I’m not a great one for following the books of the moment, but after reading a handful of reviews of Jeffrey Eugenides’ latest novel, The Marriage Plot, I knew, dear reader, that I had to have it. Academics, marriage and madness sounded like an irresistible combination. Having read it, I found it much better than last year’s must-read, Franzen’s Freedom, although it is a more discontinuous novel, less ambitious in some ways but reaching for a much deeper meaning, and at least in its early stages, a huge amount of fun.
The novel opens on a classic scene of the morning-after-the-night-before, as Madeleine Hanna is rudely awakened at 7.30, hideously hungover, by her parents who have come to watch her graduation ceremony and require breakfast and filial attention. Madeleine is a student of English literature with a particular fascination for the love stories of the 19th century, but it’s the early 1980s and, as the narrative so wittily puts it, ‘by senior year she could no longer ignore the contrast between the hard-up blinky people in her Beowulf seminar and the hipsters down the hall reading Maurice Blanchot.’ So she signs up for Semiotics 211 and has a surreal holiday in the land of critical theory. It is here that she meets her nemesis, in the form of Leonard Bankhead, a biology and philosophy student of impressive intellect, who is taking the course out of curiosity. Leonard and Madeleine begin to date, and for Madeleine the die is cast; Leonard seems to be the man she has been waiting for, and helped, if not sometimes hindered, by Roland Barthes’ postmodern appraisal of romance, A Lover’s Discourse, she falls in love with him.
This is not great news to Mitchell Grammaticus, a theology student who has held an unrequited passion for Madeleine ever since college began. Mitchell is a geeky, gawky sort whose subject has taken on a more significant hue for him than just a conveyer belt to a degree. Mitchell wants to find himself through religion, or at least a better, more ethical self than he fears he may be. If it were possible, he’d settle for finding himself through Madeleine Hanna, but although they manage an on-again, off-again friendship, nothing more meaningful that that has ever been on the cards. Mitchell watches Madeleine fall for Leonard with deep dismay, but it’s graduation, the end of those carefree, reckless, yearning years as an apprentice adult, and Mitchell is off travelling with a friend overland to India, that hub of spiritual quests, where undoubtedly his life will be changed.
The early parts of this novel are just so much fun. Eugenides enjoys himself enormously with college students, pretentious theory and interfering parents; he conveys so well the way that desire, in the early twenties, is almost always covertly aspirational, no matter what form it takes. His characters want this person, this class credit, this discourse of knowledge in the hope that something shiny and powerful will rub off on them. So far, so good, but I did feel I could easily be reading an Alison Lurie novel, or at a pinch, one by Anne Tyler. Not that this is bad! I count both those women among my favourite writers, but it was not what I was expecting from a male author hailed as the new great hope of American letters.
From this point on in the narrative, however, things turn much darker. Mitchell and Madeleine, Eugenides’ thwarted lovers, have met and fumbled their first attempts at a relationship, just as any good potential couple should at the start of a romantic novel. Now they have been sent off on very different trajectories, and we readers must wait to see how, or even if, they come together again. What I felt was clever about this novel is that Eugenides suggests that the twentieth century has given us (as opposed to the 19th) a plethora of theories about how to live, how to think, how to understand the world around us. We no longer live in naïve times; instead, everything we do is compared against a theoretical template or a glossy image of how things ought to be. And instead of grand narratives, the province of the 19th century, where the story of mankind was understood to be heading smoothly towards its destiny in perfection, we have competing and contradictory discourses with no way to judge their relative merits. Madeleine is trying to make sense of her life with critical theory, Mitchell with religious theory, but when they step out of the safe precincts of college, life swallows them up in alarming and disturbing ways. Both put their theories to the test with disappointing results.
I don’t think this is a spoiler as we discover it very early in the novel, but look away if you are particularly delicate about spoilers per se. I just have to mention here that Madeleine’s problems with Leonard Bankhead begin (although she thinks at the time this is negligible) when he turns out to suffer from manic depression. Only a small section of the narrative is channelled through Leonard’s point of view, but for me it was the standout section of the book. Eugenides is quite brilliant on the utter dreadfulness of the illness, the way the manic states, so wonderful initially in their magnification of mental and social skills, tip over into a crazy inability to slow down, and how the medication brings dull, deadened reality with a host of unpleasant side effects. There is nowhere for a manic-depressive to be that isn’t painful one way or another. But Leonard’s illness offers Madeleine the irresistible option of trying to save him, mirrored to some extent by Mitchell’s attempts to save the sick and the dying in India. Both are essentially 19th century quests transposed to the modern age.
I found this to be a diverting, rich and well-written novel, but it does start off in one direction, only to finish by heading in another. I liked this because I felt it was motivated and added to the more profound meaning of the story, but Eugenides writes such vivid and engaging scenes that I think you have to step back a bit from the narrative to gain a wider picture of what is going on. The questions he poses are subtle and philosophical: What is a happy ending in the 21st century? What matters most to us in an age that has become self-obsessed? What good does our book learning do us when it comes to putting theory into practice? The fact that he has no pat answers is, I think, both a reasonable conclusion and a postmodern inevitability, which is just the way Eugenides would want it.