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Just Kids

Mary Karr in 1990.  

While Franzen and Wallace had books to show for themselves by their late twenties, Eugenides hadn’t even published a short story when he joined Moody and Antrim on the East Coast. Eugenides was starting to break free of the Brown campus fetish for literary theory (“Books aren’t about ‘real life,’ ” an in-the-know student says in The Marriage Plot, “books are about other books”), but he hadn’t figured out what would replace it. He got a job as an executive secretary at the Academy of American Poets, for $17,000 a year, and submitted a number of stories to James Linville at The Paris Review, a friend through his ex, trying out different styles—some light, others somber. No luck.

Eugenides says he’d always trusted Virginia Woolf’s advice not to publish a book before the age of 30, but now he was rounding that bend and he wasn’t close. “The shoe started pinching a bit,” he says. Antrim lived near Eugenides’s office, and the two would get lunch together to critique each other’s work. Moody was working as an editorial assistant at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and he would meet up with Eugenides and bring him free books, including a debut novel he told Eugenides to read—The Twenty-Seventh City, by Jonathan Franzen.

Eugenides finally broke through with a piece of fiction in The Paris Review late in 1990. “It was like nothing else he’d done, like nothing else anyone had done,” says Linville. “It had that very unusual choral voice and was quietly insinuating.” It was the first chapter of what became The Virgin Suicides, a lyrical evocation of adolescent desire and the mystery of self-­violence set in the Detroit suburbs of Eugenides’s youth—a sure step away from Brown but still a novel built from formal innovation. Pressing on with it in the ensuing years, Eugenides would write on the sly at work, typing out scenes on office letterhead below dummy first lines: “Dear John Ashbery.” He got fired for it. But that only helped him pick up the pace. The six months of unemployment checks were crucial.

“You seem so mad at me,” Wallace told Franzen. “Why do you want to be my friend?”

Costello told me of Wallace’s reaction to the novel: “He liked The Virgin Suicides, and it ate him up.” He immediately made fun of the publicity photo and the typesetting (“too airy” to be serious), then started to “parody himself for doing so”—a typical Wallace switchback. He was “working himself into a small froth of self-loathing,” Costello says. “Jealous Dave was a dismal thing to be around, seeing those gifts put to that use. Of course, we’re all dismal when jealous. But Dave was brilliantly dismal.”

Franzen was feeling pretty dismal, too, corresponding with Wallace about “how irrelevant we were feeling to the culture” as novelists—a subject Franzen would later tackle in a much-­discussed Harper’s essay that tried to crystallize the question hanging over all of them: Was fiction about mastering the sweep of the culture in an innovative way, or was it about telling a more intimate story and delivering reading pleasure?

Franzen had felt an immediate affinity when he first met Wallace in person: “I recognized an ambition in him and a talent in him that made me feel less alone.” But the notion of socializing with other authors gave Wallace some pause early on, according to Costello. “I think it’s important to remember,” he says, that “the idols of the generation were, in a sense, the allegedly monkish or hermetically sealed-off writers,” especially “Pynchon, who vanished.” Franzen had a different approach, Costello says. “I think Jon believed that ‘serious’ writers were basically an endangered, or at least threatened, species of warbler. Jon believed in forming common cause. It almost had the flavor of union organizing.”

“The key message that passed between them,” as Costello sees it, “was that every ambitious writer struggles.” He adds, “Failing to write wasn’t failure. Jon made it a credential. For Dave, who was naturally a solipsist and scalded by self-doubt, this was a salvific message as to which he needed hourly reassurance.”

Franzen needed a lot of reassurance himself after his second novel, Strong Motion, was published in January 1992 and got “just no response,” he says. Wallace kindly came to a Boston reading at a Waterstone’s in the teeth of winter. Some readings for the book were nearly empty, a “totally humiliating experience,” Franzen says, but this one “was worse than that.” He was sharing a stage with the Australian-born novelist Peter Carey, who had won the Booker Prize for Oscar and Lucinda. Franzen arrived in a college friend’s vintage Volvo in six-degree weather, with Wallace hitching a ride. “Carey arrived in a limousine from the Ritz.” The bookstore’s employees “had clearly never heard of me,” Franzen says. All of Carey’s books were on display, while a customer asking for Franzen’s previous novel was told to check the shelves under F.

Karr was teaching at Syracuse by this point, as she still does, and in Lit she describes Wallace’s coming there with “a pal” to scout out places to live in ’92. The pal was Franzen, who had taken a road trip up from Philadelphia with Wallace. They slept in Karr’s attic guest room in her house in the university ghetto. It was the last weekend of the NCAA basketball tournament, the year Christian Laettner hit the turnaround shot to beat Kentucky. Though his focus was clearly on Karr, Wallace was floating the idea that he and Franzen could both move to Syracuse. Franzen was open to it, but lost interest when it started snowing in April. They all went out for cheap Chinese and talked for hours, Karr writes, “till fortune-cookie slips confettied the linoleum booth top.” Karr’s marriage was on its last legs. They were three disheartened people.