"Extreme Solitude"
by Jeffrey Eugenides
Originally published in the June 7, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage.
Click for a larger image.

Click for a larger image.

Though I didn’t particularly like Middlesex, it stays with me — and I loved and still love The Virgin Suicides. All of this makes Eugenides an author I am on the look-out for. I was thrilled while reading his first lengthy paragraph, which had a lot of what I liked about Middlesex, with its breathless speed and quirky detail:

It was debatable whether or not Madeleine had fallen in love with Leonard the first moment she’d seen him. She hadn’t even known him then, and so what she’d felt was only sexual attraction, not love. Even after they’d gone out for coffee, she couldn’t say that what she was feeling was anything more than infatuation. But ever since the night they went back to Leonard’s place after watching “Amarcord” and started fooling around, when Madeleine found that instead of being turned off by physical stuff, as she often was with boys, instead of putting up with that or trying to overlook it, she’d spend the entire night worrying that she was turning Leonard off, worrying that her body wasn’t good enough, or that her breath was bad from the Caesar salad she’d unwisely ordered at dinner; worrying, too, about having suggested they order Martinis because of the way Leonard had sarcastically said, “Sure.  Martinis. Let’s pretend we’re Salinger characters”; after having had, as a consequence of this anxiety, pretty much no sexual pleasure, despite the perfectly respectable session they’d put together, and after Leonard (like every guy) had immediately fallen asleep, leaving her to lie awake stroking his head and vaguely hoping she wouldn’t get a yeast infection, Madeleine asked herself if the fact that she’d just spend the whole night worrying wasn’t, in fact, a surefire sign that she was falling in love.

The story then takes us back a bit. When Madeleine falls in love with Leonard, she is a senior in college. Her first few years, wittily summarized, were fun but unromantic. She is an English major who became one because she loves to read. Then she signed up for a Semiotics class:

Almost overnight it became laughable to read writers like Cheever or Updike, who wrote about the suburbia Madeleine and most of her friends had grown up in, in favor of reading the Marquis de Sade, who wrote about anally deflowering virgins in eighteenth-century France. 

In Semiotics everyone “was so spectral-looking that Madeleine’s natural healthiness seemed suspect, like a vote for Reagan.” But into the room walked someone who else who seemed normal, someone who, when introducing himself didn’t comment on how his name meant nothing but rather said “that his parents had named him Leonard, that it had always seemed pretty handy to have a name, especially when you were being called to dinner, and that if anyone wanted to call him Leonard he would answer to it.”

Over the next few pages, we watch as Madeleine and Leonard become closer together until a moment when semiotics began making sense to Madeleine, while she is reading Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse, which is “extreme solitude.” Eugenides continues the playfulness even while we watch Madeleine’s suffering for love mimic some of what she’s learning. It’s not that simple; Eugenides pays off here.

Is this a piece of the novel he’s working on?

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By |2016-06-10T15:43:05-04:00June 1st, 2010|Categories: Jeffrey Eugenides, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |8 Comments


  1. Trevor Berrett June 1, 2010 at 12:34 pm

    New fiction forum up — this time with Jeffrey Eugenides!

  2. Tim Lepczyk June 3, 2010 at 3:09 pm

    Finally, another New Yorker story that worked! Well thought out, smart, and funny. What more can you ask? To read more: http://digitaldunes.blogspot.com/2010/06/extreme-solitude-jeffrey-eugenides.html

  3. Trevor Berrett June 3, 2010 at 3:18 pm

    Glad to get your good opinion, Tim. I still haven’t read it, but I’m looking forward to it. Is it part of Eugenides book-in-progress, do you know?

  4. Trevor Berrett June 8, 2010 at 5:24 pm

    I’ve posted my thoughts on this piece in the above post.

  5. javins June 16, 2010 at 2:19 pm

    I took this story as Eugenides’ defense of narrative and language.

    This story was well put together in so many ways. First, her name – that of the sympathetic vulnerable protagonist living in a school away from home in a classic story of sheltered childhood.

    Last, at the end when Madeline instinctively reactes in protest at Leonard to protect who she really is.

    This seemed to express who Madeleine is: “How wonderful it was when one sentence followed logically from the sentence before! What exquisite guilt she felt, wickedly enjoying narrative! 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.”

    Leonard berates her for not defecating when he is around seemingly as a way of berating her for who she is (of course no one ever defecates in 19th century novels). Then, at the end, as they are making emotional and satisfying love and he points to Barthes to claim there is no such thing: “Leonard, squatting, had a smirk on his face. It was then that Madeleine threw the book at his head.”

    In between, they have a spat about dirty sheets. He claims not wanting to sleep on filthy sheets means she “equate[s] dirt with death and decay” and that “People’s attitudes to cleanliness have a lot to do with their fear of death.”

    “This isn’t about death, Leonard. This is about crumbs in the bed. This is about the fact that your pillow smells like a liverwurst sandwich.” He admits it smells like salami.

    She is the one who is focussed on the real meaning of words.

  6. allison June 24, 2010 at 2:25 pm

    It appears that this is related to his third novel…


    Frankly, I can’t wait. I thought this story was wonderful on several levels, to say the least, and I am glad to read other’s thoughts and interpretations!

  7. Trevor Berrett June 24, 2010 at 2:38 pm

    Thanks Allison! For some reason I only rarely read the online content accompanying the fiction section. I think I’ll do it more frequently in the future because I really enjoyed reading the content for the 20 Under 40 issue.

    I’m anxious for the new book too, though he did skirt the question as to how long before he finishes. Skirt it? That’s not right. Ignored it. We’ll just have to suffer in suspense.

  8. Trevor Berrett July 15, 2010 at 3:09 pm

    Here’s an interview of Eugenides done by FSG President Jonathan Galassi (click here). In it, Eugenides almost talks about his new book, which this story is a part of.

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