Tuesday, October 25, 2011

"The Marriage Plot" by Jeffrey Eugenides

Jeffrey Eugenides is part of a triumvirate of writers that includes, Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace.  Wallace is the fair-haired boy of the literary world at the moment, whose writing is dazzling, hilarious, and profound.  Sadly, he committed suicide not long ago.  Eugenides was working on "The Marriage Plot" when Wallace died.  Franzen won notoriety when he declined to be Oprah's book of the month after she dubbed "The Corrections" a good read, as indeed it is.  He later thought better of his petulance, but he wanted to make it clear that his novel was "literary," not "popular."  Eugnides' "Middlesex" won the Pulitzer Prize, but he hadn't published a novel in about ten years.  "The Marriage Plot" is his new novel, and it is wonderful.

I'm sorry to be so vague, but I neglected to note the author of an article in the NYRB or the TLS or wherever I read it, so I will have to paraphrase what I remember.  The basic argument was that these "new realists" do not produce serious literature because they eschew the theoretical "advances" (my word) of contemporary literary criticism, ie., deconstruction, queer theory, post-modernism, gender theory, Marxism, and so on.  That these young(ish) writers still take seriously such 19th c. elements as plot, realistic description and character development, and the historical context of the action is seen to be a failure of imagination as well as style.

Another British writer from an older generation, A.S. Byatt, is also condemned for the same "crimes."  Too much realism, too much history, too many "real" characters, too much plot.  For the record, I believe Byatt's "The Children's Book" to be perhaps the best novel in English since "Middlemarch."  I couldn't believe my eyes when I read in the aforementioned article that Byatt's writing is execrable.  Byatt is nothing less than brilliant, and "The Children's Book" is the product of a lifetime of learning and deep reflection.  I don't see how she could follow it with anything near the same level of accomplishment.  We shall see.

I bring Byatt into the discussion because of the comparison drawn between her and these young American writers, whose work may have different historical and social roots but whose approach to writing is similar.  Of course, I am expressing my own preference for realism, but I believe realism in fiction to be more than a personal quirk.  I believe a defense of realism can be made that recognizes its philosophical and moral seriousness, its humanity, and its repudiation of faddish literary trends that are smug in their difficulty, exclusive in their audience, and dissociated from ordinary life.

"The Marriage Plot" tells the story of three friends, students at Brown in the 1980s.  Madeleine is the daughter of an upper-middle-class family, with intellectual parents and a sophisticated lifestyle.  Leonard is essentially David Foster Wallace.  He is brilliant but troubled, a scientist not in control of his own mind, who cannot love without doing damage.  Mitchell is Eugenides, the "good boyfriend" that Madeleine's parents wish she would marry.  He majors in Religious Studies and searches the world for enlightenment, just as Eugenides did.  Madeleine eventually marries Leonard, with disastrous consequences, just like a willful but loveable Trollopian heroine.  These are broad strokes; none of these characters is as simple as I have described them.

Is marriage still a viable plot device in the 21st century?  Now that divorce is easy and acceptable, do decisions about whom to marry not matter enough to warrant a whole novel?  Eugenides suggests that, yes, they do matter--profoundly.  He also recognizes that love is not rational nor even necessarily in one's best interests.  His plot may echo those of the great 19th c. novels, whose plots were almost always about marriage and money, but he brings it up to date with his very recognizable 20th c. characters.  They are definitely of their time; they are also emblematic of an elemental aspect of human life: relationship.  Whether it's marriage or a love affair or a friendship, the way people relate to each other is important and often problematic.  It is the stuff of life, and Eugenides makes no apologies for that.

He also explicitly rejects the whole post-modernist, deconstructionist, New Critical approach to literature.  His satire of Madeleine's and Leonard's English professor is a treat.

"Zipperstein was in a lively mood.  He'd just returned from a conference in New York, dressed differently than usual.  Listening to him talk about the paper he'd given at the New School, Madeleine suddenly understood.  Semiotics was the form Zipperstein's midlife crisis had taken.  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." (48)

Here is Mitchell's description of Madeleine: "In Madeleine's face was a stupidity Mitchell had never seen before.  It was the stupidity of all normal people.  It was the stupidity of the fortunate and beautiful, of everybody who got what they wanted in life and so remained unremarkable." (77)  But Mitchell is wrong about Madeleine, at least at this point in the novel.  He is in love with her, but he underrates her.  She is an English major because she loves to read.  The list of books she has devoured and relished is impressive for one so young, and her ambition is to go to Yale graduate school.  She ends up at Princeton.  She sees things for what they are (mostly) and believes a book should be harder for the author to write than for the reader to read.  "They [the Zippersteins of the world] wanted to demote the author.  They wanted a *book*, that hard-won, transcendent thing, to be a *text*, contingent, indeterminate, and open for suggestions.  They wanted the reader to be the main thing.  Because *they* were readers." (42)  Whoever it was who wrote the article I'm responding to (if I were a better person, I'd make an effort to find it) will have none of this.  He fumes and sputters and attempts to appear a wise judge, but his criticisms ring shrill to my ear.

I believe that literature is a source of wisdom and comfort; it provides, at its best, a guide to life.  Good writing and good thinking go together, and being deliberately obscure is not only insulting to the ordinary intelligent reader, it is the expression of introverted, solipsistic thought.  The academy is not the natural home of the writer--or the reader.  The imposition of a scientistic framework upon an art is truckling to the economics of institutions.  Physics is difficult, so, by gum, literature has to be difficult too.  Chaucer's, Shakespeare's, Tolstoy's, George Eliot's works were not written to befuddle but to shed light, to show the deepest truths of life to actual people who want to live it fully.  Madeleine knows this, even as she is led astray by romantic idealism a la Dorothea Brooke.  She may be at times misguided, just as Dorothea is--the reader wants to shout out to them, "Don't do it!"--but like Dorothea she is intelligent, well-intentioned, and capable of deep feeling and self-sacrifice.  She is "ordinary," but she is fully human and mentally healthy--not such a bad thing to be.

"The Marriage Plot" is a good read; I found it a real page-turner.  But if that makes it sound superficial, you misunderstand me.  Great literature--to me--is what pulls you in and holds you rapt, while delivering more than you expected and expanding your mind and heart.

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