In this weekend’s New York Times Book Review, celebrated novelist Jeffrey Eugenides reviews the fourth volume of fellow celebrated novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard’s celebrated six-part saga My Struggle. The first paragraph is simply an extended block quote from Knausgaard’s Times Magazine travelogue, published in February, recounting an awkward lunch with another writer. The second paragraph is one of the most unintentionally funny passages of a book review in recent memory.
There’s making a supposed evaluation of someone else’s work about you, and then there’s what Eugenides does next:
Knausgaard doesn’t reveal the identity of the American writer he had lunch with. But I will: It was me. I may be the first reviewer of Knausgaard’s autobiographical works who has appeared in one of them. Therefore, I’m in a perfect position to judge how he uses the stuff of his life to fashion his stories. Ever since Knausgaard turned me into a minor character, I have an inside track on what he’s doing.
Clearly, if appearing in someone else’s work automatically gave the subject the kind of insight that is the premise of Eugenides’ review, journalism and a solid chunk of fiction would work rather differently. But the review got us thinking: what other fictional (and thinly fictionalized, as with Knausgaard) writer characters were actually Jeff Eugenides, right under our noses? The results of our investigation follow; expect Eugenides’ collected reviews sometime soon.
Philip Friedman’s literary rival seems pretty explicitly based on Eugenides’ contemporary David Foster Wallace, given his untimely death and the bandana he’s sporting in his obituary photograph. (Other objects of satire in Alex Ross-Perry’s excellent Listen Up Philip include Philip Roth, in the form of Friedman’s first name and cranky, aging mentor, and a dash of Norman Mailer, in the form of Friedman challenging Fawn to a hyper-masculine boxing match.) Until, that is, Eugenides’ foray into film criticism tells us otherwise.
Adelle Waldman’s been adamant that her spot-on satire of Brooklyn literary life isn’t based on anyone in particular. And given that Nathaniel is a few decades younger than Eugenides, considerably less acclaimed, and doesn’t live in New Jersey, the parallels may seem unlikely… but not impossible! Meet Jeffrey E., bane of third-wave feminists the borough over.
The “Feckless Novelist” from On Beauty
A brief, winking cameo from author Zadie Smith, you say? Canonically a woman, you say? Nope, the visiting professor who bails from a faculty meeting in the middle of this academic satire is definitely Jeff Eugenides.
Sure, the first Zuckerman novel was published when Eugenides was still in middle school, and creator Philip Roth is a much more likely candidate for a real-life parallel… but we see it, don’t you?
The ’60s were a wild time for then-toddler Eugenides, breaking up the second marriage of fellow fictional novelist/Saul Bellow avatar Moses Herzog and all. (Disregard all far more convincing parallels to Canadian writer Jack Ludwig and his affair with Bellow’s then-wife.)
Thank Eugenides for introducing Kerouac, billed in The Dharma Bums as one “Ray Smith,” to Zen Buddhism way back in the day (like, published two years before Eugenides was actually born, “back in the day”). Account of Ginsberg’s debut “Howl” performance forthcoming in his memoirs.