To start with, look at all the books. There were her Edith Wharton novels, arranged not by title but date of publication; there was the complete Modern Library set of Henry James, a gift from her father on her twenty-first birthday; there were the dog-eared paperbacks assigned in her college courses, a lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope, along with good helpings of Austen , George Eliot, and the redoubtable Brontë sisters. There was a whole lot of black-and-white New Directions paperbacks, mostly poetry by people like H.D. or Denise Levertov. There were the Colette novels she read on the sly. There was the first edition of Couples, belonging to her mother, which Madeleine had surreptitiously dipped into back in sixth grade and which she was using now to provide textual support in her English honors thesis on the marriage plot. There was, in short, this mid-sized but still portable library representing pretty much everything Madeleine had read in college, a collection of texts, seemingly chosen at random, whose focus slowly narrowed, like a personality test, a sophisticated one you couldn't trick by anticipating the implications of its questions and finally got so lost that your only recourse was to answer the simple truth. And then you waited for the result, hoping for "Artistic" or "Passionate," thinking you could live with "Sensitive," secretly fearing "Narcissistic" and "Domestic," but finally being presented with an outcome that cut both ways and made you feel different depending on the day, the hour, or the guy you happened to be dating: "Incurably Romantic."It's not just that this is an extremely well-written paragraph, engaging and compelling despite being, essentially, a list, nor that it sets up the novel's heroine (Madeleine), her personality (incurably romantic and ambivalent about this fact), her situation (college student), and the novel's preoccupations (books and romance) in a few short sentences. What's remarkable about this paragraph is how quickly and effectively it establishes The Marriage Plot as a novel for and about bibliophiles, even as it sets about making them feel welcome. It's a paragraph that captures the special relationship book-lovers have with their books--the way that some books have special significance because of the person who gave them to us, or the time of our life in which we discovered them, or for being a particularly handsome edition, or a guilty pleasure amidst a lot of required reading--and not only affirms the book-lover's conviction that the books we read are a meaningful reflection of our personality, but does so by using the books she reads to reflect its heroine's personality, even stressing that it has started with this personality test rather than any other introduction. And it's a paragraph that recognizes that next to reading itself, one of the chief pleasures of being a bibliophile is scanning other people's bookshelves. This is a novel, Eugenides seems to be telling us with his opening paragraph, in which we can do both at the same time.
Coming nearly a decade after Eugenides's previous novel, the Pulitzer-winning Middlesex, The Marriage Plot is, despite its long gestation, a less expansive, less freewheeling work than its predecessor. It is, nevertheless, an effortlessly readable novel, and one that bears out the promise of its opening sentences by being about books, reading, and how our preferences in both define us and reflect out personalities. As more and more characters are introduced by their reading preferences, however, the niggling suspicion aroused by the novel's opening solidifies into a genuine concern--that is an awfully old-fashioned library. Even taking into account Madeleine's scholarly preoccupations, or her incurable romanticism, the absence of any contemporary literature from her bookshelves (even Updike's Coupling is only there for reference) is jarring. Nor is Madeleine unique. The novel takes place in 1982 (something we wouldn't have been able to guess from our perusal of Madeleine's library), and yet the still-prominent great white men of American letters--Updike, Roth, Bellow, Mailer--rate only brief and rare mentions; the talked-about books of the day--this is a period in which authors like J.M. Coetzee, Peter Carey, Kingsley Amis, John Irving, and Ian McEwan were either kicking their careers off or in their prime--go unread by the novel's characters; genre fiction of any kind is entirely absent. If we were to take the fiction read by The Marriage Plot's characters (which is, admittedly, the smaller part of their reading; most of the characters read primarily nonfiction) as a guide, we would have to conclude that Western literature had stopped somewhere around the 1920s.
That this is in service of a scheme would be obvious even without the hint of the novel's title, but Eugenides makes his project clear when he explains why Madeleine's particular interest, the marriage plot--in which social realism is filtered through or reflected in a character's (usually a woman) search for a good mate--is an endangered, possibly extinct species.
