The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

I should probably send already-confirmed fans of Roland Barthes directly to a review by The Marriage Plot‘s ideal reader, the inimitable Sasha.

For those of you left, the equally unique Tony of Tony’s Book World may speak to you and about “enormously self-entitled, perhaps typical 1980s college graduates.”

They both have good points to make, so go, go to them.

Now that I am talking mostly to myself, I will share a secret.

The title of the book is something of a giveaway. The characters, like Eugenides, lament the loss of “the marriage plot” in the English novel. Things haven’t been the same since Mr. Darcy was captured, er…convinced. In the 21st Century, marriage is less defining and tends toward the temporary, and, thus, loses its power as the most important decision of a character’s life. Do-overs, after all, are the antithesis of good sport.

While social changes have dramatically lowered the stakes of pre-marital maneuvering, I do not believe that those social changes have ruined the novel. Though I am not the ideal Jane Austen reader, I have very much enjoyed those novels of hers I have read. The marriage plot is good; Austen handled it superbly. The marriage plot is crucial to other of my favorites like Anna Karenina and Age of Innocence. But it is irrelevant in the vast majority of more recent greats, and this is a good thing. The novel may work well when the choice of spouse is both central and the most important factor in making or breaking a life, but creating that importance has always been artificial. However romantic the ideal of a single mate for life, humans are not swans. Artificially limiting life that way (rather, attempting to, as very few are the swans among us) also artificially limits the novel. In other words, I do not share Eugenides’ complaint.

More importantly, Eugenides demonstrates that the marriage plot is not really dead. Who one marries, or doesn’t, still matters. That fact shows up in works from Urquhart’s The Underpainter* to Franzen’s Freedom. In fact, it is a little silly to mourn the passing of the marriage plot when Freedom, one of the most anticipated books (along with this one) of the past decade, turned in crucial ways on “the marriage plot”. Granted, Franzen focused much more attention on the aftermath rather than the choosing, but that is all to the good. The meat of life is often still served after the choice of spouse, no matter how easily revocable, is made.

The Marriage Plot involves three principal characters. You probably know from the title, what I have said, and other reviews that there are two men, one woman, and a choice to be made. Sort of. Madeleine is the woman. Like the others, she is a student at Brown University, Eugenides’ alma mater. Mitchell is a bright, sensitive, not-too-sexy guy who at least thinks he is in love with Madeleine. Leonard is David Foster Wallace in a parallel universe who, likewise, thinks he is in love with Madeleine.

That last point is disputed by Eugenides, but I think he is wrong and the “rumor” mongers are right. Let’s examine.

Similarities between Leonard and DFW pointed out by others:

1. “Leonard Bankhead is a philosophy double major who chews tobacco, wears a bandanna, disdains ironic detachment, and has a history of mental illness that has led to multiple hospitalizations — just like David Foster Wallace.” (Willa Paskin in Vulture)

2. “[L]ike Infinite Jest’s Hal Incandenza, [Leonard] Bankhead self-medicates through out high school with marijuana.” (Willa Paskin in Vulture)

3. “Leonard is also interested in subjects that interested Foster Wallace. One example: how the mind processes and understands time.” (Willa Paskin in Vulture)

4. Leonard circa 2011 channels DFW circa 1996: “Do you have my saliva? Because I can’t find mine right now.” vs. “Do you have my saliva? Somebody took my saliva, because I don’t have it.” (McNally Jackson Book Mongers)

5. Leonard and DFW are tall.

6. Leonard and DFW store their tobacco in their footwear: “Leonard putting the tobacco tin in his boot; Wallace used to put his tobacco tin in his sock.” (Eugenides in an interview with The Economist)

Eugenides disputes the “rumor”:

1. “Now people [(chiefly Eugenides, it seems to me)] are saying there are so many differences between [Leonard and David Foster Wallace], the basic one being that Wallace didn’t even have manic depression.” Eugenides in a Slate interview)

2. “Leonard’s parents are divorced, Wallace’s were not; Leonard is from Portland, Wallace was not; Leonard grew up very poor, Wallace did not; Leonard is a biologist, Wallace was not; Leonard gets married at 22, Wallace did not; Wallace was a writer with depression, a very different disease to manic depression. I could go on and on. If you look at the two of them, they are not very alike.” (Eugenides in an interview with The Economist)

I think when one of your top six points in differentiating your character from the purported model is that they do not share a home town, you lose. I will grant that Leonard Bankhead is not David Foster Wallace simply dropped into a Eugenides novel. He is, however, an alternative-universe version of David Foster Wallace. Which is one way of saying they are not at all the same person, but another way of saying they are.

