“It was a terrific reading,” Eugenides says. “We didn’t know him very well then, and when he finished he came over and sat with us and said half-jokingly, ‘So, am I in the club?’ It’s very funny to remember that now. He read with tremendous authority, just as he reads now, but he was young, as we all were, and he wanted to be accepted. He wanted to be friends!” Franzen remembers that it meant a lot to him that the others told him, “You know, that was really good.”
Franzen’s initial encounter with Eugenides hadn’t gone so well: “The first meeting was a little bit awkward,” Eugenides says. “I had a girlfriend at the time, and I think he said she flirted with him.” But the two were soon getting together regularly for tennis in Central Park, where they laughed about Eugenides’s terrible serve—“the dying centurion,” they called it. While writing Middlesex, his Pulitzer-winning follow-up to The Virgin Suicides, Eugenides hit a sticking point and asked Franzen to read two chunks of about 150 pages each, representing two possible tacks for the novel. Franzen preferred the writing in one of them, Eugenides says, but in the end he went in another direction and was vindicated by the success of his multigenerational saga.
It was another novel-in-manuscript that had propelled Franzen toward his new phase—the thousand-plus pages of Infinite Jest. Almost all of what Franzen had read at the Limbo had been written in a kind of response to Wallace after getting an early look at his groundbreaking book. “I felt, Shit, this guy’s really done it.” As Franzen saw it, Wallace had managed to incorporate the kind of broad-canvas social critique that the great postmodernists did into a narrative “of deadly personal pertinence.” The pages Franzen produced then, he says, “came out of trying to feel good about myself as a writer after what an achievement Infinite Jest was.” His comments to Wallace weren’t all sunshine, though; he also “pointed toward some plot problems.” Wallace granted that the problems existed, Franzen told me, but said that he would thereafter deny ever having admitted it.
“I hated ‘The Broom of the System,’ ” Karr says. Wallace was “showing off.”
Nevertheless, Franzen knew it was “a giant book,” an end point of sorts. “It was clear that it was not going to be appropriate of me to try to compete at the level of rhetoric and the level of formal invention that he had achieved.” He turned instead to “a family story about a midwestern Christmas,” the beginning of which he read at the Limbo. The result was The Corrections.
That breakthrough novel provoked a six-page letter in ten-point type from Wallace. He wrote of his mix of happiness for his friend and his feelings of envy and depression. Franzen says, “I think it hurt for each of us to get the latest [book] from the other.” Franzen became more secure in himself in the wake of The Corrections, Costello says. But Wallace? “Dave never had a secure hour in his life.”
In 2006, Franzen was invited to a small literary festival called Le Conversazioni, on the Italian island of Capri. Reluctant, Franzen said he would come only if Wallace also signed on, “knowing that Dave would never do anything of the sort.” But Wallace, whose wife wanted to travel more, shocked him by agreeing.
If he had to go, Franzen decided, he might as well stack the deck with friends, so he brought aboard Eugenides. Between them, Eugenides, Franzen, and Wallace now had a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, and a novel that launched a thousand fan sites and created a highbrow generational hero. The early years were over.
But even the victory lap of a glitzy festival gave Franzen little cheer: “That was a supposedly fun thing I will never do again.”