The Marriage Plot (2011), by Jeffrey Eugenides


Three important and memorable American novels of our day are The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), by Junot Diaz; Gone Girl (2012), by Gillian Flynn; and Terrorist (2006), by John Updike (all reviewed elsewhere in this blog). Considerable highbrow approval has been bestowed on Wao; less on Terrorist; and still less on Gone Girl, perhaps the most remarkable of the three. Flynn’s novel is a rare contradiction of Artie Shaw’s dictim, “There is an inverse relationship between popular music and good music.” After all, how can someone as popular and newly rich as Flynn write serious literature? She may at this very moment be visiting (horrors and/or ugh) a Bentley dealership. Well, who cares? Her inspired Swiftian satire on pop culture and its main dish of tabloid schlock with side dishes of hysterical schadenfreude and moronic celeb worship and served by media hyenas and Hollywood cynics elicits some of the most delicious and delighted guffaws in years. (After all, she did time at Entertainment Weekly.) Flynn’s razor-sharp humor as well as your laughter over it aren’t quite like any you’ve experienced before, a sure sign of the worth of Gone Girl. As to Wao and Terrorist, you’ll discover in them bracingly topical versions of old American stories about coming of age rafting the Mississippi, devouring Route 66 in a high-powered ’49 Hudson, and fleeing Pencey Prep for a cold journey amidst the multitudinous phonies in NYC.

Along with the three novelists above, Neal Stephenson’s hard-to-classify speculative fiction has the look and feel of a large body of work of great originality and dreamlike aura that may well transcend our times and flourish well into the future.

Who else?

I have no further choices.

However, three fiftyish American novelists of our day, Jonathan Franzen, the late David Foster Wallace and Jeffrey Eugenides, tend to receive steady highbrow praise, generally more (or so it seems) than the first threesome. I find Franzen boring primarily because I think he is wrong that the “big” novel we find in Dickens still works and, along with Donna Tartt (fittingly pilloried by some highbrow critics and writers), has proven this convincingly. Foster Wallace has written beautifully about tennis but his enormous magnum opus, the novel Infinite Jest, seems not worth the seemingly endless expedition. Franzen has featured briefly in Vanity Fair (the place, not the magazine) because he displeased his would-be patron, Oprah. (And you go, guy!) Most sadly, Foster Wallace, a true talent, and suffering from acute depression, committed suicide in 2008.

I hadn’t read Eugenides (author of Middlesex) and so I purchased his latest, The Marriage Plot.

Well, here it is. The Marriage Plot: the heroine, New Englander Madeleine (“Mady”) Hanna, a young, graduating English Major at Brown, would like literature, and life itself, to be the mannered, aristocratic romanticism of Victorian novelists, especially Jane Austen. The marriage plot in such classics, as you recall, is that it takes a very long, complicated time for the heroine and the right man to find happiness together. The familiar storyline may have two men contesting for the heroine, and the right match, the right winner, seems barely to be realized, and just in time before The (Thankfully Happy) End.

The Marriage Plot: There are two men in Madeleine’s life: Leonard Bankhead, a fellow Brown student and, gradually revealed, a manic-depressive; and Mitchell Grammaticus, also a fellow Brown student who is a would-be Christian mystic. Madeleine eventually marries Leonard, suffers greatly in a set of riotous episodes evidently well informed by case studies of manic-depressives, and, at the end of their romance, is left alone because Leonard, in an especially acute manic episode, runs far away. In the meantime, Mitchell, pining for Madeleine, immerses himself in the literature of Christian mysticism (Theresa of Avila, Thomas Merton, et al.), travels to India to work with the destitute, returns to the US, finds Madeleine, and…

“(Mitchell asks Madeleine) From the books you read for your thesis…Austen and the James and everything–was there 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?”

“No,” Madeleine said. “I don’t think there’s one like that.”

“But do you think that would be good? As an ending?”

…A moving van rolled down the street, shaking the house….

And Madeleine kept squinting, as though Mitchell was already far away, until finally, smiling gratefully, she answered, “Yes.”

How about that moving van? Get it?

The Marriage Plot: We’ve got: Victimology. Relief work abroad. The absurdity of Semiotics, Deconstruction, Derrida, Barthes. As to the latter: Eugenides, like Franzen, trashes (and rightfully so) the nonsense and hypocrisy in academic literary study today–or much of that study, we should say–but in a gentler and kinder dismissal of it than Harold Bloom’s “The School of Resentment” and does so in favor of traditional ideas of literature. (Which is not very dramatic. But, the editors probably agreed, Eugenides needed to pillory that awful Semiotics 211 seminar he’d had to take.)

The Marriage Plot is very shallow, pandering and boring in very up-to-date fashion. It’s a Romance Novel with some academic flourishes. But most of all, it’s a novel with its business ear to the ground. Which means, knowing the audience.

It is largely a female audience. It isn’t Flynn’s audience. I think it’s something like the ESPN audience on the male side of things (meaning males may cast no stones). Sports Illustrated. MLB Tonight. Sports Talk Radio. Monday Night Football. Die Hard. And so on.

As per:

1. This morning I was in the Capitola Book Cafe, a bookstore that along with the Santa Cruz Book Shop, Kepler’s, and City Lights is among the last of the Great Indies in this part of the world, and I paused in front of a very long magazine rack, by far the longest in the place. Here’s what I saw: Interview, NYON, Talk, Lucky, Allure, Corduroy, Zink, I2T, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, Glamor, Blackbook, 1-D, W, O, C, Sage Woman, Health, Natural Health, Russh, Zooey, Redbook, More, Self, Mujer, In Style, Bazaar, Bust, The Knot, Vogue, Brides, Weight Watcher, Living, and Town and Country. On each cover was a goddess smiling hysterically or, occasionally, looking provocative.

2. Meanwhile, on television: Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz (try to find video of his recent frightened and stammering testimony on Capitol Hill when grilled by disgusted members for endorsing dubious diet aids–it’ll warm your heart and you’ll see that once in a while Congress can do something satisfying), Judge Judy, The Doctors, Ellen, The Perfect Wife, Grey’s Anatomy, Maury Povich, Access Hollywood, Red Carpet, etc., etc.

3. Mady’s clothes usually are identified by brand name.

4. Mady’s daddy is a baddie. Insensitive.

5. Mady’s mommie…if only she had it all to do over again….

Potboiler gold here.

(By the way: the novel is set in the early 1980s. Mady’s about fifty now. Her niece at Brown, Class of 2014, has never heard of Henry James. [Which is probably all right]. And Mady had never heard of Facebook until the novel was good and over. [Which probably made for easier writing. Certainly for better reading, such as it is.])