The working title of that fragment was called “Boy on Train.“ I knew that it involved an encounter between a college freshman and a professional actor who are forced to sit together on a crowded Amtrak train, during a trip from New York to Providence, in 1978. I knew that the point of view should shift back and forth between these two characters and that their meeting should be dramatised moment by moment. The idea was to give the story a feeling of immediacy, as if its events were happening in real time.
I made decent progress at first. The language of the story, highly inflected by the characters personalities, felt freeing, allowing me to reproduce the way the world, or at least my world, had sounded back in ‘78.Jeffrey Eugenides, Contributor Note
Back a couple of stories ago, when I wrote about “The Third Tower”, I said something about different people’s minds running on different tracks when reading a story, since we all have different backgrounds that lead to different associations. I seem to have pulled onto a rarely-used siderail here, because while everyone else is fitting this into the #MeToo era – even though its genesis predates the hashtag by several years – I found myself fully immersed in what I imagined young gay culture to be in the late 70s thanks to frequent readings of And the Band Played On: the pre-AIDS bathhouses and orgies and post-Stonehenge defiant celebrations of sexuality seen now (at least by non-gay-male dinosaurs like me) mostly in gay pride parades, as public gay culture has turned to issues like marriage equality and job security.
This isn’t a story about being gay, however. It just seems like it is. It’s a story about how you figure out if you’re gay, set in a time before we started thinking about sexual preference as a continuum as established by the Kinsey report in the 40s. And before we realized that it isn’t the creepy stranger in the trench coat who’s the sexual predator.
The college freshman, being high, was also a little paranoid. Therefore, as he boarded the Amtrak Colonial he had the impression that people could tell. Why was everyone staring? Some smiling, some raising eyebrows, a few shaking their heads. Do I reek? Eugene thought. I used Binaca.
Then he remembered what he was wearing. The white fur coat. The pink sunglasses. The striped collegiate scarf knotted at his neck. Sort of a new look for him, part glam, part New Wave.
Eugene’s little secret? He wanted to be beautiful. If that didn’t work, noticeable would do.
He unzipped his coat and fanned himself, hot from running down the platform.
It was a late-November afternoon, in the confusing year of 1978, and Eugene was headed back to school after a wild weekend exploring the demimonde. Eugene knew that was a French word associated with women of dubious morals, but in his mind it included the teen runaways at that chicken-hawk bar Stigwood had taken him to, Saturday night; plus Stigwood himself, who was rich and debauched. The main thing about the demimonde was that nobody back at the dorm had a clue about it. Only Eugene.Complete story available online at TNY
Eugene, Brown freshman and wannabe poet, is one of our two pov characters. For all the flamboyance and excess in these opening paragraphs, he’s been more of a spectator than a participant in this alternate world, carefully partitioned off from the academic world in which he spends most of his time.
In his TNY interview with Cressida Leyshon, Eugenedis says that he had trouble writing this opening section (interestingly, I found it difficult to follow) due partly to Eugene’s stonedness, an essential element, and his own personal experience, which kept getting in the way of the fictional version. That’s a writing problem I find fascinating. Back when I kept trying to be a fiction writer, it’s something I ran into all the time. Someone would suggest it would be better if the character did this instead of that, but I’d insist he couldn’t because that wasn’t what happened. I seem to be reality-bound, even when I’ve twisted that reality in my own mind into a pale imitation of objective truth.
Nevertheless, the section contained a couple of key passages, one that’s key for Eugene, and one that I find highly relevant to the present. In this alternate demimonde Eugene has found, he meets Rafael, a guy about his age, who he thinks of as concubine to an older, richer man. Rafael dabbles in pop-psychology:
Raphael passed the doobie and picked up a deck of cards. “Everybody has a word map,” he explained. “Your word map is how you feel, inside, as a person. Here. I show you.”
Raphael laid three cards on the bedspread. Each bore a word.
Sensitivity. Ardor. Celebration.
“Pick a card,” Raphael said. “How you feel, inside.”
Eugene took a hit and thought about it. His mom always called him sensitive. But not in a way he liked. You had to be sensitive to be a poet, of course, but Eugene’s mom meant more like that time at swimming lessons, when he’d refused to get into the pool.
