Jeffrey Eugenides has a new story in The New Yorker, and it’s presently available for free on the web. The story’s called “Great Experiment”, and it’s a good one: a simple tale of temptation on its surface, and a complex meditation on the nature of American identity just beneath. At first I felt a bit uncertain about this one, as it’s yet another story about a poet—but as it turns out, the main character doesn’t really write anymore, and the only reason Eugenides makes him a writer at all is to show him drifting from the values he once held dear, now that he has suffered under the pressures of adult life for a number of years.
I love the straightforward elegance of Eugenides’ prose: there’s no flashy artifice, just flawless sentences, rich with ideas neatly expressed. In this story, Eugenides does a great job with the setting, too—he gets all the present-day Chicago details exactly right, and in so doing captures the feel of the city very well. (I say this as someone who’s lived there for seven years—and I understand that Eugenides lives here now, too.) And Eugenides also makes a lot out of Chicago’s big-shouldered industrial history and present-day identity as a financial center, and uses this to draw the lines between the city’s corrupt past and corrupt present in order to tell a story about how American ideals can all to easily drift into greed and criminality, until those ideals are more or less entirely abandoned. More remarkably, he captures the sadness of the main character’s loss of ideals—there’s a sense that Kendall’s dreams, and the American Dream, are beautiful things, but that Kendall and most Americans can’t live out their hopes and wishes without embracing the dark means of American success. It’s a story of innocence lost—of young America growing up and looking into its own heart, and admitting that there are costs to wealth and liberty and idealism.