Of Dating and Derrida: Jeffrey Eugenides’s Marriage Plot

Posted on | November 3, 2011 | 4 Comments

Fall has arrived, the season of weighty novels. Much like Freedom did this time last year The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides, has launched our annual referendum on The Novel in the 21st Century.  As Evan Hughes noted in a moving piece on their generation of writers, Eugenides and Franzen are both working in the gaping hole blown open by David Foster Wallace, who managed to marry the cynicism of Pynchon and DeLillo with the moralism they left behind.  Can good old-fashioned realism recoup its losses after Wallace paved a new way forward?

Franzen set out to answer this question with a bravura performance: a big, thumping, occasionally sloppy novel that made its case by packing contemporary subjects into a work that, on a technical level, might as well have been written in 1878.  Eugenides, on the other hand, comes at the question head-on.  The Marriage Plot reads as a kind of syllabus—a primer on the linguistic turn and the classics it consigned to the dustbin. real money casino app for android

Based on various reviews, I had expected The Marriage Plot to be a fictional disquisition on the viability of the novel in the wake of theory.  The ingredients are all there.  But as it turns out, this is not the book Eugenides has written.  Whether the title is a feint or whether Eugenides has misread his own work I can’t say, but here is what The Marriage Plot is not about: literary theory, Victorian novels, and, the uncanny resemblance of the character Leonard Bankhead notwithstanding, David Foster Wallace. usa welcome online casinos

Yes, the characters within the novel engage with these motifs.  Some of Eugenides’s best scenes are those set in an undergraduate semiotics seminar at Brown.  “Right up through her third year at college, Madeleine kept wholesomely taking courses like Victorian Fantasy: From Phantastes to The Water-Babies, but 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,” Eugenides writes.  This new currency in literary cool lands Madeleine in Semiotics 211, which begins with a would-be Derrida disciple introducing himself:

Um, let’s see.  I’m finding it hard to introduce myself, actually, because the whole idea of social introductions is so problematized.  Like, if I tell you that my name is Thurston Meems and that I grew up in Stamford, Connecticut, will you know who I am?  O.K.  My name’s Thurston and I’m from Stamford, Connecticut.  I’m taking this course because I read Of Grammatology last summer and it blew my mind.

Yet what theory means for the novel is a question that ranks somewhere between why Leonard Bankhead hasn’t asked her out and where to meet her parents at graduation in Madeleine Hanna’s catalogue of anxieties.  Semiotics 211 may ask Madeleine to investigate the relative merits of realism and poststructuralism, but Eugenides’s own novel seems uninterested in putting these competing aesthetics to the test.  Once his characters are launched into the world—Leonard and Madeleine to a genetics lab on Cape Cod, Leonard’s would-be rival Mitchell Grammaticus to a year of spiritual questing in India—Eugenides mostly lets the matter drop.

This is not a bad thing.  The Marriage Plot is a delightful novel.  It’s funny, it’s sharp, and it handles its subject—the surfeit of available identities from which Gen X and Y have been able to cherry-pick their best selves—with pathos and insight.  (For all the contrasts drawn between these two generations, they don’t seem so different: Gen Xers have morphed into the same kind of individuality-obsessed, achievement-cultivating parents that raised Gen Y—my own demographic—to measure their successes in banking bonuses and marathon miles.)  The upheavals of the ‘60s and ‘70s have left Madeleine, Leonard and Mitchell—all Brown University ’82—with a bewildering inheritance: they can do anything.  Unsurprisingly, the result is existential paralysis. video poker casino games online

The novels that line Madeleine’s shelves and the religious texts that Mitchell schleps to India are part of the material they marshal in trying to figure out what they want their lives to look like.  In this sense, The Marriage Plot reminds me of nothing so much as Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: it’s a book about how we try to live out our lives as if we were literary characters, as if having access to all the dramatic structuring devices and reversals of our favorite books would somehow make us better people, or at least more interesting.  There’s a reason Mitchell’s religious longing never feels, well, religious: it’s fueled by the urgency not of faith but of self-expression.  And then there’s Leonard.  A manic-depressive biologist, Leonard doesn’t get the luxury of this crisis of choice.  His fate has been mapped for him genetically, predestining him to a life consumed by the threat of madness.

This is all to say that The Marriage Plot is Eugenides doing what Eugenides does best—capturing the wrenching agony of adolescence, and the very real stakes of all its petty adolescent decisions—as well as he has yet.  Literary theory here functions like hermaphroditism did in Middlesex and suicide in The Virgin Suicides: it’s an organizing principle.  There are plenty of metafictional games in The Marriage Plot, but I think to take them as a roadmap for how to read the book is to miss the point.  Eugenides neither flouts the author-killing mandates of the 1980s nor bears them out.  Like Madeleine and Mitchell (not so much Leonard), Eugenides’s novel only sometimes knows what it wants to be and sometimes makes weird decisions and still turns out mostly good anyway.


4 Responses to “Of Dating and Derrida: Jeffrey Eugenides’s Marriage Plot

  1. theoncominghope
    November 7th, 2011 @ 10:14 am

    Wow, you really read the book so differently from how I did! I love the idea that the characters are “imagining themselves as literary characters,” but I’m not sure the text supports that interpretation?

    As a longtime Eugenides fan, I was personally quite disappointed. The characters, apart from Leonard, seemed a little stock. But to each their own, I suppose!

    My full review can be found here: http://theoncominghope.blogspot.com/2011/11/book-review-jeffrey-eugenides-marriage.html play online blackjack ipad

  2. Brooks
    December 1st, 2011 @ 5:46 pm

    This is probably the best review of The Marriage Plot that I’ve read. Well done!

    This bit: “There’s a reason Mitchell’s religious longing never feels, well, religious: it’s fueled by the urgency not of faith but of self-expression.” is exactly what I was trying (unsuccessfully) to say in my own review.

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