Fairly Muted Charisma

“I’m not a very interesting subject. If I wrote about myself, I guarantee you no one would read it.” At this, the nearly full auditorium at the UofC’s Logan Center chortled away in disagreement, putting an almost modest smile on the lips of 2013 Kestnbaum Writer-in-Residence Jeffrey Eugenides. Measured self-effacement has become a sort of unwritten code for writers of a certain prominence, and Eugenides–bestseller, Pulitzer winner, and Oprah’s Book Club inductee–seems to have gotten the memo.

On writing a screenplay for “The Marriage Plot”: “It’s the opposite of exciting. It’s only dialogue. And instructions.” On the thematic complexity of “Middlesex”: “Sometimes your themes come out in your book and you’re the last one to know.” On working parts of himself into his novels: “I don’t really know who I am.”

And so on. After all, Eugenides hadn’t come to talk about himself–he’d come to give the UofC’s literary folk their fill of other people. People like Leonard, the manic depressive savant who lusts over an oblivious female clerk at a Providence taffy shop in “The Marriage Plot.” Or the unnamed Texan, who recounts the courtship of his German bride and Words with Friends matches with his estranged daughter in a yet unfinished work. The characters Eugenides chose for the readings were imbued with a vitality that had little to do with his own fairly muted charisma or his fairly bad Southern accent. It had more do with empathy.

“Certainly for any writer that wants to write about a range of people, empathy is important,” Eugenides remarked. “You have to remind yourself that your mind and ego are not the center of the universe.” That may have been Eugenides’ attitude during the reading, but for his audience, he may as well have been.