Excerpted from “The Marriage Plot” by Jeffrey Eugenides.
Semiotics 211 was limited to ten students. Of the ten, eight had taken Introduction to Semiotic Theory. This was visually apparent at the first class meeting. Lounging around the seminar table, when Madeleine came into the room from the wintry weather outside, were eight people in black T-shirts and ripped black jeans. A few had razored off the necks or sleeves of their T-shirts. There was something creepy about one guy’s face—it was like a baby’s face that had grown whiskers—and it took Madeleine a full minute to realize that he’d shaved off his eyebrows. Everyone in the room was so spectral-looking that Madeleine’s natural healthiness seemed suspect, like a vote for Reagan. She was relieved, therefore, when a big guy in a down jacket and snowmobile boots showed up and took the empty seat next to her. He had a cup of take-out coffee.
Zipperstein asked the students to introduce themselves and explain why they were taking the seminar.
The boy without eyebrows spoke up first. “Um, let’s see. I’m finding it hard to introduce myself, actually, because the whole idea of social introductions is so problematized. Like, if I tell you that my name is Thurston Meems and that I grew up in Stamford, Connecticut, will you know who I am? O.K. My name’s Thurston and I’m from Stamford, Connecticut. I’m taking this course because I read Of Grammatology last summer and it blew my mind.” When it was the turn of the boy next to Madeleine, he said in a quiet voice that he was a double major (biology and philosophy) and had never taken a semiotics course before, that his parents had named him Leonard, that it had always seemed pretty handy to have a name, especially when you were being called to dinner, and that if anyone wanted to call him Leonard he would answer to it.
Leonard didn’t make another comment. During the rest of the class, he leaned back in his chair, stretching out his long legs. After he finished his coffee, he dug into his right snowmobile boot and, to Madeleine’s surprise, pulled out a tin of chewing tobacco. With two stained fingers, he placed a wad of tobacco in his cheek. For the next two hours, every minute or so, he spat, discreetly but audibly, into the cup.
Every week Zipperstein assigned one daunting book of theory and one literary selection. The pairings were eccentric if not downright arbitrary. (What did Saussure’s Writings in General Linguistics, for instance, have to do with Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49?) As for Zipperstein himself, he didn’t run the class so much as observe it from behind the one-way mirror of his opaque personality. He hardly said a word. He asked questions now and then to stimulate discussion, and often went to the window to gaze in the direction of Narragansett Bay, as if thinking about his wooden sloop in dry dock.
The Marriage Plot
By Jeffrey Eugenides
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 416 pages
Three weeks into the course, on a February day of flurries and gray skies, they read Zipperstein’s own book, The Making of Signs, along with Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams.
It was always embarrassing when professors assigned their own books. Even Madeleine, who found all the reading hard going, could tell that Zipperstein’s contribution to the field was reformulative and second-tier.
Everyone seemed a little hesitant when talking about The Making of Signs, so it was a relief when, after the break, they turned to the literary selection.
“So,” Zipperstein asked, blinking behind his round wire-rims. “What did you make of the Handke?”
After a short silence, Thurston spoke up. “The Handke was totally dank and depressing,” he said. “I loved it.”
Thurston was a sly-looking boy with short, gelled hair. His eyebrowlessness, along with his pale complexion, gave his face a superintelligent quality, like a floating, disembodied brain.
“Care to elaborate?” Zipperstein said.
“Well, Professor, here’s a subject dear to my heart—offing yourself.” The other students tittered as Thurston warmed to his topic. “It’s purportedly autobiographical, this book. But I’d contend, with Barthes, that the act of writing is itself a fictionalization, even if you’re treating actual events.”
Bart. So that was how you pronounced it. Madeleine made a note, grateful to be spared humiliation.
Meanwhile Thurston was saying, “So Handke’s mother commits suicide and Handke sits down to write about it. He wants to be as objective as possible, to be totally—remorseless!” Thurston stifled a smile. He aspired to be a person who would react to his own mother’s suicide with high-literary remorselessness, and his soft, young face lit up with pleasure. “Suicide is a trope,” he announced. “Especially in German literature. You’ve got The Sorrows of Young Werther. You’ve got Kleist. Hey, I just thought of something.” He held up a finger. “The Sorrows of Young Werther.” He held up another finger. “A Sorrow Beyond Dreams. My theory is that Handke felt the weight of all that tradition and this book was his attempt to break free.”
“How do you mean ‘free’?” Zipperstein said.
“From the whole Teutonic, Sturm-und-Drang, suicidal thing.”
The flurries swirling outside the windows looked like either flakes of soap or flash of ash, like something either very clean or very dirty.
“The Sorrows of Young Werther is an apt reference,” Zipperstein said. “But I think that’s more the translator’s doing than Handke’s. In German the book’s called Wunschloses Unglück.”
Thurston smiled, either because he was pleased to be receiving Zipperstein’s full attention or because he thought German sounded funny.
“It’s a play on a German saying, wunschlos glücklich, which means being happier than you could ever wish for. Only here Handke makes a nice reversal. It’s a serious and strangely wonderful title.”
“So it means being unhappier than you could ever wish for,” Madeleine said.
Zipperstein looked at her for the first time.
“In a sense. As I said, something is lost in translation. What was your take?”
“On the book?” Madeleine asked, and immediately realized how stupid this sounded. She fell silent, the blood beating in her ears.
People blushed in nineteenth-century English novels but never in contemporary Austrian ones.
Before the silence became uncomfortable, Leonard came to her rescue. “I have a comment,” he said. “If I was going to write about my mother’s suicide, I don’t think I’d be too concerned about being experimental.” He leaned forward, putting his elbows on the table. “I mean, wasn’t anybody put off by Handke’s so-called remorselessness? Didn’t this book strike anyone as a tad cold?”
“Better cold than sentimental,” Thurston said.
“Do you think? Why?”
“Because we’ve read the sentimental, filial account of a cherished dead parent before. We’ve read it a million times. It doesn’t have any power anymore.”
“I’m doing a little thought experiment here,” Leonard said. “Say my mother killed herself. And say I wrote a book about it. Why would I want to do something like that?” He closed his eyes and leaned his head back. “First, I’d do it to cope with my grief. Second, maybe to paint a portrait of my mother. To keep her alive in my memory.”
“And you think your reaction is universal,” Thurston said. “That because you’d respond to the death of a parent a certain way, that obligates Handke to do the same.”
“I’m saying that if your mother kills herself it’s not a literary trope.”
Madeleine’s heart had quieted now. She was listening to the discussion with interest.
Thurston was nodding his head in a way that somehow didn’t suggest agreement. “Yeah, O.K.,” he said. “Handke’s real mother killed herself. She died in a real world and Handke felt real grief or whatever. But that’s not what this book’s about. Books aren’t about ‘real life.’ Books are about other books.” He raised his mouth like a wind instrument and blew out bright notes. “My theory is that the problem Handke was trying to solve here, from a literary standpoint, was how do you write about something, even something real and painful—like suicide—when all of the writing that’s been done on that subject has robbed you of any originality of expression?”
What Thurston was saying seemed to Madeleine both insightful and horribly wrong. It was maybe true, what he said, but it shouldn’t have been.
“ ‘Popular literature,’ ” Zipperstein quipped, proposing an essay title. “ ‘Or, How to Beat a Dead Horse.’ ”
A spasm of mirth traveled through the class. Madeleine looked over to see that Leonard was staring at her. When the class ended, he gathered up his books and left.
Excerpted from “The Marriage Plot,” a novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, published in October 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2011 by Jeffrey Eugenides. All rights reserved.