You do something once and your family never stops talking about it.
So: no to Sensitivity.
Ardor was like armpit plus odor.
Celebration, on the other hand, had appeal.
Ardor will come back later – and you’ve got to love the wordplay of this fledgling poet – but it’s the “you do something once” that really sticks the landing, suggesting a rigidity of identity that is the heart of the story.
The other note rang for me like a pronouncement on our present time:
New York was dying. But that was O.K. It was in dying empires that the greatest poets appeared. Virgil in Rome. Dante in Florence. Baudelaire in Paris. Decadence. Eugene liked that word. It was like “decay” and “hence.” Things falling apart over time. A sweet smell like that of rotten bananas, or of bodies ripe from iniquitous exertion, could pervade an entire age, at which point someone came along to give voice to how messed up things were and, in so doing, made them beautiful again.
Every moment, I suppose, is the end of something and the beginning of something else, but these I’m overwhelmed with the sense that something is at an end right now, maybe America, maybe democracy, maybe capitalism, maybe what we think of as civilization as the waters rise and the biosphere changes. I’m old (which may well contribute to this sense of ending), so whatever is coming, I won’t miss what’s past for long, but it is a lonely resignation since I can’t discuss this with people with kids, who still want to think of those kids as having a future of great choices and limitless possibilities.
Eugene’s looking for a seat on the crowded train back to Brown, which is how we meet the second pov character, Kent. “This seat’s free,” he calls out to Eugene. “Not again”, Eugene thinks. He compares it to being a pretty girl: older guys are always hitting on him. But this older guy’s life plays out in Eugene’s life. Because Kent was once a teenager, drunk and flamboyantly dressed, when Jasper, then Kent’s current age, picked him up and let him sleep it off. Eugene won’t be quite so lucky. But neither will Jasper. Eugene was molested by his high school drama teacher. Jasper is dying of emphysema down in Texas. And Kent’s trying to have it all.
Several images compete for the embodiment, or lack of, permanence. One is Horace, Ode XXX, Aere Perennius:
I have made a monument more lasting than bronze
And higher than the royal site of the pyramids
which neither harsh rains nor the wild North wind can erode
Nor the countless succession of years, and the flight of the seasons.
I will not entirely die! And a large part of me will avoid the grave.
Eugene is thinking of it in terms of poetry: how do you write something that will be read two thousand years hence? As a poet in the making, he can’t even imagine it. Permanence must feel great. But permanence has the other side, the Family that Never Forgets.
Eugene, looking out the window, acutely aware he’s sitting next to this guy who offered him a seat, writes his own poem:
Each window I see into
contains a slice of life
sliced by the train I’m in
two kids watching TV on the floor
an old man reading the paper
and just a couch, all alone
This takes a less bronze view, seeing life as a series of unrelated moments rather than one monolithic thing in which you are what you were forever. But moments are related, even if we don’t see what happens between the window views. And while we’re at it: when he was trying to find a seat on the crowded train, passing from one car to the next, he discovered the interim spaces are safer than he thought:
Now he was between cars. Daredevil-like. He looked down, expecting to see tracks below—the train had started moving—but the area was an enclosed, accordion-like sleeve that bent gracefully as the train pulled out of the station.
And then there’s the ballerina. We never get her name, making her more an abstract quality than a person, even though in the closing scene she’s definitely a person.
He was thinking that dancing wasn’t like making a monument in bronze. With dance you did it once, perfectly or not, and then it was gone forever.
The ephemeral, here and gone. But it leaves open a chance for a second shot.
I see the story as Eugene emerging from his own personal Bronze age, initiated by the drama teacher, into something that makes more sense to him, leaving behind Horace and Kent – literally – and following the ballerina. I found Jake Weber’s take on the story to be particularly interesting since, it seems to me, men and women see male gayness differently; and, because of a personal anecdote Jake mentions at the beginning of his post. I’d really like to see a gay man’s view, particularly an older gay man who would be familiar with the era, of the work.
Chances are I will, in the future: Both Eugenides’ interview and his contributor note indicate this story, which was intended for his last story collection but wasn’t ready in time, is being expanded into a novel. That’s good; I hope we get to know the ballerina’s name, and I hope Eugene allows himself to be whatever he wants to be, at any moment.