Monday, August 27, 2012

Worldcon Fair

In a few hours I'll be getting on a plane, and then several hours after that I'll be getting on another plane, and the end results of this will hopefully be that some time tomorrow I'll be in Chicago for this year's Worldcon.  I haven't written that much about Worldcon or the Hugos this year (I'll leave it as an exercise to the reader to guess why, on the latter front), and I'm not participating in any panels or events (though I'll be at the Strange Horizons tea party on Saturday), but I'm very much looking forward to meeting people I haven't seen in a while (or at all) and to the convention itself.  Last time I was at Worldcon I came away very invigorated about my participation in fandom and about the genre in general, which is something I could use right now.

I'll have what I suspect will be a long and detailed report some time after my return at the end of next week.  Between now and then, I will most likely see blog comments but not respond to them, and equally I probably won't be answering email until I get back home.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Late to the Party: Thoughts on Mad Men and Breaking Bad

The golden age of television is about a decade and a half old now and going strong, and the best thing about it is also the worst--there is, quite simply, too much to watch.  Even an avid fan of the medium has to make choices about what they will and will not follow, and sometimes those choices turn out to have been wrong.  Sometimes the shows you passed on become the most talked-about, critically-lauded series of the last few years, and you find yourself with several seasons' worth of material to catch up with before you can join the conversation.  This summer, then, was dedicated to doing just that--catching up with the two series that between them have come to dominate the critical and fannish conversation about quality TV, Mad Men and Breaking Bad (actually, the original plan also included The Wire, but the time proved too short).  The problem of coming to these shows so late and after so much ink has been spilled about them is that there is already an ironclad critical consensus as to what they are about.  I knew, before watching the pilot episode of either series, that 60s ad man Don Draper was a lost soul bent on a hollow reinvention, and that cancer-ridden chemistry teacher turned meth cook Walter White was on a journey towards damnation.  Though I expected to enjoy both shows--which I certainly did--I wondered whether either one would be able to surprise me.  In the end, though I found a lot in both series that I'd been expecting to find--a sharp and at points horrifying handling of 60s misogyny, a tense and thrilling crime story, a history of the growing role of advertising in American culture, a study of an ordinary man as he surrenders his moral convictions for money and drags his loved ones down with him--I also found things I wasn't expecting, such as a frequently dark, and often uproarious, sense of humor.  What most surprised me about both series, however, was how they have in common, and how much they both owe to their most obvious common ancestor, The Sopranos.

Despite the fact that Tony Soprano and Walter White are both criminals, it's easier to draw a line from The Sopranos to Mad Men (The Sopranos, for one thing, is not a crime story, and the defining myths of Tony and Walt's lives are very different--The Godfather for Tony, Scarface for Walt).  The two shows have a similar style, a plotless, detail-oriented naturalism in which events, big and small, explosive and mundane, are important less for leading up to a denouement or conclusion than for shedding more light on the characters and their foibles.  And they have very similar protagonists, alpha males who are the suns around which their respective universes revolve, but who realize, as they circle middle age, how hollow the power they've accumulated is.  Even the mafia angle--and its accompanying implication that Tony's dissatisfaction with life is rooted in the corrosive effects of his career--isn't as strong a distinguishing factor between the two shows as it might at first seem.  The Sopranos was never as much about the mafia as it about life in middle class America.  Tony might think of himself as a king, and the show never shied away from or minimized the awful things he did, but it also kept revealing was that for all his power he was a minor participant in an enormous capitalist system, whose cruelty and corruption dwarfed his own, and before whose indifference he was often left frustrated and helpless.

Mad Men strips away the mob-related ornamentation of this theme (and replaces it with another type of ornamentation, its painstakingly recreated historical setting) but it is saying essentially the same thing.  In Don Draper, Mad Men gives us a character who is seemingly more self-possessed, more in control, than Tony Soprano ever was.  A middle class white man in the early and mid 60s, Don's entire world is designed to flatter and accommodate him, but his occupation--a key cog in the machine that makes capitalism run--confers even more prestige on him.  His good looks and suave sophistication--so different from the portly Tony's brusque, rough manners--make of him a sort of paragon, the man Tony not so secretly aspires to be.  But what all this amounts to is that when Don's life proves less perfect than advertised--when his marriage to the beautiful Betty turns cold, when his lovers fail to reignite his zest for life, when his genius as an ad man isn't properly appreciated, and more than any of these, when everything goes right and still he manages to find something to be dissatisfied by--Mad Men is merely saying outright what The Sopranos hinted at obliquely--that that paragon, and the system that created it and taught men like Tony Soprano to aspire to it, are both shams.

