October 7, 2011

David Foster Wallace and the somewhat disingenuous Jeffrey Eugenides

The Howling Fantods has posted a link to a recent interview with Jeffrey Eugenides, whose new novel The Marriage Plot I was pleased to review for the final edition of Australian Literary Review. The interesting part of the interview is when Eugenides denies that he had the late David Foster Wallace in mind when writing the apparently Wallace-like character of Leonard Bankhead:
Interviewer: A number of early reviews noted similarities between Leonard and David Foster Wallace. Leonard wears a bandana and chews tobacco, and is a brilliant philosophical polymath who's depressive and stops taking his meds, all traits that match Wallace. Were you purposefully evoking him? 
Eugenides: No. I started this in the '90s. It's the bandana that I think makes people think it was him. I was thinking like Axl Rose from Guns N' Roses, and other people I knew in college. It was popular to wear a bandana for people who would be in the co-op and play hacky sack. I think that was it.  

Now, I admire Eugenides as a novelist and I enjoyed his book, but I think he is being disingenuous. The biography of Leonard Bankhead is clearly not based on the life of Wallace in any close way. But Leonard does not play hacky sack, or resemble Axl Rose in the slightest, and I don't know what possible difference it makes that Eugenides started writing his book in the 1990s. Furthermore, the similarity rests on more than the fact that Leonard is a tobacco-chewing depressive. The Marriage Plot includes a bantering scene in which Leonard claims that his ambition in life is to become an adjective; another scene in which the character Madeline sleeps with Leonard and experiences a moment of distinctly Wallacean self-consciousness described in a distinctly Wallacean style; and another scene in which an institutionalised Leonard becomes interested in a woman's story of her arduous recovery from depression and addiction.

So it's not just the bandana, which is not even the only reference to quirky Wallacean headgear in the novel. At one point in The Marriage Plot, Leonard is seen in a photograph that depicts him 'standing in a snowy field, wearing a comically tall stocking cap'. Now, where have I seen a photo like that before ... ?

Axl Rose. Probably.

(Photograph by Yael Routtenberg) 

[Supplementary factoid: the dust jacket for the volume of Wallace's writings that uses this very image as the author photo, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (1997), carries the following endorsement: 'If you want to know who's holding up the high comic tradition ⎯ passed down from Sterne to Swift to Pynchon ⎯ it's Wallace.' Jeffrey Eugenides.]

[Supplementary link: David Haglund joins the dots over at Slate.com]


  1. Excellent piece! I was curious about reading Marriage, but Eugenides' dismissing the connections seems a bit silly. Any idea why he would?

    Kudos for sneaking the adj. 'Wallacean' into the essay. It's clearly what Bankhead would have wanted!

  2. Thank you, Le Ted. I have no idea why Eugenides should try to deny the undeniable. It's very strange. It's not like there would be any shame in admitting that he based some aspects of a character on a real person (and a particularly interesting person at that). Novelists do it all the time. Maybe he's worried that the DFW angle will dominate the novel's reception. But somehow I don't think pretending there's no link at all is going to help.