As for the narrative, Leonard is much more engaging as a character than either Madeleine or Mitchell. Madeleine, while a realistic portrait of an attractive English major in the 1980s, does not have the distinctiveness of Leonard. She seems more like an everywoman whereas Leonard is much more unique (you know, just like DFW). As does Madeleine, Mitchell fades into an archetype more easily than his bigger, smarter, more attractive novel-mate.

I cannot say I liked Leonard much, though. Eugenides, wisely, does not do for manic-depression what Malcolm Lowry did for alcoholism, but there are long glimpses of the tedium both mania and depression visit on sufferers and those close to them. Leonard is a character at whom you want to throw medication while screaming: “Getter better, already!” That is part of the point. Manic-depressives do not yet just “get better”, they endure. Readers exposed to too much of their unfortunate disease can only do the same. Eugenides avoided that pain. His project, after all, is “the marriage plot” not “the bipolar plot”.

I haven’t said much about the plot because, despite Eugenides’ stance, the most interesting parts of the novel were Roland Barthes and the ways Leonard was like DFW. The less like DFW Leonard was, the less interesting the novel became. That undoubtedly says something about both me and the novel, not least that I was not its ideal reader (that is Sasha) nor its least ideal reader (maybe Tony?).

The other aspect I found particularly intriguing and which you probably will not was the cover. On first glance, it is pretty boring. The title and author’s name are in script (a new fad?) and they appear to be connected by a wedding band. Look closely though. That’s no wedding band, that’s a Mobius strip. Boom goes the dynamite.

Before going further, I should provide some sort of warning. At page 39 in the US hardcover edition,

Madeleine arrived back at college for her senior year…intent on being studious, career-oriented, and aggressively celibate. Casting a wide net, Madeleine sent away for applications to Yale grad school…, an organization for teaching English in China, and an advertisting internship…She studied for the GRE using a sample booklet. The verbal section was easy. The math required brushing up on her high school algebra. The logic problems, however, were a defeat to the spirit. ‘At the annual dancers’ ball a number of dancers performed their favorite dance with their favorite partners. Alan danced the tango, while Becky watched the waltz. James and Charlotte were fantastic together….[etc.].”

The warning: Alan tangoed with Jess, Keith and Laura danced the foxtrot, James and Charlotte waltzed, and Simon and Becky performed the rumba. (To be a little clearer, I am the sort of person who feels a compulsion to solve a logic problem presented to me or to a fictional character on a fictional GRE.)

Mobius strips are strange things. They are a surface with only one side. If you cut them down the middle (of the surface), the Mobius strip morphs into a loop twice as long (and half as wide) with two twists. The wedding band-like example on the cover of Eugenides’ novel would, it appears, have a roughly square cross-section. This made me wonder, did it matter which side you treated as the surface and which the edge? I thought it might and that splitting the “edge” might produce two linked Mobius strips rather than a longer loop. I couldn’t manipulate the thing in my mind to any degree of satisfaction, but realized that I could model it by making a Mobius strip the thickness of two strips of paper (by cutting two identical strips, placing them on top of one another, making the half twist and taping the “top” and the “bottom” separately). After making this two-sheets thick Mobius strip, I would be able to separate the two pieces of paper and see what happens. I did. You end up with a single loop, twice as long with two twists.

It seems to me the topological properties of a Mobius strip are the same whether you treat the surface as the flat “side” or the “edge”. I could be completely wrong.

Athough I found this interesting, it seems to have nothing to do with the book. Any further attempts at drawing parallels ended in futility. My cursory attempt to find a linkage to Escher (with his staircases and ant-traveled Mobius strips) produced similar results. The cover seems a curiosity, nothing more. The most reasonable link is that this is the traditional marriage plot (a wedding band) with a twist. That’s a let-down. The only other link I could find is that Mobius strips are strange and DFW’s literary relationship with Eugenides and Franzen is strange.

The interior is more than mere curiosity, but not sufficiently more that I have any inclination to press it into the hands of passersby. Given my preference for A Visit From the Goon Squad over Freedom, it seems I do not agree with Franzen and Eugenides on the proper “cure” for the demise of the novel. I do not want an updated Austen. They are two superb writers, but I prefer J.M. Coetzee and Junot Diaz and Toni Morrison, each of whom has breathed something fresh into the novel in ways Eugenides’ and Franzen’s latest efforts do not.