My main complaint against The Sopranos when I was watching it was that after a few seasons, I felt as if the point had been made.  The show was so well written and its characters so nuanced and believable that I was always ready to watch another episode, but at the same time I wouldn't have been crushed to learn that there wouldn't be any more.  Mad Men skirts, and doesn't entirely avoid, the same issue.  After a season or two, it feels as if the show's verdict on Don Draper has been rendered--that he is at once a product, an expression, and a shill for capitalism, and that for all his conviction that his work is a meaningful creative endeavor and even a social good ("there are people out there who buy things," he tells a colleague, "and something happened, something terrible, and the way that they saw themselves is gone"), what he's really doing in convincing those "people who buy things" that there are yet more things they need to buy is transmitting his own fundamental emptiness, and his need to fill it with money, status, power, and of course things, to an entire culture.  Everything that follows is variations on and illustrations of this theme, and though these are always well done, the immediacy leaches out of the show.  Unlike The Sopranos, Mad Men manages to combat this loss of freshness, first by slowly unraveling the mystery of Don's past, culminating in the revelation that his entire life story is an act of invention.  The force of this revelation is somewhat dulled, however, by the incongruity of Don's having been able to reinvent himself from the ground up to escape an unsatisfying life in the past, while in the present the crux of his story is his inability to change his life or break out of bad habits. This has the effect of making Don's past as Dick Whitman, the unloved whore's son who deserted from the army by stealing a dead comrade's identity, seem less like a genuine insight into his character and more like a metaphor, another way of highlighting the hollowness of the life Don aspires to.

Far more successful in combating the show's tendency towards malaise is the fact that, for all that he is its undeniable hero, Don is also the least interesting character in Mad Men, and the characters who outstrip him are all women--secretary turned copywriter Peggy, office manager Joan, Betty, and Don's second wife Megan.  Against Don's deliberately cyclical story, these women are all undergoing a definite process of change and growth.  That change isn't always pretty or appealing--as Peggy's self-confidence and professional standing increase, her whininess and self-absorption become more apparent, and without even defining herself as such she often exemplifies the worst qualities of second wave feminism; Betty is twisted up by an upbringing that promised her happiness in exchange for her good looks and a husband who failed to live up to that promise, and frequently takes her frustrations with both out on her children--and it is by no means a straightforward progression towards empowerment--Joan has lived her whole life by the rules that govern how a woman may respectfully trade her sexuality for status and wealth, and her realization over the course of the series that these rules are meaningless and self-sabotaging is accompanied by many setbacks, most notably her choice to marry her fiancé after he rapes her; Megan, meanwhile, insists on having a career that is separate from Don, but when her hopes of becoming an actress flounder she persuades him to pull strings on her behalf--but it is a genuine process of growth that makes Mad Men interesting as a story as well as a character study.  Though there is sometimes a creakiness to the way the men and women's stories fit together--perhaps most notably in the way that the career that for Don has been soul-destroying is positioned as liberating and empowering for Peggy--on the whole the latter give Mad Men a much needed jolt of energy and forward momentum, and help to undercut its solipsism.

If Mad Men and The Sopranos are cyclical, slow-paced stories characterized by stately opaqueness, Breaking Bad is driven by a powerful, purposeful engine of story.  It's a show about change and transformation--most crucially, Walter White's rise from small-time drug dealer to kingpin--featuring shootouts, heists, grisly murders, and various other high octane tropes, and as if to up the ante it is also often structured as a mystery--Walt's working out of the personal and professional relationships at the heart of the criminal organizations whose attentions he draws with his superior product, and his DEA agent brother in law Hank's pursuit of the mysterious meth cook known as Heisenberg.  But despite their differences in style, Breaking Bad is merely employing a different (perhaps more winning) delivery system for the same ideas that lie at the heart of The Sopranos and Mad Men.  What all three of these shows, at their core, are about is masculinity, and more precisely the crisis of American masculinity.  (Even Mad Men's emphasis on female characters does not completely obscure this preoccupation, and their growing independence is often used as a way of highlighting the failures of the men in their lives--Joan separates from her rapist husband, for example, after he signs up for a second tour in Vietnam, which he does because the military gives him scope to indulge his authoritarian impulse and lust for power in a way that civilian life hasn't.)  In all three shows, masculinity is defined as power and control.  Tony was born to both, and finds himself unequal to their burden.  Don reinvented himself in order to gain them, and now wonders if the sacrifices he's made were worth it.  Walt had lost all control--over his career (for reasons the show hasn't yet fully articulated, he went from a respected scientist at the cutting edge of his field to high school chemistry teacher), his finances, and even his body--and his response to this last affront is to seize control by any means necessary, even the criminal.

