You Are What You Read
The Marriage Plot
Fourth Estate, 2011
Jeffrey Eugenides’s previous work hasn’t exactly shied away from bookishness. His 2002 novel, Middlesex, for instance, mentions French philosopher Michel Foucault on its first page. But The Marriage Plot, his latest, takes this tendency to an extreme. “To start with,” it begins, “look at all the books.” The books in question are the personal library of one Madeleine Hanna, at this point about to graduate from Brown University. The library includes “the complete Modern Library set of Henry James, a gift from her father” and “the first edition of [John Updike's] Couples, belonging to her mother, which Madeleine had surreptitiously dipped into back in sixth grade and which she was using now to provide textual support in her English honours thesis on the marriage plot.” This is a kind of prospectus for the novel: the next 400 pages will display the mores of the upper classes and the “international theme” (hence the James), that genre of modern American fiction we might term the white male novelist’s guide to sex (hence the Updike), and a rather by-the-numbers metatextuality (hence the appearance of the honours thesis and the title a hundred words in).
The novel commences in 1982, and its first section is dedicated to Madeleine’s undergraduate infatuation with structuralist theory, with Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse, and with one Leonard Bankhead, a manic-depressive polymath who bears an uncanny resemblance to Eugenides’s friend, the late David Foster Wallace. Their relationship, which reaches an early crisis in an argument over Barthes’s analysis of the phrase “I love you”, comes to overshadow her graduation. Throughout the novel characters will confuse their grad school problems with their personal and romantic ones. This is a source of comedy throughout:
Though auditing a class at the Sorbonne taught by Luce Irigiray and titled The Mother-Daughter Relationship: The Darkest of Dark Continents, Claire had followed maternal example by setting out guest towels.
And yet such allusiveness is not exactly, or not solely, a joke. The novel is marked by a continued process of reference to other texts; in some places the injunction to “look at all the books” is nine-tenths of the information we need to decipher the plot.
When Leonard’s rival Mitchell Grammaticus first appears, he is reciting a prayer, which the narrator notes the reader may be familiar with from J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. Throughout the novel characters are introduced with paperbacks in hand, from cameos like the “girl with stiff pink hair…smoking a clove cigarette and reading Invisible Cities” to plot-determining episodes like the following: “One Sunday morning, before winter break, Abby’s boyfriend, Whitney, materialized at their kitchen table, reading something called Of Grammatology.” Some characters seem to be the result of central casting: the reader can predict the exact dimensions of one of Eugenides’s caricatures from the fact she’s introduced reading New French Feminisms. This last episode takes place in Paris, in one of two sections following Mitchell around Europe and Asia as he thinks about Madeleine and whether to enter divinity school. Inevitably, we’re given the list of books he packs, “a cache that included The Imitation of Christ, The Confessions of St. Augustine, Saint Teresa’s Interior Castle”, amongst others; and yet the book which has the greatest effect on him is Something Beautiful for God, an illustrated introduction to Mother Teresa. In the second of these sections Mitchell establishes himself as a volunteer at Teresa’s Home for Dying Destitutes, Calcutta. His attempts at theology and charity are the only point at which a character’s aspirations move beyond marriage or further education.
Meanwhile, Madeleine and Leonard are residing at the latter’s postgraduate placement, a laboratory near Cape Cod, trying to deal with the effects of Leonard’s illness on their relationship. It’s here, 150 pages into the novel, that Leonard starts to diverge from his model, to develop as a character in his own right. Unfortunately, he is a profoundly unpleasant one. A charitable interpretation is that Eugenides intended a sympathetic portrait of a remarkable intelligence in thrall to illness; what emerges, however, is a rather dated version of the trope of the mentally ill person as arch-manipulator. Leonard calculates that proposing marriage to Madeleine is “the solution to all his problems, romantic, financial, and strategic”. Their marriage is, unsurprisingly, ill-fated; their honeymoon, disintegrative. Leonard will disappear in Monte Carlo and reappear with no memory of his missing days, having been seen, meanwhile, in a brothel; this follows a scene in Nice which is, in Eugenides’s description, only a couple of face-saving clauses from a portrayal of marital rape.