I expect The Marriage Plot to manage reasonably well in the early rounds of the TOB, but I cannot see this as the winner. It is vulnerable to Swamplandia!, The Art of Fielding, and Cat’s Table just in its own bracket. A Final Four appearance would be an achievement.

*Yes, I am mentioning The Underpainter again in the hopes that one more person will read it; make me happy.

[ed. 3/16/2012: Links fixed.]

12 Responses to The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

  1. anokatony says:

    Thanks, you and Sasha have set me off thinking about which novel I am the ideal reader for. It certainly wasn’t ‘The Marriage Plot’.
    I’ve also added ‘The Underpainter’ to my TBR list.

    • Kerry says:

      Thank you, Tony. I had many of the same problems with the novel you did. I also wanted to note Sasha’s review because she made good points about what worked for her which, together, I think give a good idea of who will enjoy this novel. You and Sasha both have impeccable taste and it was interesting to me, though not surprising given my own conflicted reactions, how differently you reacted to The Marriage Plot.

      Also, thanks for at least considering The Underpainter. It is one of the great recommendations I have gotten from Kevin From Canada. I am starting to annoy myself I bang on about it so much, but Urquhart is good and I think it will be much more to your taste than this one (not least because it does have the perspective you recommend for Eugenides in your review of The Marriage Plot).

  2. I think I’d have to say that a novel that sent you off constructing Mobius strips because of the cover and solving the logic problems from a college class was hardly “gripping”. And I’d have to extend that observation to include that any novel which evolves into a debate on whether or not a character is a representation of the incredibly over-hyped DFW probably has internal issues (i.e. it isn’t very interesting).

    I had similar problems with this book. I kept wanting it to be good (and parts of it certainly were) and then it would wander off into some tedious self-indulgent sidetrack. You were kind enough (I presume) to not even address the Mitchell-in-India section, my least favorite part of the book.

    I’m still glad that I read it — I suspect that if Eugenides did not have such an established reputation and an editor could have had an impact, there is a quite good novel inside here somewhere. As for the ToB, I’m with you — I take both The Cat’s Table and The Art of Fielding over this one (haven’t read Swamplandia, but I suspect I’d prefer Eugenides to it).

    • Kerry says:

      Kevin,

      You are absolutely right. The fact that the DFW controversy (he definitely is over-hyped, no matter how good) is more interesting than the novel itself is a problem. My cover art digression is also not a good sign.

      I completely agree that parts were very good, but it did wander off and seemed to lose focus. The Mitchell-in-India section was my least favorite part of the book too.

      Re-reading your review (<a href="http://kevinfromcanada.wordpress.com/2011/11/25/the-marriage-plot-by-jeffrey-eugenides/"highly recommended) and the comments, I see others thought the second half better than the first. Also, it strikes me that those of us who have read Middlesex (and/or, maybe, The Virgini Suicides) seem to be more disappointed than those who haven’t previously read anything by Eugenides. This suggests expectations may play a part in reactions. (I note that you thought your own expectations were raised by the first half only to be let down by the second, an experience I shared.)

      All in all, a good book but not a great one (also said in your comments). Readable, but hardly necessary.

  3. Amy says:

    Love the Mobius strip! I hadn’t caught that, thought it was just a wedding ring. I didn’t love this book, although I wanted to. Parts were good, but parts were overwritten with far more detail than we needed. I don’t see it making it too far in the ToB either.

    • Kerry says:

      Thanks for the comment, Amy. Seems we had very similar reactions. I only noticed the Mobius strip after I had finished the book and it was sitting on the desk. It turned out to be mostly a red herring, if you ask me (another edition has three wedding bands linked together). A “twist” on the tradition marriage plot is, I do think, what the artist was going for. Fair, but not particularly exciting.

  4. Michelle says:

    This is an awesome review of the book, which I haven’t read yet. I will. I suspect. It’s one of those books that at some point everyone reads. But I’ll probably be slow about it.

    But I did want to say that I share your enthusiasm for The Underpainter. Such a great book. I’d like to reread it soon.

    • Kerry says:

      Thank you very, very much for sharing your enthusiasm for The Underpainter. It is definitely a book that will reward a re-read.

      I will be curious to see what you think of The Marriage Plot when you do get to it. It definitely has some strengths and, at least for some, the strengths carry the day.

      Thanks for the comment!

