in which his suicide took the person away from us and made him into a very public legend.”

And when readers open Eugenides’s long-awaited and absorbing new novel, The Marriage Plot, published this week, they’ll find a character who looks very much like Wallace—bandanna, chewing tobacco, expertise in philosophy, struggle with mental illness. Another character looks a lot like Eugenides—a Greek-American from Detroit engaged in religious studies at Brown who takes a big trip abroad and ends up volunteering for Mother Teresa in India. In the book, the two are rivals, and while Eugenides insists the resemblance to Wallace is unintentional, The Marriage Plot is unmistakably a portrait of the author’s youth and of the loyalties and rivalries that so often arise among ambitious young friends. (Much of the early chatter surrounding the novel has been a who’s-who inside-baseball guessing game.) At once a love story, a campus novel, and a bildungsroman, The Marriage Plot is stocked with literary references and choreographed to provide the great page-turning pleasures of realistic fiction—very knowingly. It’s the latest salvo, that is, in the debate that has occupied Eugenides’s generation for 25 years, about what exactly fiction is for and how a crew of literary newcomers might revive the American novel, which seemed to many of them in danger of irrelevance. The Marriage Plot invites us back to that era when the author and his contemporaries were just starting to rewire their aspirations. What makes the backstory so intriguing is who this crowd was and who they came to be.

“I remember when The Broom of the System came out,” Eugenides says, referring to Wallace’s debut, published in 1987. Wallace was 24, and Eugenides remembers that too. “Like everyone else, when you first read any of Wallace, all the way through to Infinite Jest, what you felt was that he’d caught the sound of the times and the sound of his generation like no one else had.”