Jonathan Safran Foer . . . do you consider yourself a postmodern writer? In the New Republic, Dale Peck recently said you were upholding the high literary postmodern tradition, a tradition Peck claimed was bankrupt.
Jefferey Eugenides On the issue of postmodernism, Dale Peck and I would agree more than he thinks. I don’t see myself as a high postmodernist. I always say it like this: my generation of writers grew up backwards. We were weaned on modernism and only later read the great 19th-century masters of realism. When we began writing in high school and college, it was experimental fiction. I think now that a certain kind of academic experimental fiction has reached a dead end. Middlesex is a postmodern book in many ways, but it is also very old-fashioned. Reusing classical motifs is a fundamental of postmodern practice, of course, but telling a story isn’t always. I like narrative. I read for it and write for it.
Recently I was reading an old panel discussion from 1975 called “The Symposium on the Future of Contemporary Fiction.” Almost 30 years ago now, but they were basically debating the same thing. How do you make something new in literature? How do you move it forward? This discussion took place among Grace Paley, Donald Barthelme, William H. Gass and Walker Percy. Barthelme and Gass, at the apex of their careers back then, kept going on about creating new voices by means of theoretical exertion. But it was Grace Paley who turned out to be right. It didn’t appear that she was right, but now we can see she was. She said that new language rises again and again from human voices, not just new theories. If you look back now, you see that postmodernism hit a dead end, and what took over were the kinds of books—call them multicultural or whatever you want—that Paley was prophesying.
If there’s anything new in Middlesex, it’s not a matter of formal or theoretical development but closer to the new human experience Paley was talking about. The content in the book is new. The narrator, Cal Stephanides, is a real living hermaphrodite, not a mythical creature like Tiresias or a fanciful one like Orlando.
Foer As long as we’re talking about contemporary writing… Who’s your favorite contemporary writer?
Eugenides Right now my favorite writer is A. A. Milne. Let me give you a sample of why:
Rabbit leant over further than ever, looking for his [stick], and Roo wriggled up and down, calling out, “Come on, stick! Stick, stick stick!” and Piglet got very excited because his was the only one which had been seen, and that meant that he was winning.
“It’s coming!” said Pooh.
“Are you sure it’s mine?” squeaked Piglet excitedly.
“Yes, because it’s grey. A big grey one. Here it comes! A very . . . big . . . grey . . . Oh, no, it isn’t. It’s Eeyore.”
And out Eeyore floated.
“Eeyore!” cried everybody.
Looking very calm, very dignified, with his legs in the air, came Eeyore from beneath the bridge.
“It’s Eeyore!” cried Roo, terribly excited.
“Is that so?” said Eeyore, getting caught up by a little eddy, and turning slowly round three times. “I wondered.”
Today, at Community Thrift on 17th and Valencia, I bought these books for $2.50. The first page of Dear Mr. Capote says “Ed Seifert” in pencil. Wonder if he’s related to George, who won the Super Bowl. Jaroslav won the Nobel Prize. My family farmed the rim of the Dust Bowl and nearly made it stinking rich off a bunch of black sand but didn’t. It seems “Seifert” comes from “cipher.” Encoding words is a form of mathematics. “Mathematics is the supreme nostalgia of our time.” – Michael Marcus
Tomorrow I’m reading at Amnesia, at nine o’clock, with Lindsay Hunter, Amelia Gray, and Aaron Burch. Wearing a coonskin cap and a corduroy suit, I will read from my novel for the very first time. The novel is called A Dog On Onondaga. I vow to never finish writing it, but to self-publish new handbound editions whenever I feel like it. Maybe you think that’s vain. Sometimes I stare in the mirror for oceans of time, for no reason. Your opinion of me is so much sand on the beach of yesterday. Three days ago part of me did something immoral; the rest of me has only begun to feel bad. Another part of me wants desperately to be lost in the desert with a backpack full of books; but that can probably wait until the winter of my content. I plan to go to the community pool tomorrow, so that my body will remember what it was like when it was a word. READ MORE >
She does. Honest. Takes head and doesn’t give them back.
Example from the story “Wants”:
He had had a habit throughout the twenty-seven years of making a narrow remark which, like a plumber’s snake, could work its way through the ear down the throat, halfway to my heart. He would disappear, leaving me choking with equipment.
Here’s what I notice about this: that shouldn’t have worked. The metaphor—the plumber’s snake entering the ear and making its way near the heart—should come off as cliche. Familiar. A little silly. Following it up with “…leaving me choking with equipment,” redeems it.
Writers: push a cliche to the point where it strains to near snapping and you revive it.
Man, that’s a funny line.