G.K. Chesterton once commented on the unfriendly caricature of Leigh Hunt in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. Dickens, says Chesterton, might not have been suggesting “suppose Hunt had been a rascal”; rather, he was fancying, “suppose a rascal had behaved like Hunt”. Eugenides denies vigorously that he ever meant to base Leonard upon Wallace, despite the biographical correspondences and highly specific details like Leonard’s absurd dependence on chewing tobacco to mitigate the side effects of his medication. Ultimately, what prompted Eugenides to incorporate his friend in such a fashion is probably beyond the realm of criticism. Yet it’s been an unavoidable feature of the novel’s reception. At any rate, perhaps ultimately this disproportion is engendered by weaknesses in the novel itself: Leonard Bankhead’s resemblance to a particular person is so pronounced, so hard to avoid, because a lot of the time Madeleine Hanna resembles no one at all.
Eugenides has always written about female experience, but in both his previous novels, narrative and form have worked together to acknowledge the problems inherent in doing so. For one thing, in both The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, life as a woman ends during adolescence: in the latter by gender-reassignment surgery; in the former, more straightforwardly, in the manner of the title. And in both books the stance of the narrator—the confused outsider’s viewpoint in Suicides, the adult Cal’s ironic detachment in Middlesex—acknowledges the problem implicit in a male author’s attempt to dramatise female experience. The privileged-youths-consider-grad-school milieu of The Marriage Plot doesn’t seem a great distance from adolescence per se: at one point in the first part Madeleine is “furious at everyone and everything, at her mother…at Leonard for not calling, at the weather for being cold, and at college for ending.” But the over-the-shoulder narration leads to difficulties. At times it’s hard not to see the middle-aged, goateed author on the jacket photo ventriloquising Madeleine: when, for example, Madeleine looks back on her romantic career as an undergraduate, comprising three monogamous relationships and an abortive one-night stand, and sees herself “broken by love, by empty promiscuity, by self-doubt”. Or the above-mentioned scene in Nice, in which Madeline “knew that she shouldn’t let Leonard have sex with her after the way he’d treated her all evening. At the same time, she felt so sad and unwanted that it came as a huge relief to be touched…But she couldn’t say no.” Madeleine is more a passive agent of male desires and ideas than an actor in her own plot. In a book where at least one character is explicitly mocked for an interest in the current state of feminism, the total effect is more than a little queasy.
Near to the novel’s conclusion, Madeleine’s and Leonard’s first fight—over Barthes’s celebrated definition of “I love you” as an empty utterance that “once the first avowal has been made…has no meaning whatsoever”—resurfaces in the language of the romance novel:
Madeleine said nothing because she didn’t know what to say. Even “I love you” seemed inadequate. She’d said this to Leonard so many times in situations like this that she was worried it was losing its power.
It is this banality which constitutes the novel’s singular truth: that things, books, and relationships we’ve intellectually idealised can turn out to be empty when it comes to the real world. Mitchell, in India, finds that he cannot adjust to the life of charity he has imagined as the day-to-day effort of cleaning the sick and dying proves too much for him. And once Leonard has left Madeleine, and Mitchell has reappeared, the marriage plot we’ve been enveloped in all along is invoked once again only to be quietly discarded. Mitchell rather breathlessly telegraphs the entire action of the novel:
From the books you read for your thesis…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…do you think that would be good, as an ending?
But this suggestion that Madeleine might go on to do “more important things” takes place on the last page of the book. Eugenides finds himself stuck: what a Madeleine Hanna might accomplish on her own terms, under her own agency, is beyond the scope of the marriage plot, or at least of The Marriage Plot.
Tom West is reading for an MSt in English Literature at Regent’s Park College, Oxford.