What's perhaps most interesting about the ways that The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad present masculinity is that in the first two shows masculinity is a construct.  Tony laments the passing of the "strong, silent type," of the gentlemen gangsters of his father's generation, and of "real" men, but these are ideals that he can never live up to, either morally (whenever he resolves to behave like a gentleman--to forgive an offense, or act generously--Tony's worse nature trips him up) or emotionally (the premise of the whole series is that the pressures of playing patriarch and mob boss have sunk Tony into depression).  Don, who is of Tony's father's generation, embodies the kind of man Tony would like to be, but he invented that man--quite literally, in his personal life, but also professionally, as a means of selling cars and cigarettes.  Breaking Bad, on the other hand, treats this vision of masculinity as something very concrete.  The show's storytelling often focuses on problem-solving, on Walt and his allies working their way around the practical difficulties of their business--scarce chemicals, the need for private cooking space--and part of Walt's presentation of masculinity is his ability to think his way out of problems, to use his scientific know-how in creative ways, and to fix things with his hands (there is a great deal of the Heinleinian Competent Man about Walt).  Palpable, physical accomplishments that act as undeniable proof of Walt's manliness, and of the very concept of masculinity.

Breaking Bad does complicate masculinity and question its value--Walt loses his family and eventually his soul because he's unable to let go of his desire for power and control; Hank plays the manly cop, but when a fatal shooting leaves him reeling he's forced to conclude that that persona isn't a worthy end in its own right; Walt's former student and partner in crime Jesse, who spends the series learning manhood from Walt and the men he meets through him, is corrupted and perhaps destroyed by what he learns; this excellent essay argues that Walt's son, who has cerebral palsy, acts as a rebuke to his father and uncle's belief that manhood is tied up with physical strength.  But this is only to suggest that masculinity should be tempered with other, less aggressive traits, not that it is inherently flawed or even fake.  This, of course, reflects on Breaking Bad's handling of capitalism.  In The Sopranos and Mad Men, the construct of masculinity is a product of capitalism.  In Breaking Bad, it is the only means of navigating it.  Throughout the series, the criminal hierarchies that Walt and Jesse navigate are discussed in the terms of business, and the overall structure of the show, for all that it is a crime story, is also very clearly the story of an entrepreneur trying to make it to the top, testing out various business partners, battling opposing companies for market share, spending time as a cog in a corporate machine, and striking out on his own.  There is in Breaking Bad less questioning of the system than there is in Mad Men or The Sopranos.  On one level, this makes sense, since Walt is still clawing his way to the position that Don has gained and that Tony inherited, but already there is a sense that inasmuch as Breaking Bad is willing to criticize Walt's ascent, it is on the grounds of the field he chose to dominate and his methods of getting to the top, not the very idea of wanting to get there.  Like masculinity, capitalism as a concept is not something Breaking Bad wants to reject.

At their core, Tony Soprano, Don Draper, and Walter White are all driven by the same impulse, the fear of death.  This is quite literal in Walt's case--it's the realization of his impending death that jump-starts both his criminal career and his transformation--and Tony lives in a world in which both his death and the death he deals to others are constant specters.  In Don's non-violent life, death still plays a major role in his creative process--an anti-smoking PSA targeted at teenagers aims at their burgeoning realization that they will someday die, and in the series pilot, in which Don is trying to sell cigarettes in spite of new studies that link them to cancer, a psychiatrist tries to convince him to appeal to the "death impulse," a suggestion he dismisses as "perverse"--in Don Draper's world, death is never desirable.  The question of their anti-hero's death overshadows all three shows, but is also itself questioned.  The Sopranos famously refused to reveal whether Tony lives or dies at its end, and Mad Men's opening credits feature the silhouette of a man, probably Don, plummeting from a high rise building.  But the show itself repeatedly teases the possibility of Don's death--from high blood pressure, from alcoholism, from suicide--while at the same time suggesting that maybe the entire series has been that long, drawn out fall.  It's left to Breaking Bad to make the oblique literal--when Walt, now in remission, goes for a periodic scan to see if his cancer has returned, he angrily rejects a fellow patient's protestations that their cancer is a sign that they have no control over their lives, "guess what?  Every life comes with a death sentence.  So every few months I come in here for a regular scan, knowing full well that one of these times--hell, maybe even today--I'm going to hear some bad news.  But until then, who's in charge?  Me.  That's how I live my life."  Whether it comes suddenly or in slow increments, at the end of the series or some time after, Tony, Don, and Walt are going to die, but what makes the question of their death central to their characters and shows is the fact that death is the antithesis of the control that lies at the heart of their masculinity--that it exposes the hollowness of both that control and the masculinity it defines.