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 in life had depended on marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had had a subject to write about. The great epics sang of war, the novel of marriage. Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely. What would it matter when Emma married if she could file for separation later? How would Isabel Archer's marriage to Gilbert Osmond have been affected by the existence of a prenup? As far as Saunders was concerned, marriage didn't mean much anymore, and neither did the novel. Where could you find the marriage plot nowadays? You couldn't. You had to read historical fiction. You had to read non-Western novels involving traditional societies. Afghani novels, Indian novels. You had to go, literarily speaking, back in time.Eugenides, then, is writing a novel that is both an attempt to port the marriage plot into modernity, and a story about a lover of marriage plots trying to justify her predilections in the face of a hostile literary scene. He therefore furnishes Madeleine not only with a pair of suitors--brilliant, manic-depressive science major Leonard, with whom she falls madly in love, and aimless spiritual seeker Mitchell, who is convinced that Madeleine is destined to be his wife but whom she thinks of only as a friend--but with a challenge to her literary sensibilities in the form of the burgeoning field of semiotics, which holds that texts are significant not as stories, with characters, themes, and morals, but as sets of culturally determined symbols. Eugenides does a good line in poking catty fun at the professor and students in Madeleine's Semiology 201 seminar, painting the latter as black-clad, sickly hipsters amongst whom "Madeleine's natural healthiness seemed suspect, like a vote for Reagan," and concluding of the former "Semiotics was the form [Professor] 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 class." But underlying this is a genuine animosity that takes semiotics as anti-literature--quite literally, as when Madeleine theorizes that "most semiotic theorists had been unpopular as children, often bullied or overlooked, and so had directed their lingering rage onto literature." When the star pupil in Madeleine's semiotics seminar states that "Books aren't about 'real life.' Books are about books ... how do you write about something, even something real and painful--like suicide--when all the writing that's been done on that subject has robbed you of any originality of expression?" Madeleine's response is that this is "both significant and horribly wrong. It was maybe true, what he said, but it shouldn't have been."
This overwrought positioning of the novel's heroine as the champion of story and character against the forces of plotless, emotionless postmodernism put me in mind of Lev Grossman's 2009 screed in the Wall Street Journal, calling for a resurgence of plot in contemporary fiction. Which turned out to be apt, since The Marriage Plot bears quite a few similarities to the novel in which Grossman tried to put his article's ideas into practice, The Magicians. Both are college novels. Both center around passive, whiny protagonists whom the readers are expected to sympathize with and even pity. Both are novels about a certain subgenre of literature--portal-quest fantasy in The Magicians, marriage plot novels in The Marriage Plot--and both play the same metafictional game, in which the story's hero is a fan of this genre, who both accepts, albeit grudgingly, that they could never live within their favorite kind of story, and finds themselves doing just that, allegedly complicated to reflect reality and modernity. So it was probably inevitable that I should dislike The Marriage Plot, which suffers from the same core flaw as The Magicians, an aggravatingly smug cluelessness about its own genre.
The fact is, Eugenides's argument doesn't hold water. The marriage plot is certainly no longer as dominant as it was in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but it is by no means extinct. In novels like Dorothy L. Sayers's Gaudy Night, A.S. Byatt's Possession, Norman Rush's Mating, and Allegra Goodman's The Cookbook Collector, modern novelists not only port the marriage plot into the present but use it to examine the very issues that, according to Madeleine's professor, render it inert--why marriage? What form should marriage take? Is it possible, especially for women, to be married and yet remain themselves and maintain their autonomy, emotional and economic? (I've deliberately left pure historical fiction off this list out of fear of veering into pastiche, but there's an argument to be made for including Sarah Waters's Tipping the Velvet--the marriage plot for lesbians--and John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman--the anti-marriage plot. When discussing this review with a friend, she pointed out that social realism doesn't have to refer to an existing, present-day society, and suggested Lois McMaster Bujold's A Civil Campaign.) None of these are books that The Marriage Plot's characters are familiar with (in fairness, only the Sayers was published before 1982, but my list can hardly be exhaustive, and anyway it was Eugenides's choice to set the novel in that year), which seems, as it was in The Magicians, like a deliberate choice that leaves Eugenides a clean slate on which to craft his own version of the modern marriage plot, but only serves to highlight how paltry and limited his version of such a beast is in comparison to the works he has wished out of existence. Where Sayers, Rush and the others joyfully break free of the marriage plot's conventions, both social and literary, Eugenides remains boxed in by both. For all his pretensions to revolution, what he's produced is little more than a highbrow Twilight, whose plot is defanged, and whose characters are dehumanized, by the too-obvious shape of the story he's chosen.
