Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Marriage Plot

Last year right around this time, I was given to read “The Marriage Plot” (JeffreyEugenides) by one of my best friends (who is also the godfather of my child, which is why he was in Colombia).  I devoured the book, as I did Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom” the prior year; my mother has gotten into the habit of giving me one big US book to read every Christmas, in part so I am not completely out of the cultural loop of my native country.  I like this, especially when the books are fiction, because I’m always reading non-fiction for work and leisure, and it’s good to just enjoy plot and language once in a while.

Anyway, I’ve had a sad little piece of paper lying around for a year with notes on what I want to say about “The Marriage Plot”.  Here now is my attempt to give it a decent review.

“The Marriage Plot” is many things, but above all (or at least most initially striking) it is a period piece.  It takes place in a very distinctive era (the early 80s) and moment in life (the last year and immediate aftermath of college).  The place it is set in is the Ivy League East Coast, Brown University to be exact, with its cultural quirks of the WASP aristocracy.  Initially this geographical focus was offputting for me, because I have never spent a substantial amount of time on the East Coast, never been around old-money areligious WASPs, never been in the Ivy League ambiance.  It is a credit to Eugenides as a writer both that I quickly felt versed and at home in this literary environment, and that I also quickly identified many relevant parallels and important differences between the book’s setting and the part of the US I grew up in.  Indeed, the two main characters of the novel are from Oregon and Michigan, respectively, and in that light I feel that much of the writing is intentionally presented as an outsider’s view of the world depicted.  In the end though, many of the dynamics described for 1980s college life on the East Coast are very similar to things I noticed at a big Midwestern state university in the 2000s.

The early 80s time period of the book seems to be a rich, hitherto-unexplored possibility for interesting historical color.  It is a fully postmodern era, in that people have all the material trappings of modernity (TV, rock music, cars, funny-looking in-style clothes) but are intellectually “beyond” them, offering questions and doubts as to the principles and assumptions underlying the society.  In this respect it makes me think that, in the years since then, we as a people have intellectually regressed even as we have progressed by bounds technologically.  We are once again in thrall to the material trappings around us (like some 1950s cheerleader of modernity), and many of the big existential questions on things like systems of governance or the moral and religious basis of life seem to have been either abandoned (no one is seriously debating communism vs. capitalism anymore) or glibly “resolved” (by embracing trite fundamentalisms or total aspiritual consumerism).  At any rate, it is interesting to read in Eugenides’s book characters that talk and act like us, yet are not constantly glued to an iPhone or thinking about what’s on cable TV.  Incidentally, I have noticed in a number of present-day-set books and movies that writers try to some extent to (unrealistically) ignore the vapid, electronic addiction pervading modern life, because it’s not very interesting to write about.   

One of the book’s subplots follows Mitchell Grammaticus as he wanders Europe and India trying to piece together his thoughts on religion and love.  In this thread, as in the descriptions of the intellectual debates taking place in Madeleine’s English classes and Mitchell’s religious studies classes, the main theme is deconstruction vs. construction.  Perhaps the grand moral or intellectual thesis of the whole book could be summed up in this dichotomy.  Essentially the book is about postmodern kids, which is to say young people who have been taught little about old traditions and encouraged to doubt everything upon which society has rested up to that point.  They don’t believe, or aren’t supposed to believe, in religion or love or marriage or even the idea of novel and narrative.  But the alternate, doubting, deconstructionist logic they’ve been offered doesn’t really give a coherent, satisfying way of understanding or seeing the world, either.  So they are left to construct after the deconstruction, all the while wondering if this construction is in fact the antiquated, conservative scam they’ve always been told it is.  In this respect I feel that Eugenides is vindicating the “old things” like marriage and plot and even religion.  But he leaves a question mark at the end of everything.  The book’s main marriage fails spectacularly, Mitchell never really finds religion, and Madeleine doesn’t go with the “right guy” at the end of the book, because neither she nor the right guy want to make that leap.  So if Eugenides is trying to speak in favor of construction, he never does so in an unqualified manner.  I don’t know if this is sage agnosticism on his part, or the same undeciding cowardice he depicts in his characters.

“The Marriage Plot” is also notably a fascinating exploration of mental illness.  Much of the book centers on Leonard Bankhead as he rises and falls from severe manic depression.  It follows him through romantic exploits, lithium, hospitalization, malaise in a dirty apartment, fits of manic energy and illusions of invincibility, marriage, divorce.  Perhaps even more artfully it follows his girlfriend-wife, Madeleine Hanna, as she lives and deals with Leonard’s mental illness. 

But here, too is the book’s weakest point:  the depiction of female characters is poorly-written, and the female characters are all weak people.  This is most strikingly the case of Madeleine, who is ostensibly the book’s main character but is quickly subsumed by the two more interesting, stronger, more intelligent male leads.  Throughout the whole book Madeleine is just a weakly-drawn straight guy who reacts to Leonard, or a two-dimensional muse to set up Mitchell’s deeper contemplations.  More offensively, she as a person is weak, childish, indecisive, capricious.  Despite the fact that my experience with many college-age girls may bear out these traits in Madeleine, I am let down that neither Eugenides in the “The Marriage Plot” nor Franzen in “Freedom” (which I hope to review shortly) is capable of conceiving females that are deep, complex, more or less admirable people, nor are they capable as writers of exploring these female characters in a convincing and complex manner.  I mean, these are supposed to be two leading lights of the present-day literary scene in the US, and they are technically or intellectually unable to get into the female head.

There’s my review of “The Marriage Plot”.  The book is a good exploration of many issues of modernity and post-modernity, as well as an interesting story about the time of uncertainty and wandering at the end of college.  I enjoyed reading it, and I imagine most of my blog readers will, too.  I'm linking to a more expert critique of the novel though, with a much more negative take on it.  Just in case you want another opinion.

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