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In Sickness and in Health
Posted on Nov 4, 2011
“The Marriage Plot”
When is a novel based on the marriage plot not a novel based on the marriage plot? When the female protagonist is a semiotics student.
Jeffrey Eugenides’ new novel, “The Marriage Plot,” begins in 1982 at Brown University. It centers around a romantic triangle involving three college students: Madeleine, an English major studying semiotics; Mitchell, a religious scholar who travels to India to work in Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying Destitutes—a character Eugenides says is partly based on his own youthful self; and Leonard, a genius philosophy/biology student suffering from bipolar disorder who Eugenides insists is not based on David Foster Wallace (more on that later).
Eugenides has clearly taken the title’s subject matter seriously, but at the same time he seems embarrassed by the fact that he’s doing so. Perhaps we can blame his education for that; he studied semiotics in college as well.
In a recent NPR interview Eugenides said, “I envy writers who came from a world where social constrictions were still normative and they could still write marriage plots. I couldn’t, being an American born in 1960. … I didn’t think it was possible to write a Jane Austen novel now, and in fact, it isn’t. But I did want to traffic in the same ideas.” Huh. The chick-lit writers have been writing marriage plots all along, and seem to be doing so with some success. I suspect Austen, were she alive today, might even consider herself a chick-lit author.
However, given Eugenides’ belief, you have to give him an admiring pat on the back for attempting a contemporary, or should I say postmodern, version. But Eugenides has never been one to shy away from a challenge. His first novel, “The Virgin Suicides,” was the story of five suicidal girls and incorporated the first-person-collective point of view. For all of that, I found the book appealing and clever. His second book, the much-lauded “Middlesex,” for which he won a Pulitzer, I found less successful, although I accept I may be in the minority on this one. Perhaps the problem lay in Eugenides’ point of view in “Middlesex.” That book is narrated by Cal Stephanides, a hermaphrodite who tells the story of his/her incestuous grandparents and parents and takes us from war-torn Turkey to Detroit to Berlin, to Ford factories and the birth of the Nation of Islam—as I said, the ambitions are grand. But of course there is a problem with having a first person narrator tell the story of other people—the narrator can’t really know what’s going on in other people’s heads, can’t really overhear conversations that happened before he was born, can’t realistically describe every detail of events at which he wasn’t present. I’m all for breaking rules if it works, but for me this didn’t quite work. Just as I was getting involved in the lives and emotions of the characters, up popped Cal again, commenting on things he/she couldn’t possibly know. It felt like authorial intrusion and reminded me only of the limitations of the first person point of view. It was a clever device, in a look-at-how-terrific-a-writer-I-am sort of way, but for me it detracted from the story.
With this new book, Eugenides switches points of view between the three main characters—Madeleine, Leonard and Mitchell—and with each new section the plot takes one step forward, then retraces its steps a wee bit to explain how we got to where we are now. It’s a lovely rhythm and keeps the reader’s interest.
There are three ways a reader can approach “The Marriage Plot”:
1) As a love story
2) As a satire or social criticism, à la Tom Wolfe
3) As a meta-fiction
The book succeeds as a love story, albeit an unconventional, terribly self-aware love story, almost in spite of itself. Leonard and Mitchell are both well-drawn characters with complex inner worlds, desires and conflicts. Madeleine is less fully realized, but her intellectual life provides the thematic focus. As an English major at a university where semiotics and deconstruction are all the rage, she is writing her honors thesis on “the marriage plot”—the traditional plot device of novels by writers such as Austen, Henry James and George Eliot. She feels as out of step in her academic ambitions as Eugenides apparently felt in his desire to write this sort of book. According to the academic wisdom of the day, after all, narrative is old-fashioned and language, with its elusive meanings, is not to be trusted. Goodbye Charles Dickens; hello Jacques Derrida. Madeleine is also becoming cynical and skeptical of romance, but at the same time, she’s falling in love with Leonard, a brilliant, dangerously complicated man.
Mitchell Grammaticus, mystical religious seeker, is in love with Madeleine, while at the same time yearning for a deeper connection with God. He sits cross-legged on the quad, repeating “The Jesus Prayer”: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner. He hopes to repeat it so often his heart will begin to pray by itself.
Leonard, although terribly charismatic and something of a romantic legend on campus, is obsessed less with any other human being than he is with his own mental health, and with good reason. The wild mood swings have begun to take their toll. He ends up hospitalized, heavily medicated on lithium and profoundly depressed.
I do have to mention here that although Eugenides insists Leonard is merely a composite of many people he’s known, and is not, absolutely not, modeled after David Foster Wallace, I had to work extremely hard throughout the entire novel not to compare Leonard to DFW. They were both brilliant, mentally ill, obsessive-compulsives. They were both more than 6 feet tall, wore Timberland boots, kept their chewing tobacco in their socks (when not chain smoking), and yes, they both wore bandannas around their heads. I will take Eugenides at his word that he did not set out to exploit Wallace for his novel but, especially after Wallace committed suicide in 2008 and so many in the literary community were talking about it, surely someone—editor, publisher or agent—must have seen the glaring similarities and suggested the author tweak a few details. Mentally ill? Sure, but maybe he could wear some other trademark item, be of a different body type? Something? I found it increasingly difficult to read about Leonard’s sour mouth, his infected hair follicles, his acne, his hemorrhoids, his sexual dysfunction, because I couldn’t get Wallace out of my head, and it seemed wrong to stare so.
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