Friday, December 16, 2011

Goodbye to all that or, The Marriage Plot (2011)

Title: The Marriage Plot
Author: Jeffrey Eugenides
Publisher: FSG
LCC: PS3555.U4 M37 2011
Price: $15.49

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself-Well...How did I get here?

-Talking Heads

Or not.

Not too long ago, I filed the paperwork to get my Ph.D. in English. It was an anticlimatic event. I went to the basement of the administration building, walked into grad division, and turned in half a dozen or so forms that stated that I was now fit to be called Dr. ASK with all the rights and privileges thereto pertaining. The man behind the front counter quietly examined my paperwork and when he was done he stoically wished me congratulations. For the sake of catharsis, I decided to ring the bell on the counter. It brought me a slight thrill but the man behind the counter looked annoyed. Some months later now I find my job prospects a bit dim and I'm sure the Stoic behind the counter is till gainfully employed. This is not another post imploring the young to skip out on grad school. No, this a post on Jeffrey Eugenides's new novel The Marriage Plot. I mention my own situation because I find that his characters, all recent BAs who are strong candidates for graduate study, remind me of myself and yet seem so distant from where I am right now in my life. And like any good reader of realist fiction, I cannot help but wonder what they should do. Should they make the same mistake choice that I did?

This of course is not the immediate question that Eugenides sets out to answer for himself. Rather, the question he poses is this: After feminism and postmodernism, is the 19th-century marriage plot still a viable vehicle for telling stories? At one point, Eugenides has a character, a crusty English professor stretch the point even further. As the narrator tells us: 
In Saunders's opinion, the novel had reached its apogee with the marriage plot and had never recovered from its disappearance. In the days when success i life had depended on marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had had a subject to write about. . . Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel.
Again, can we have modern love and the Victorian novel today? The nature of the question seems to be a sea change for Eugenides. His first novel, The Virgin Suicides (1998), told the tragic story of the Lisbon girls. While committed to mimetic fidelity the novel also reflected a postmodern epistemology. The boys narrating the story obsesses over the minutia of the Lisbon girls' lives, but they are incapable of formulating any coherent narrative about their successive suicides. While postmodern literary theory is something that Eugenides new characters talk about, its hardly an influence on the construction of the novel. The Marriage Plot ventures out into Franzen-like realist territory, ditching the postmodern epistemological question altogether.

With this in mind, Eugenides gives readers a classic romantic triangle. At the center is Madeline Hanna, the privileged daughter of academic Brahmins. Her family is so WASP-y that they all have names that sound like they came from an Elvish naming dictionary. An English major in love with Victorian literature, Maddy finds that life becomes decidedly more complicated when she takes an upper-division class in theory. This class acts as more than a nod to the setting: Brown University in the early 1980s. It also marks a break in Maddy's intellectual and romantic life. Although she resists theory (get it? get it?), reading De Man, Derrida, and particularly Barthes alters her simple appreciation of romantic literature.

The class also introduces her to Leonard Bankhead, her chief romantic interest throughout the novel. Bankhead's family is of "old Portland" stock and like a lot of old families they are both financially-strapped and dysfunctional in a Byzantine sort of way. However, what Bankhead lacks in financial resources, he makes up in other ways. Leonard is good looking, charismatic, and brilliant.  He bats out twenty page papers on his typewriter with such grace and clarity that he is an ace student in both his philosophy and biology classes. However, the same things that make Bankhead brilliant also make him a deeply flawed character. Leonard has a Promethean sense of superiority and his sparks of manic brilliance are more set off by deep and profound depressive episodes.

Enter Bankhead's rival: Mitchell Grammaticus. Mitchell is a religious seeker, a youthful devotee of Franny and Zooey who hopes to see Christ in the fat lady even though he feels cynically toward most people. Unlike Leonard, Mitchell lacks the mojo to seal the deal. Mitchell and Maddy were once on the precipice of becoming romantically involved, but unsure of himself Mitchell blows it. He quickly finds himself an unwilling friend and his love for her sours into resentment. After graduation, Mitchell decides to trek through Europe and help Mother Theresa in India, partly to avoid the Regan recession and partly on a religious quest. Despite his seeking, he can't seem to help how he feels for Maddy.

Of course, while the triangle is classic there are other elements which are contemporary. Characters have sex before marriage and these scenes are described in full, if not pornographic, detail. Furthermore, the novel breaks from the typical Victorian novel in that it has three different perspectives. This makes the novel seem a little lazy in terms of plotting. At first, episodes alternate from those that focus on Maddy to those that focus on Mitchell. Only much later in the novel, do we have any focus on Leonard other than as the object of Maddy's affection. Given the fact that Maddy falls hard for Leonard early in the novel, the effect of this plotting seems to suggest that, in due time, we will find Maddy and Mitchell in each others arms. However, Eugenides manages to make the marriage plot work for him on modern terms. He lets us think that we're getting the easy romantic story that we're used to--romantic love will conquer all and Mitchell and Maddy will fall in love--and we enjoy it while it's happening. But he also puts a modern twist on this, giving us just enough novelty to show that the marriage plot itself offers some new possibilities and that the novel isn't dead yet after all.

But I know what you're thinking. None of this matters. The real question is should they go to grad school? In a recent interview, Eugenides suggested that there was something special about where his characters were in their lives. He said that they were adults, fully formed, but that they were still malleable enough that books could be profound to them. Maddy's life is changed when she reads Roland Barthes The Lover's Discourse and Mitchell devours theology and religious testimonies. I know just how much literature changed my life when I was in college. I even took up a religious studies double major because Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that if you wanted to write you needed to know more than just literature. In grad school, that relationship to literature became obviously more complicated, but I'm glad that it did get more complicated and that I got to read so much more than I had before.

So, should they go?

I don't know. Maddy, probably. She's got the connections and by the end of the novel, a publication.

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