The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
It’s the early 1980s—the country is in a deep recession, and life after college is harder than ever. In the cafés on College Hill, the wised-up kids are inhaling Derrida and listening to Talking Heads. But Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English major, is writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, purveyors of the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels.
As Madeleine tries to understand why “it became laughable to read writers like Cheever and Updike, who wrote about the suburbia Madeleine and most of her friends had grown up in, in favor of reading the Marquis de Sade, who wrote about deflowering virgins in eighteenth-century France,” real life, in the form of two very different guys, intervenes. Leonard Bankhead—charismatic loner, college Darwinist, and lost Portland boy—suddenly turns up in a semiotics seminar, and soon Madeleine finds herself in a highly charged erotic and intellectual relationship with him. At the same time, her old “friend” Mitchell Grammaticus—who’s been reading Christian mysticism and generally acting strange—resurfaces, obsessed with the idea that Madeleine is destined to be his mate.
Over the next year, as the members of the triangle in this amazing, spellbinding novel graduate from college and enter the real world, events force them to reevaluate everything they learned in school. Leonard and Madeleine move to a biology Laboratory on Cape Cod, but can’t escape the secret responsible for Leonard’s seemingly inexhaustible energy and plunging moods. And Mitchell, traveling around the world to get Madeleine out of his mind, finds himself face-to-face with ultimate questions about the meaning of life, the existence of God, and the true nature of love.
Are the great love stories of the nineteenth century dead? Or can there be a new story, written for today and alive to the realities of feminism, sexual freedom, prenups, and divorce? With devastating wit and an abiding understanding of and affection for his characters, Jeffrey Eugenides revives the motivating energies of the Novel, while creating a story so contemporary and fresh that it reads like the intimate journal of our own lives.
In the months since its publication, this novel has been making the rounds on the blogosphere. Even before it was released, it drew meteoric buzz as a result of Eugenides’s previous novels, including The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, the latter of which received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. This was my first encounter with a Eugenides novel and I can safely say that I was not in any way disappointed.
My roommate read this novel a few months ago. She was already a great fan of Eugenides. I had read the buzz about the novel, the reviews on the internet and in magazines. But it wasn’t until she started to tell me about it that I really perked up. Point One: It’s a novel about post-grads in the midst of a recession. Point Two: The main character is an English major. Point Three: She and others spend an intensive amount of time studying and discussing semiotics and literary theory. Point Four: Mental health is a central component of the novel.
Upon delving into the pages, I was surprised to find how human the characters are. This is something that is oft repeated when discussing novels. But in this case, I felt it in a way that I’d never felt it before. All three of the central characters are annoying. And impossibly endearing. Multiple times I wanted to reach into the novel and smack them up the side of their heads. And always, I continued onwards.
That the writing was wonderful, beautiful, and deliciously precise is no surprise. What was surprising was the way the novel drew me in. In love, I think, there are two main ways it manifests itself: either suddenly and impressively like a hurricane, or so slow and tepid that by the time you realize it’s there, it’s too late to think of disentangling yourself from its embrace, if you even wanted to. The second describes this novel. There’s nothing that I can particularly point to that hooked me. Just that, as I went about my life, my thoughts would return over and over to the novel and I’d wait excitedly for the few moments I had before bed to give in to it. Eventually, I was in deep and took to carrying it around and reading it at the bus stop and on the bus (even though I get horribly carsick).
The final thing (among multitudes of things) that I found interesting about the work was the way in which mental health was discussed and dealt with. MINOR SPOILER: One of the characters is a manic-depressive, or, bipolar. I like to think that now, in the second decade of the 21st century, we’ve moved away from taboos and into something like acceptance of mental illness. But I don’t think we have. I’m taking a class at the moment on the writing of illness in narratives. After several years in a college lit department and hanging around other writers and poets, I am of the opinion that most people with an interest in the arts have at least the barest vestiges of something not quite wired right in their brain. Myself included. I could write an entire post about my speculations about these connections and the ways in which these “flaws” become strengths, but I won’t. Eugenides’s novel takes place in the eighties, before the days of the pharmaceutical industry and its ready plethora of drugs to treat this, that, and the other. For this character, the only treatment available to him is dosing with lithium. Which he despises. But, there are no other drugs to try.
I knew I wanted to read this novel because I knew there were never be a better moment in my life to do so. In the three central characters, I found a threefold manifestation of my own journey. There’s the student with no clear direction, the student who decides to travel the world, and the student who immediately proceeds into academia/work. That we are also in the midst of a time of recession and higher unemployment (though recently, I have begun to feel that people in my year are luckier than years past) does not escape me. As I prepare to launch out into the world, I am seized with an overwhelming desire to soak up as much fictional takes on the post-grad experience as I can. To that end, I’ve even rescued a novel draft from my own personal slush pile and have resumed work on it, seeking to write a novel about that weird point in your twenties when you feel everything and nothing is on the table, when everything and nothing has already been decided. The mystical quarter-life crisis? Perhaps. Though I suppose I’m too young still even for that.
As I contemplate my own college graduation next weekend, I find myself paralyzed with fear and paralyzed with hope. It’s like an escalator: no matter if you’re going down or up, you don’t have to do a thing because it carries you inevitably to your destination. I hope I’m going up.