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June 4, 2012

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

“Against Domesticated Fiction, or The Need for Re-Enchantment” was an essay by Patricia Robertson in Canadian Notes & Queries 84, in which Robertson decried contemporary writers in general for their failure to imagine the world beyond the individual, and the failure of contemporary writing to be anything but tedious. Hers was an inspiring argument, even stirring, and yet… I’m not yet tired of the kind of novel she’s maligning. Domesticated fiction remains what I most want to read, and I’m not nearly finished with it yet. And I don’t even have a good argument as to why this should be the case, except that I think that with the reader taking an imaginative leap, domesticated fiction can do as well as the fantastic, or any other kind of literature, to “incorporate some of the wildness, the strangeness, the mystery of the world around us.” To show that we are indeed “participants in a vast web of being.”

And all this is preamble to the fact that tonight is the night Jeffrey Eugenides has been freaking out about for ages, the night I give my two cents on his latest novel The Marriage Plot (which my husband gave me for Christmas, I’ll have you know. How domesticated is that?).  My Jeffrey Eugenides backgrounder is this: I think I tried to read The Virgin Suicides once, but couldn’t; I thought the movie was really weird; I liked Middlesex a lot, except for the part where Cal joined the circus, because in those parts, the novel wasn’t domesticated anymore. All of which suggests that I come to The Marriage Plot with a lot less Eugenides-related baggage than the average avid reader. But I come to it hesitantly all the same because I’d heard reports of reader dissatisfaction, because I’m allergic to hype, and because the novel sports all these allusions to literary theory and David Foster Wallace, and I know as much about one as the other, which is nothing.

But then I started to read it, the first line: “To start with, look at all the books.” And then Eugenides describes the contents of Madeleine Hanna’s bookshelves, and then it was clear that he’d written this novel just for me. It begins the morning of Madeleine’s graduation as she’s still dealing with fallout from the breakup of her relationship with Leonard and runs into an old friend Mitchell who’s sweet on her and who only makes her angry. The plot swoops back and forth from past to present, and it’s true that here is one of these books where everything that happens has happened already, but how I admire Eugenides’ command of chronology and all the details. Though the details themselves are not the point, instead the plot is. On one level (and there are several) the novel is an exercise as to whether 19th century romance/marriage plots can work in a 20th century story, and I come away from the book assured that they always have.

The Marriage Plot is social satire, academic satire, a bookish orgy, and the most beautiful celebration of Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline that I’ve ever come across in a 400 page novel written by a man. Yes, there were times when I skimmed, allusions that went over my head, and did read the book a little wide-eyed, a bit too eager to attribute significance at every turn. That the 1982 “Cosby-sweater” reference could not be an anachronism surely, and that Eugenides, with some kind of ironic gesture, had planted it there for a reason. And even if he hadn’t, it was planted all the same, and the text was a different place for it.

Eugenides shows that there is no torture quite like life in one’s early-twenties, regardless of the century. Here is the story of the most world’s most scalene love triangle, and the angles mean more than the love does. Manic-depressive Leonard with the tortured background who captivates the romantic Madeleine in a semiotics class, and Mitchell who is convinced that Madeleine is meant to be his wife but she’s having none of it (except for drunken gropings here and there). The first two become inextricably tangled and love doesn’t have so much to do with it. Meanwhile Mitchell is off on his grand tour, culminating in an experience volunteering at Mother Theresa’s mission in Calcutta, and he’s thinking maybe he’s a religious mystic but suspecting that this isn’t the case. He’s become obsessed with The Jesus Prayer and insists that Franny Glass has got nothing to do with it. All the time that Leonard and Madeleine are cracking up and up, and then she and Mitchell meet up again at a party a year after their graduation…

And that ending, so perfect. I’m not going to spoil it for you, but Reader, she says, “Yes.”

4 thoughts on “The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides”

  1. alexis says:

    I liked it, but didn’t love it as much as you did. (But I am a person who loved Eugenides’ other stuff).

    However, did you feel that the character of Madeleine was not as fleshed out as the other 2 characters? I didn’t relate to her as much as I did the men. I related to Leonard’s mental illness and Mitchell’s intense need to wander. I’m curious about how you related to the characters.

    1. Kerry says:

      I did relate to Madeleine. It was pointed out to me that she was a pretty drippy character, and I can concur, but so was I was when I was 22. I love the book’s ending, which suggests that Madeleine is just starting to hit her stride.

  2. JC says:

    Great review, all of it. I could have written it myself (albeit less elegantly) if I hadn’t been uncharacteristically cowed by the fact that so many other people were so snooty about it. Or is that just what always happens to the biggest writers?

  3. In her essay, Robertson writes, “many writers seem to labour under the belief that our complex society is beyond their powers to depict… Characters are often depicted in a void, as though the world outside didn’t exist…” Here’s news: Many writers, Alice Munro, for one (whom Robertson disparages as a “high priestess” of “domestic realism”) aspire to create a story with characters who are authentic, drawing upon their experience with and knowledge of the contemporary world. Here’s more news: Most Americans and probably a good many Canadians haven’t a clue as to what is really going on the world, which elected officials represent them, how much revenue their governments take in and where it goes, in what ways their lives are affected by multi-corporations, and more. No doubt, one can write fiction that aims to bring such problems to a more general awareness, but I prefer fiction without an agenda.

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