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In Sickness and in Health
Posted on Nov 4, 2011
But, back to the story. In the early part of the novel, when all three are still ensconced in university, some of the conversations between Zipperstein, the semiotics professor, and his students, as well as some of the descriptive passages are delightfully funny. Consider this description of Zipperstein:
Becoming a semiotician allowed Zipperstein to wear a leather jacket, to fly off to Douglas Sirk retrospectives in Vancouver, and to get all the sexy waifs in his classes. Instead of leaving his wife, Zipperstein had left the English department. Instead of buying a sports car, he’d bought deconstruction.
Great stuff, and this is where the novel flirts at being a sort of social commentary, poking wonderful fun at the highly rarified atmosphere of college campuses and the sort of pointless, absurdist, all night conversations young people have during those years of intellectual and existential angst.
It is in this atmosphere Madeleine decides she loves Leonard, no matter how alarming his illness. They move to Cape Cod, where he has won a prestigious science fellowship, and where she has little to do but care for him. Leonard, heavily drugged, struggles with the work, and fears that his affliction will be exposed. Madeleine’s parents become increasingly alarmed at her choice of partner, even as Madeleine becomes more frustrated.
Realizing the woman of his dreams is committed to another man, Mitchell heads off for a year in Europe, still convinced that one day she’ll come to her senses and marry him. In the meantime, he thinks he’ll find union with God by comforting the dying in Calcutta. His travels are less than satisfying, and he is disappointed by his lack of enlightenment. Considering that this part of the novel was apparently inspired by Eugenides’ own experiences in India, this should have been the most vivid section, but alas, I found it the least convincing.
Without wanting to give too much away, I must say I found the last section a bit implausible—it depended too much on coincidence, of people being in just the right place at the right, if unlikely, time. When Something Bad Happens and Madeleine turns to Mitchell for comfort and support, her family contentedly invites this young man to take up residence in their home, no questions asked. Unrealistic, it seemed as though the author was trying to quickly tie up the loose ends.
Even with the unfortunate David Foster Wallace echoes, and Eugenides’ apparent discomfort with his subject matter, I was willing to be captured by the book. I hoped too that Eugenides would manage to do what he set out to do, which was to write a “marriage plot” novel for the modern day, and to do it without his tongue firmly in his cheek. Alas, Eugenides seemed to keep catching glimpses of himself in the literary mirror, become shy of what he was doing and feel the need to remind us of how clever he is. This happens quite frequently in the beginning of the book when he’s constantly referencing deconstructionist writers, and then again, at the very end of the book when it becomes undeniably meta-fiction.
It felt as though Eugenides was begging his reader not to get the wrong idea—he wouldn’t do something so simple-minded, so unsophisticated as write a flat-out love story. No, this was more than that, more intellectual, more edgy, far cleverer. Alas, when clever stomps in, compassion most often slips out the back door.
Part of the problem is that from the vantage point of the present day, contrary to what 1970s and ’80s English department academics insisted would happen, the novels of Jane Austen, Henry James, et al. are surviving very well, thank you. Perhaps the end of a present day love story isn’t the altar, but surely a satisfying tale can still be told by having the characters come together in a similarly fulfilling way, one that represents what the altar once represented. The nature of the human story doesn’t really change very much, I don’t think. Certainly the rights of Western women may have made a profitable marriage unnecessary, and the social norms of Western society may not require either a clerical or a legal blessing on a union (although the LGBT community may disagree about that), but the desire for romantic love, companionship and family are no less alluring. Shying away from that so self-consciously seems a pity. Turning what might have been a terrific, contemporary literary love story into meta-fiction seems a shame.
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