The story is a fairly simple one. There is a heroine, the wrong man she falls in love with and marries, and the right man who suffers as he waits in the wings for her to notice him. Though Eugenides is obviously trying to complicate these character types, he doesn't do enough to get around the fact that our knowledge of the three leads' roles informs, affects, and finally clashes with our emotional reactions to them. To start with, look at our heroine. As appealing as it is that Madeleine is characterized first and foremost through her reading preferences, as the novel draws on it becomes clear that being a reader is her only personality trait, and that despite graduating from an Ivy League school and spending four years away from home, Madeleine's personality is still largely unformed. She's childish and spoiled, still willing to be infantilized (and supported) by her parents, and a lot of her behavior seems calculated to inoculate herself from anything that might be difficult or challenging. That's not a bad starting point for a character, even a heroine, but Eugenides never quite manages to develop Madeleine the way the heroine of a marriage plot novel ought to be. Her story isn't about becoming more mature or indeed any sort of personal growth, but about falling in love. And even that isn't rendered convincingly--her passion for Leonard, who even before his illness becomes apparent is chilly and emotionally withholding, is never very persuasive, and within her romantic attachments Madeleine remains passive and unobservant. When Leonard, despondent over the crippling intellectual and physical side effects of his mood-stabilizing medication, secretly stops taking his pills, Madeleine notices only that he's lost weight and regained his lust for life (and for her).
The marriage plot is unique in the canon of Western literature in being a form that is predominantly about women, and Eugenides doesn't hesitate to use this fact as yet another cudgel against semiotics, drawing a stark comparison between the latter's misogyny (Madeleine's first encounter with semiotics, through her roommate's boyfriend, ends when "Madeleine said she was going to make coffee. Whitney asked if she would make him some, too") and the former's feminism, as when Madeleine attends a conference on Victorian literature and not only makes two female friends but rubs elbows with such luminaries of feminist criticism as Terry Castle and the authors of The Madwoman in the Attic. This would be a simplistic contrast even if Eugenides's modern take on the marriage plot did not so thoroughly sideline his heroine, but he undermines it even further with the character of Mitchell. Mitchell's Greek surname and his upbringing in the Detroit suburbs mark him out as a stand in for Eugenides himself, which makes his positioning as the right man to Leonard's wrong one somewhat dubious, but the more we learn about Mitchell, the less he seems like anyone's idea of a Mr. Darcy. There might be something sympathetic in Mithell's desperate spiritual seeking--he's one of those people who find the idea of faith very seductive but can't manage to feel it, and in keeping with the novel's bibliophile preoccupations, he's introduced trying to force belief in God by reciting Franny Glass's Jesus mantra from Franny and Zooey--but his journey takes a predictably narcissistic form. Volunteering in Mother Teresa's indigent hospital in Calcutta (as Eugenides did after graduating from college), Mitchell recoils from the patients and the messy work of tending to them. The fact that he recognizes how unsympathetic it is for a privileged white Westerner to feel sorry for himself for not being willing to touch people who are dying in squalor doesn't make Mitchell's angst over this fact any more appealing--or any less familiar from a thousand other stories featuring just this type of character.
But the crowning glory of Mitchell's awfulness is, undeniably, the fact that he is a Nice Guy par excellence. It's hard to know what the worst example of Mitchell's poisonous attitude towards women is. Is it the way that his every interaction with them is filtered through his self-pity over the fact that so many of them don't want to sleep with him? How he alternately cozies up to Madeleine and lashes out at her--usually in ways that infantilize her or belittle her intelligence--when she makes it clear that she doesn't want to be more than friends? The fact that, when Madeleine, having finally had enough, informs Mitchell in a letter that she wants nothing more to do with him, his response is that "Madeleine had been putting Mitchell off for so long that her refusals were like boilerplate that his eyes skimmed over, looking for possible loopholes or buried clauses of real significance"? The way he mansplains to his roommate's girlfriend when she makes the--one would think, entirely indisputable--observation that the Abrahamic religions are steeped in patriarchy, which leads to a heated argument that comes to an abrupt end when Mitchell "jokingly" asks whether she's on her period? My favorite would have to be the scene in which Mitchell hears from his recently out friend Larry about Larry's disastrous relationship with a Greek named Iannis--"Almost immediately, he'd begun asking Larry how much money his family had ... If they went to a gay bar, Iannis became insanely jealous if Larry so much as looked at another guy. The rest of the time he wouldn't let Larry touch him for fear people would learn their secret. He started calling Larry a "faggot," acting as if he, Iannis, were straight and only experimenting." That Iannis caters so blatantly to the homophobic stereotype of the foreign gigolo is a problem in its own right, but what strikes me is that Mitchell's response to Larry's litany is that "It was comforting to learn that homosexual relationships were just as screwed up as straight ones." In other words, upon hearing that his friend was entangled with a borderline abusive fortune hunter, Mitchell's response is that this is just like being with a woman. As unimpressive as Madeleine is, the idea that Mitchell might be her--or any woman's--true love is so terrifying that it makes the experience of reading those chapters The Marriage Plot that concern him almost like a horror novel.
