>The New Yorker: "Great Experiment" by Jeffrey Eugenides

>I’m not sure if I liked this story because of all the great specific references to Chicago or because the story and the protagonist appealed to me, but for whatever reason “Great Experiment” engaged me as many New Yorker stories do not. Having said that, the ending seemed too predictable and that outweighs the rest, I’m afraid.

Kendall, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (with that bit of information, which many readers will not appreciate, a great deal is said about this character) who hasn’t made it as a poet. He has had some teaching jobs and currently works for a small publisher owned by Jimmy Dimon, an old pornographer who loves great books. (Dimon is a wonderful character and I wish he were more present in the story; the small glimpses we get are what keeps it alive.) But Kendall has a wife and two kids and money is always tight. He envies what Jimmy has, and all the other rich Chicagoans in their Gold Coast high-rises. (The story has some great imagery concerning Chicago’s Lake Michigan shoreline that is worth studying – it’s beautifully done.) His current assignment is to put together a distillation of Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” and that assignment pulls the plot forward. But the suspense in the story comes from a scheme hatched by Piasecki the accountant, in which Kendall agrees to participate, to defraud Jimmy of a couple of million bucks that he won’t even miss. Except, as the reader suspects, Jimmy is smarter than either Kendall or Piasecki give him credit for. And so the inevitable happens, and it all seems to have been foretold by Tocqueville . . .

For me, this one is better than average. Good, but not great.

March 31, 2008: “Great Experiment” by Jeffrey Eugenides

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  1. >I thought it was a terrible story. Same old middle class malaise, same old story arc, same old characters we’ve seen a million times in Bellow and Roth, only clumsier.
    The main character was exactly the sort of dull, childish pseudo-intellectual that I increasingly associate with not just Eugenides’ writing, but with the man himself (and, to be fair, the innumerable other contemporary American writers like him).

  2. >I agree fully with Cliff here. The story has too many strengths (as Cliff says) for it to be described as terrible. I’d be very interested to hear what the other bloggers make of the following passage:
    Still, despite his apparent attentiveness, Kendall didn’t remember what Bill had told him about his job. There was a software company in Canada named Waxman, and Bill had shares in Waxman, or Waxman had shares in Bill’s company, Duplicate, and either Waxman or Duplicate was thinking of “going public,” which apparently was a good thing to do, except that Bill had just started a third software company, Triplicate, and so Waxman, or Duplicate, or maybe both, had forced him to sign a “non-compete,” which would last a year.

    What is interesting to me about this passage? Well, there’s an enormous amount of specifically recalled detail here which seems utterly inconsistent with the fact that “Kendall didn’t remember what Bill had told him…”

    What is going on here? Is this a clever way of saying that Kendall’s memory is so outstanding that even when he “doesn’t remember”, he can give detailed recollections? Strange, if so, as we don’t see Kendall’s outstanding memory elsewhere. Or is it simply an authorial lapse where Eugenides has simply failed to portray what a poorly remembered conversation feels like? I hope someone can enlighten me!

    Paul Epstein

    1. I think the passage is meant to show that even though Kendall has an excellent memory, he is so uninterested by the business world that he doesn’t register what his neighbor was telling him.

  3. >Interesting points about that passage, Paul. I was amused by it because even though he seems to remember the details, he isn’t sure what they mean (“going public,” which was apparently a good thing), which I think was a nice way of reinforcing the poet’s cluelessness about all things financial. But you’re right – the fact that he can be so specific about it all suggests he isn’t quite as clueless as I think the author wants us to believe he is.

  4. >I thought the story was engaging and quite funny. I liked the way it parodied the idea of selling out. Kudos for a New Yorker story that didn’t put me to sleep.

  5. >plz guys help me out i didnt undersatnd any single point of that short story great exaperiment ..can u guys clarify me the whole storey so dat i snt have 2 go through with the stroy plz plz that wud b great help

  6. Your comments remind me that if I ever achieve being a published author, I should disregard ALL reader comments. The protagonist began as a brilliant, able and accomplished scholar, an idealist and innocent, representing the millennials, Gen Xer’s etc., who deserves to land jobs with adequate compensation to shelter, feed, and provide medical care for their families.

    He is employed by Jimmy p, the supposed idealist who believes in class equality p, but only on paper. HE lives a life of great wealth, and has even been able to support THREE families, has multiple businesses and homes, and can invest in not only stock portfolios but outrageously decadent antique Asian jade statues. He represents the bloated, heartless, aging upper class which is unwilling to make way for the upcoming generations physically or financially. Kendall ends up corrupt out of desperation and resentment. Jimmy is corrupt from his beginnings in porn, but now wears a mask of respectability by pretending – even CONVINCING himself – he has nobel aspirations to improve society by encouraging it to undertake a more equitable distribution of wealth. All the while, he will not even provide his valued employee with health care or a raise. He hides behind the sham of non-profit while he has mega wealth in other sources.

    It may be Kendall who devolves into white-collar crime. But the truly corrupt animal is Jimmy. And by association, the bloated, selfish, myopic CEO’s, bankers, and politicians of “a certain age” who have hoarded the power and wealth in modern day America.

    This story is masterful and pertinent, not merely entertaining. I plan to recommend it to my friends.

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