The Marriage Plot
Driving around doing my errands, I’ve been listening to the audio version of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel The Marriage Plot, mostly because ReadersGuide, who went to Brown University, as the protagonists of the novel do, said she found it interesting.
I did get interested in the part about how the main character, Madeleine, is faced with learning new ways of reading and has to re-evaluate her approach to her thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot (a close reading of the “marriage plot” in their novels) because it recapitulates my own experience as an undergraduate, the bottom of the safe little box of what I’d learned to do dropping out in a disconcerting (but exciting!) way, revealing the promise of Deconstructionism and Feminism and Historicism and Semiotics.
What kept me listening to this novel were the good lines. When Madeleine goes to a party and meets a weirdo from her semiotics class, he tells her “parties bring my misanthropy into focus.” When Madeleine is falling in love with Leonard, they have a conversation about how his “goal in life is to become an adjective” like Felliniesque, Joycean, Shakespearean, Kafkaesque, or Tolstoyan.
But I found the part about Madeleine’s friend Mitchell sordid and uncomfortable and pointless, especially when he drifts around Europe feeling mystical and believing in destiny. The girlfriend of the pal he starts out traveling with has some good lines, but they’re not funny enough in light of how true Mitchell admits they are. Here’s a fairly typical Mitchell reverie:
“All the while she’d been accusing Mitchell of objectifying women, he’d been secretly objectifying her. She had such an incredible ass! It was so round and perfect and alive. Every time Mitchell stole a glance at her ass he had the weird feeling that it was staring back, that Claire’s ass didn’t necessarily agree with its owner’s feminist politics but was perfectly happy to be admired…”
The longer the book goes on, the more I dislike Mitchell.
The secret about Leonard, the Brown graduate who Madeleine marries, turns out to be something that had to be more hidden and was less well-treated in the past, so not a very interesting secret. Madeleine’s sister discovers he is taking lithium and puts her whole family into a flutter. Leonard is brilliant, but self-indulgent and self-destructive. If I didn’t dislike Mitchell so much, I’d have some energy left over to use on disliking Leonard.
The one thing I do like about Mitchell as a character is that in the end, when he finally figures out how to get a positive response from Madeleine, who he has romanticized all these years, he phrases what he has to say as “a literary question.” These are characters who fall in love with other people because of the life of the mind, and Eugenides shows that well.
The life of the spirit, Mitchell’s magical mystical tour, is evidently much harder to capture, especially when it’s continually tangled up with Mitchell’s sexual longings, culminating with:
“as he removed Madeleine’s clothing, layer by layer, he was confronted by the physical reality of things he had long imagined. An uncomfortable tension existed between the two, with the result that after a while neither felt entirely real. Was this really Madeleine’s breast he was taking into his mouth, or was it something he had dreamed, or was he dreaming now. Why, if she was finally there before him in the flesh, did she seem to be so odorless and vaguely alien? He did his best: he persevered.”
The sordidness of Mitchell’s view of sex is continually the part of the novel that gives me the creeps. Yes, if the choice is between Mitchell and Leonard, then the ending of this novel without the heroine about to marry either of the heroes is absolutely right.
If anyone should read this as a novel representing the experience of college graduates my age, I would be utterly appalled; I think that, at the very least, we had more literary choices than (logical fallacy) only two: Dickens, Trollope, Austen, Eliot, and Bronte on the one hand, and Derrida, Barthes, Kristeva, Eco, and Cixous on the other.
This is the second novel by this author that I’ve read (the first was Middlesex) and something about his writing reminds me of reading in bed at dusk while lying on sheets that need to be changed; there’s something grimy, gray, and ennui-inducing about the entire experience.