The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

marriageplotAs the title confesses right up front, The Marriage Plot (FSG, 416 pages) is all plot, all 19th-century-style plot, with full biographical sketches and family histories for everyone who walks onstage for more than a few paragraphs to alter the action.  Which of the two men will Madeleine, English major and lover of Jane Austen and George Eliot,  end up with? Will it be Leonard, the big, broody sex-crazed boyfriend, a biology/philosophy double major? Or will it be Mitchell, the worshiping-from-afar religious studies student, whom Madeleine’s parents prefer?

Steadily, consistently, evenly throughout the novel, Eugenides presents us with clear, informative, vivid descriptions of typical nerdy students at Brown University in the 1980s, like this one from the opening scene:

In one motion Madeleine tore the pillow off her head and sat up in bed. She knew who was ringing the buzzer. It was her parents. She’d agreed to meet Alton and Phyllida for breakfast at 7:30. She’d made this plan with them two months ago, in April, and now here they were, at the appointed time, in their eager, dependable way.

The otherwise objective limited third-person point of view bears the trace of the daughter’s judgmental irritation with the words “appointed time, in their eager, dependable way.” This is a nice touch, something Eugenides does well throughout the narrative, as he switches among the perspectives of the novel’s three principal characters. Thus, the narration shifts slightly according to whose life is being described, but the narrator’s voice, with its thoroughness and clarity, is the prevailing one, as with most 19th-century novels. The differing perspectives never undermine each other.  This is not The Alexandria Quartet. 

Eugenides is capable of writing realistic and clever dialogue:

Mitchell opened up. He explained that he had arrived at college without knowing much about religion, and how, from reading English literature, he’d begun to realize how ignorant he was. The world had been formed by beliefs he knew nothing about. “That was the beginning,” he said, “realizing how stupid I was.”

“Yes, yes.” Richter nodded quickly. The head-bowing suggested personal experience with thought-tormented states. Richter’s head remained low, listening.

“I don’t know, one day I was just sitting there,” Mitchell went on, “and it hit me that almost every writer I was reading for my classes had believed in God. Milton, for starters. And George Herbert.” Did Professor Richter know George Herbert? Professor Richter did…. “So last summer I gave myself a reading list,” Mitchell said. “I read a lot of Thomas Merton. Merton got me into Saint John of the Cross and Saint John of the Cross got me into Meister Eckhart and The Imitation of Christ. Right now I’m reading The Cloud of Unknowing.

Richter waited a moment before asking, “Your search has been purely intellectual?”

He can draw comic stereotypes well:

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…..

“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.”

But Eugenides does not write literary fiction.  Although the novel is about literature, due mainly to the facts that classic “chick lit” plays a role in the plot and ’80s literary theory gets a good satirical thrashing. Rarely does Eugenides dare to use a metaphor or simile. When he does, it is not too bad, compared with the rather standard-issue narration that surrounds it.

Thurston was a sly-looking boy with short, gelled hair. His eyebrowslessness, along with his pale complexion, gave his face a superintelligent quality, like a floating disembodied brain.

But these good bits are too few and too far between.  Mostly it’s plot, unrolling like wallpaper, in detailed, but unpoetic, descriptions of actions, feelings and words.  I kept reading well beyond the point when I realized this was not the kind of novel I like, just as someone might keep watching 80s daytime television to find out what happens next. The Marriage Plot is a soap opera for English majors.

A good novel, to me, is better on second reading, when I can relish the language and getting to the end is not the point.  I don’t think soap operas go to re-runs, and I don’t see anyone reading this book twice, unless it’s to re-read the generous quotes from Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse that inspire Madeleine or quotes from Something Beautiful for God, a book about Mother Teresa’s work that inspires Mitchell. The beauty of these quotes just makes the novel’s language seem barren in comparison.

But I kept reading.

I should have looked up a summary of The Marriage Plot  to get the “reveal” without actually reading to the end.  For those optimistic, patient readers who may be wading into the first few chapters, hoping the celebrated author is going break into song at some point, let me just tell you what happens.

Leonard’s sexual attractiveness and intelligence, it turns out, are symptomatic of mania, and a severe depressive state soon follows. Madeleine tries to help Leonard deal with his illness. During a manic state, when he is attractive again, they marry, but the depression and unattractive behavior return.  Meanwhile, Mitchell travels to India and volunteers at Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying, but he can’t quite make himself be as good as he would like to be. Madeleine and Leonard end up getting their marriage annulled. It looks like Mitchell might get his dream woman, but after finally having sex with her for the first time, he decides she probably doesn’t need to get married again right away. Madeleine is better off concentrating on her master’s in Victorian literature at Columbia.

There.

So if you love language and don’t really care about plot, you can give up after a few chapters, without missing a thing.

The one part of The Marriage Plot  worth the time spent reading describes the experience of being a manic-depressive on lithium. I enjoyed reading these chapters for the information and insight they give. Apparently, the drug dulls the emotions:

Leonard could feel the huge tide of sadness waiting to rush over him, but there was an invisible barrier keeping the full reality of it from touching him. It was like squeezing a baggie full of water and feeling all the properties of the liquid without getting wet.

I don’t know if it’s accurate, but Eugenides’ description of manic-depressive personality is not flattering. It is certainly not Romantic. Too self-aware and accepting of his diagnosis, Leonard is no Heathcliff.

With this valiant effort to revive a really wonderful tradition of storytelling, Eugenides shows that he has the skill but lacks the artistry.

V. N. Alexander, author of Trixie, 2010

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