The Marriage Plot | Jeffrey Eugenides
It is a matter of some embarrassment for a reviewer to review a book about other books. Who would blame a reader standing outside this pile-on of literary self-consciousness for taking one look at it and then backing away fast? The rare example to which this does not apply is when the book itself is so good that it invites different kinds of readers to derive pleasure—different kinds of pleasure—and meaning from it.
There must be some readers who will find things to adore about Jeffrey Eugenides’ third novel, of course, but this does not preclude reviewer embarrassment. The Marriage Plot takes off on the 19th century English convention of books centred around the expectations and practice of marriage. “The marriage plot” is tired critical shorthand for the mechanics of novels by writers ranging from Jane Austen to Henry James, in which the most interesting stories are about women choosing husbands, or living with the choice of husband they make. The Marriage Plot, announcing its topography in its title, is a story about a relatively modern love triangle and its three human corners attempting to live with their romantic decisions.
Canvas: Brown University, a backdrop in the novel. In Brown classrooms, sohomores will constantly come and go, talking of Michael Foucault. Photo: Chensiyua
In some ways, Eugenides seems like the best candidate among his male American contemporaries to take up this premise. His acclaimed previous Middlesex, with its Greek-American transgender protagonist, was at its best when it looked at the fears and awkwardness of adolescence, of emotional uncertainty and transgression—all interesting components for a marriage novel. Indeed, much of Eugenides’ realism might please any Victorian reader with its high standards of exactitude and authorial compassion.
But looking back on the classics is a treacherous ambition. Will such a book boldly attempt to update an old-fashioned formula? Will it really try to take on some of the most popular literature ever written in English? It should go without saying that our current enjoyment of Austen or George Eliot is unrelated to the fact that marriage does not mean the same thing to us as it did to their 19th century readers. Their genius does not require us to condescend to the social boundaries of their novels, any more than watching an Akira Kurosawa film is an inferior experience if it is in black and white. No one has ever read Middlemarch thinking that it harks back to a simpler time.
Jeffrey Eugenides. Photo: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Bloomberg
Strangely, and perhaps intentionally, it is Eugenides’ novel which leads us to think of simpler times. It is a story about a time when college students had no Internet (no Facebook!), hipsters did not use that word to describe themselves, and Ivy League undergraduates did not think there was anything problematic about parachuting into India for a spot of volunteer tourism. The year is 1982, and Madeleine Hanna, “rich, handsome and clever”, but quite without Emma Woodhouse’s delicious self-regard, is graduating from Brown University. She has two serious suitors. She feels proprietary towards the geeky, awkward Mitchell Grammaticus but does not want him, and desperately loves the brainy, impoverished Leonard Bankhead, who seems emotionally unavailable. Over the following year, Madeleine discovers that she wants to be an academic studying Victorian literature, while Mitchell loses himself on a backpacking trip through Europe and Asia. By the end, all three will be heartbroken for a variety of reasons.
Eugenides lays out the progress of that year in loving detail, his gift for mimesis in full flow. Perhaps readers with a very good memory of what college romances were like will feel real sympathy for the quivering threads which bind its heroes and heroine. For others, unfortunately, it will be tedious. Worse, Eugenides’ postmodern flair for the interesting digression or sideshow, so much in evidence in Middlesex, does not succeed in creating a single memorable character outside the triangle here.
The novel’s touchstone, we come to realize, is not actually the 19th century English novel but the way in which it is academically processed. In Brown classrooms, sophomores will constantly come and go, talking of Michel Foucault. It is possible to write fiction about theory. But Eugenides’ mildly flippant framing of Madeleine’s love story with Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida, her lukewarm arguments with the intensity of deconstruction, make her seem boring and infantile (perhaps Eugenides slyly intends to confirm for us the wisdom of the Victorian adage that children should be seen and not heard).
The Marriage Plot: HarperCollins, 406 pages, Rs 399
The man-boys get more to do, unsurprisingly. But any sympathy we feel for the disoriented authorial stand-in, Mitchell, evaporates in a long section in which he backpacks into Calcutta and lands right in the middle of the poverty-spirituality-marijuana continuum. If Eugenides means this to reflect on 1982’s brand of patronizing cliches, he is very subtle about it indeed.
Less subtle is the uncanny resemblance that Leonard, the other suitor, bears to one of Eugenides’ own literary generation. The bandana-wearing, tobacco-chewing, manic-depressive Leonard is the subject of some of this novel’s keenest, most painful writing, but he has too much in common with the late David Foster Wallace for us to separate him from the brilliant young novelist and essayist whose own depression led him to suicide in 2008. Can there be such a thing as a roman à clef which didn’t happen in the real world?
Some of Eugenides’ better intentions break through all this trivia. He is occasionally acute as he fights, through his characters, to understand the recalibration of relationships and romance in a world where feminism has raised our expectations of men and women, and his final resolution for two of the three characters, like Darcy’s adieu to Elizabeth Bennet, is charity itself.
Eugenides is not one of those novelists who needs a reality check; his grasp of our emotional inadequacy and inarticulacy remains superb. Perhaps what he needed with this novel was a literary check; to crane his neck past A Lover’s Discourse and see Mansfield Park again: To see what the marriage plotters did with this knowledge to write novels which, two centuries later, still mean something to us.
In six words
Long on marriage, short on love.