Jeffrey Eugenides’ “Extreme Solitude”
The New Yorker –  June 7, 2010 issue

There has been some chatter about magazine subscriptions lately (at Inklings and Pickle Me This) and that’s gotten me feeling even a little more guilty about not keeping up with my “New Yorker” issues (as opposed to the consistent, moderate amount of guilt that I feel about it).

My problem is that I truly do enjoy it and, just as I like to read a series in the order in which it’s constructed, just as I like to read an author’s work in chronological order, I want to read the issues in order.

Well, okay, maybe that alone isn’t the problem. Were reading time unlimited, I would do just that and it would be relatively uncomplicated.

So I suppose the problem lies in the fact that my reading time is limited and, so, when I fall behind, I fall waaay behind.

And when I say waaay behind, I mean, waaaaaaaaay behind. Last summer I started in with the previous year’s Christmas issue.  ::ducks in shame::

I’d fallen behind before, but never that far, so that backlog resulted in some serious promises, and I kept up-to-date loyally through the end of the year and into this one. But a small stack has accumulated next to the fireplace again, and all this magazine talk has got me anxious and wanting to show those poor old backissues some love.

All of which is to say that I was feeling both tremendously responsible for picking up an issue today (instead of bringing a book with me) and tremendously irresponsible (because it was the issue on the top of the pile, the most recent one).

And even though I don’t have the best track record with their short fiction — ups and downs — I was definitely intrigued in seeing that this week’s story was by Jeffrey Eugenides.

He appeared on an earlier version of the New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” list (here‘s this year’s list and Nomadreader has launched a perpetual reading project for this year’s authors), and I own a copy of Middlesex and have heard countless good things about that novel, so “Extreme Solitude” seemed a good place to start.

  • “It was debatable whether or not Madeleine had fallen in love with Leonard the first moment she’d seen him.”

Well, okay: I’m interested. Why and how people fall in love? The thinnest romantic subplot has pulled me through many a massive tome, so a short story that begins in such a way is designed to pull me at least a little further into the tale.

  • “Right up through her third year of college, Madeleine had kept wholesomely taking courses like ‘Victorian Fantasy: From Phastastes to The Water-Babies“, but by senior year she could no longer ignore the contrast between the Blinky people in her Beowulf seminar and the hipsters down the hall reading Maurice Blanchot.”

And an academic setting. From John Knowles A Separate Peace to Jane Smiley’s Moo, from Donna Tartt’s Secret History to A.S. Byatt’s Possession, I love a School Story.

  • “Madeleine felt safe with a nineteenth-century novel. There were going to be people in it. Something was going to happen to them in a place resembling the world.”

And a bookish heroine. Even when the bookishness is all we have in common… oh, what am I saying…surely bookishness is enough, and it needs no further explanation to readers here.

  • “She had the book in her lap. With her right hand, she was eating peanut butter, spooning it straight from the jar. The spoon fit perfectly against the roof of her mouth, allowing peanut butter to dissolve creamily against her tongue.”
  • “What made Madeline sit up in bed was something closer to the reason she read books in the first place and had always loved them. Here was a sign that she wasn’t alone.”
  • “She went to the library to work on her thesis, but the sex-fantasy atmosphere — the reading-room eye contact, the beckoning stacks — made her desperate to see Leonard.” (I laughed at loud at this one: how can you not?!)

So I’m not really saying anything about the story; one really can’t say much at all about a story without risk of interfering with another reader’s enjoyment of the work.

Whether you enjoy this one hinges, I think, in either your interest in Madeleine’s character (and, hence, in her relationship with Leonard) or an interest in academic life (even more particularly semiotics/communication/linguistics).

For me, Eugenides’ story is enough to keep me interested in catching up on my New Yorker reading and interested in finding a copy of The Virgin Suicides as well.

How about you? What’s the last short story you’ve read?