When Betty, in the most recent season of Mad Men, has a cancer scare, she treats it as what it is, a threat to her existence, not her sense of self.  She doesn't rage, or feel the urge to start a meth empire, as a way of defying death.  She just worries about her kids.  The implication--that within the structure of these shows, even something as universal and fundamentally human as the fear of death can be folded into the self-definition of only one subset of humanity--is troubling, and draws attention to the limitations of this focus on masculinity.  For one thing, there is the problem that when we describe these shows as being about the crisis of American masculinity, what we actually mean is that they are about the crisis of white (and middle class) American masculinity.  People of color are nearly absent from The Sopranos and Mad Men, and though their absence (and the white protagonists' discomfort with the idea of their presence) is commented on--in the case of Mad Men, as the civil rights movement build steam in the its background, the show foregrounds the self-conscious liberalism of many of its characters, who support civil rights in principle but have no idea how to relate to black people--the end result is not only to elide an entire segment of society but to exclude non-white men from the struggle towards and with masculinity that the white men in all three shows are engaged in (Mad Men, for example, slowly introduces black characters to its cast--Betty's maid, Don's secretary--but these are all women). 

Breaking Bad should be the series that gets this issue right--Walt's criminal career brings him into contact with many Latino men (the fact that Latino characters of either gender are almost entirely absent from his law-abiding life is an issue for another discussion) who share his quest for dominance and control and would therefore presumably be struggling with the same questions about the value and cost of masculinity that Walt struggles with.  But with only one exception--a first season antagonist who challenges Walt's willingness to commit violence in pursuit of his goal--the Latino characters Walt encounters are psychopaths, inhuman badasses, and cartel honchos who cater to stereotypes of the excess and brutality of Latino gangsters.  If any of them struggle with their conscience, or wonder whether it was all worth it, or chafe under the need to constantly be aggressive and dominant, we don't see it.  Even fan favorite Gus Fring, Walt's main antagonist in the third and fourth seasons, who defies some stereotypes by assuming the protective coloration of an upstanding businessman and solid citizen, remains inscrutable, and the revelation that he has involved Walt in his decades-long scheme of revenge against the cartels for the death of his partner (and possibly lover) doesn't so much humanize him as make him seem even cooler than he already was--we never learn, for example, whether Gus feels that his revenge was worth the effort he took to achieve it, or whether, like Tony and Don, his response to getting what he wants is to look for something to be unhappy about.

What should we read into the fact that the three shows that between them define and exemplify the renaissance of the television medium are all so bound up in the question of what it means to be a white man?  It's not as if there aren't shows out there with similar topics that focus on women (Weeds, The Big C, Nurse Jackie, Damages) or people of color (The Wire).  But these shows have not amassed the cultural currency of, say, The Sopranos--even The Wire, for all its positive critical reception, hasn't penetrated pop culture the way Mad Men has, with Saturday Night Live skits, spreads in fashion magazine, and even a Sesame Street parody.  Quality no doubt plays a part here, though that raises the question of why writers of the caliber of David Chase, Matthew Weiner, and Vince Gilligan chose to write stories about men (a particularly pertinent question in Weiner's case; Mad Men could just as easily have been a story about Peggy, whose thirst for power and wealth is as intense as Don's, but Weiner chose to make Don the main focal point of his story and Peggy its secondary protagonist).  But given the similarities between The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad, you have to wonder if that's all that's going on.  Did these shows get crowned as the best that television has to offer simply because they are good, or did television critics find it easier to recognize quality when its focus was the struggles of white masculinity?  And were these shows greenlit merely because of their quality, or because of their subject matter?  Mad Men and Breaking Bad are excellent series and I look forward to as much more of them as their creators will give me (Breaking Bad is about to take a break in its fifth and last season, Mad Men is scheduled to run either one or two more), but I think that we deserve shows of this caliber that focus on a less narrow aspect of humanity, and for that matter, shows that recognize that the lust for power and control, and the fear of death, are not qualities unique to a certain gender or race.  That's something that the golden age of TV has yet to deliver.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Jeffrey Eugenides's third novel, The Marriage Plot, has what is probably one of the most perfect opening paragraphs I've ever read:
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.