  5. Sarah says:

    I have thought and thought, but I cannot come up with an objective reason why Eugenides should not model a character on DFW. But I wonder if he can come up with a good reason why he should?

    Subjectively I find the notion deeply unpleasant, intrusive and disrespectful. AS Byatt does a similar thing in The Children’s Book, and blackens the names of several historical figures on the basis of no proof that I can find. I don’t subscribe to any kind of enforced censorship, but freedom of speech implies a need for self-governance: responsibility and sensitivity.

    On a more positive note, given the relative warmth of your respective reveiws I would be much more likely to purchase The Underpainter than I would The Marriage Plot :)

    As for the TOB, my mercenary resolutions have given up the ghost. I could not be seen to back a novel that has incurred my moral disapproval!

    • Kerry says:

      I cannot say I have an objection to authors modelling characters on actual people (living or dead). It is a bit of a necessity to some extent, write what you know and all. But there certainly are categories that work well (Wolf Hall) and categories that maybe don’t (The Marriage Plot).

      Just an off-the-cuff surmise:

      Long dead is generally fine.

      Living or recently dead is okay if you know them well and, basically, are writing autobiography. de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins fits in here.

      But mere acquaintances who are recently dead seems a little less correct.

      Of course, I have some sympathy for the hypothesis that Eugenides did not explicitly set out to put a version of DFW into his book, but began with a vague DFW-like idea. Then, he filled in details that seemed right and, behold, the details were very much like DFW. Just a hypothesis, but, given his denials, it seems possible.

      Anyway, I was not offended by it. It is just a little weird and distracting, because it is not DFW, but is so much an alt-universe version of DFW that I, at least, had a hard time not thinking of DFW while reading about Leonard. And I don’t even know much about the guy other than by reputation. (And maybe that’s why they seem so close. Maybe if I knew him better, I would see more differences. (Tobacco in a sock vs. in a boot and somebody took their saliva? Really?)

      Enough about that. You undoubtedly have a TBR full of topnotch fiction (I am nearly always jealous of what great books you are reading), but I did love The Underpainter. KfC gets the credit, but when I receive a great recommendation, the least I can do is pass it along. If you do read it, I will be very interested in hearing your impressions.

  6. ttwsglen says:

    I’ve been waiting to read your review until I finished the book myself and found that I largely agree.

    You’re spot on about Leonard as DFW. I don’t get why Eugenides is in such (public) denial. Of course Leonard isn’t DFW, but DFW was certainly an influence. Let’s accept it and move on from there. I really don’t see it as detracting from the book.

    I did sympathize with Leonard’s struggles with mental health and somewhat with Mitchell’s spiritual quest. That sort of thing doesn’t seem to be done much in novels these days and I identified with Mitchell’s character in general, so Eugenides had me on board there. I also think he tied the book up rather nicely in the final page. All in all, it’s not a terrible book, but I can’t imagine it would get such accolades if it came from an author of lesser fame.

    For me, it’s Madeleine’s shallowness (whether it was deliberate or intentional on the part of Eugenides) that does the book in. While the men are in the midst of real struggles, Madeleine just kind of passively coasts along on her relationships with the men (Leonard, Mitchell, and Dad) in her life. It was quite unexpected since I knew the book was supposed to be about adapting the marriage plot to the feminist age.

    I think the second round Marriage Plot/Art of Fielding TOB matchup will be interesting. Both are about college life and the threat of the unknown post-college world. Both feature intellectual college students. Both have love triangles of sorts. Both have a relatively traditional narrative style. Both feature a daughter of a college president as the major female character.

    For many reasons, Art of Fielding just knocks Marriage Plot out of the park. The female character comparison is just one of the reasons why, but it’s worth considering. Pella is better developed and has more individual agency than Madeleine. And this is while the subject of Fielding is more masculine-oriented and Pella makes some traditionally feminine choices throughout her life. Meanwhile, Eugenides’ previous novels (that I haven’t read), reputation, and stated goals in writing this book would lead you to think his female character would be the stronger one.

    Anyone else feel the same way?

    Can we expect an Art of Fielding review soon, Kerry?

    • Kerry says:

      As for expecting a stronger female character out of Eugenides, I definitely feel that way. Seems we are largely on agreement with respect to The Marriage Plot.

      On The Art of Fielding, I will be reading it when my number comes up at the library, if not sooner. I would prefer to read it before its second round matchup, at least. By reputation, I expect to enjoy it but not to love it. We shall see.

      (Green Girl and State of Wonder are next.)

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