But the greatest impediment to enjoying The Marriage Plot as a marriage plot story is the fact that Leonard, the story's alleged wrong man, is the most sympathetic and interesting character in the novel. It is, to begin with, enormously problematic that the reason for Leonard's unsuitability as a mate is the fact that he is mentally ill. The chapters told from Leonard's point of view, detailing his struggles with the side effects of his drugs, and his growing despondence over the conviction that under the drugs' influence everything he's wanted from life--his scientific career, his relationship with Madeleine--is permanently outside his reach, are heartbreaking. That the relationship between Madeleine and Leonard is doomed, and damaging to both of them, is obvious shortly into the novel--Madeleine is too young and too inexperienced to cope with Leonard's illness and his needs, and far from helping him, her frustrations goad him into taking risks with his drug regimen in order to be the man she fell in love with. But by telling the story of this relationship within the form of a marriage plot and casting Leonard as the wrong man, Eugenides encourages us to read his manic-depression not as a tragic affliction, but as a moral failing. He even seems aware of this, hanging a lantern on the problem by having Madeleine accuse her disapproving mother of just the same flaw that afflicts his novel, but this does not get around the core problem, which is that Leonard, in order to play his part in the story he's been cast in, needs to be gotten rid of. In a classic marriage plot novel--such as The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, of which The Marriage Plot is strongly reminiscent--this is achieved through death, and the prospect of that death hangs constantly over the novel in the form of Leonard's increasing hopelessness over his situation, and his psychiatrists' repeated warnings that manic-depressives are prone to suicide. Not helping matters is the fact that many reviewers have taken Leonard as a stand in for David Foster Wallace (Eugenides has disputed this reading), who also suffered from mental illness and did kill himself in 2008. Leonard's death would therefore not only complete the real life parallel but act as yet another blow against semiotics, Wallace having been a famous standard-bearer for postmodernism. In other words, Eugenides has written a novel in which the suicide of the most sympathetic and pitiable character is painted as a necessity of plot--and a rebuke to the semiotician star pupil's claim that even suicide can no longer be written about originally--calling so much attention to the fact of that necessity that we could never be expected to accept that suicide as organic to the story or characters.
In fairness to Eugenides, he's clearly aware of everything I've written here--of Madeleine's passivity, Mitchell's misogyny, and Leonard's mingled appeal and artificiality. He's quite clearly crafted each of his characters deliberately in order to buck against their assigned role in the story. The problem is that, as it turns out, dismantling the marriage plot and its characters doesn't result in a clever, thought-provoking exercise--or, at least, not as Eugenides has done it. It just leaves you with a muddled, unsatisfying mess, neither a touching realist novel about the struggles of a young couple with the husband's mental illness, nor a mannered romance about the finding and getting of husbands, but some halfway concoction that doesn't scratch any sort of literary itch. As if desperate to pull a rabbit out of a hat and prove that the whole exercise had a point, Eugenides ends the novel with a string of reversals. Leonard does not, in fact, kill himself, but he does leave Madeleine for her own good. Mitchell rushes to her side, but the two aren't united in romantic bliss. Instead, Mitchell finally lets go of his dream of being with Madeleine, and signals this by asking her whether there is
any novel where the heroine gets married to the wrong guy and then realizes it, and then the other suitor shows up, some guy who's always been in love with her, and then they get together, but finally the second suitor realizes that the last thing the woman needs is to get married again, that she's got more important things to do with her life? And so finally the guy doesn't propose at all, even though he still loves her? Is there any book that ends like that?The answer Eugenides wants us to give is obviously "well, there is one now," thus cementing his claim to fame as having modernized the marriage plot and been a great feminist while doing so. But once again, this just doesn't hold water. Is a last-minute display of menschliness in the book's final pages really supposed to make up for 400 pages of Mitchell's misogyny? And what about Madeleine, who ends the novel as passive as she started it, her happy ending achieved not through any of her own choices but through the love and selflessness of her two suitors, who make decisions on her behalf? Leonard, meanwhile, isn't even present for this ending, and as if realizing that his happy ending is hollow without a satisfying conclusion for Leonard--a conclusion that, as he's constructed the character and his predicament, is highly unlikely--Eugenides does the equivalent of telling us not to worry, everything will be fine, when he has Mitchell--who has met Leonard all of once--muse that "It was possible that he might recover from his depression; in fact, given time, it was more than likely." Far from cleverly justifying the novel's perceived flaws, then, The Marriage Plot's ending only compounds them, and the sense that Eugenides has bitten off more than he can chew. In patting himself on the back for the revolutionary spin he's put on the form, Eugenides only sheds a harsher light on the paltriness of his vision and achievement. For me, the effect of his exercise has been to send me back to the cleverer, more resonant authors who have done far better work with the marriage plot, as a reminder that, despite the hash that Eugenides has made of it, it is still a relevant, vibrant form.