Literature: Jeffrey Eugenides- The Marriage Plot
Chris Townsend isn't too impressed with the latest work by the author of The Virgin Suicides
by Chris Townsend
Monday 7th May 2012, 09:50 BST
The title of The Marriage Plot refers to the romance narratives of the Victorian novels read by Madeleine, the latest in a line of female protagonists from the pen of Jeffrey Eugenides. His novel tries to reimagine the marriage plot for a contemporary audience, focusing on the graduation, and following year, of its central characters: the nervous romantic Madeleine, cerebral and misanthropic Leonard, and the spiritually seeking Mitchell. However, Mitchell isn't the only one who's lost, as Eugenides quickly loses his own marriage plot.
The trouble starts with the novel's inconsequential digressions. The book is obsessed with other books. Barely a page goes by without a reference to Madeleine's appetite for Victorian fiction, or the theological works consumed by Mitchell. In fact, the early chapters of the book seem to be pieced together from Eugenides' old university reading lists.
The question begs: who are these moments written for? Who is the book written for? I'd suggest that it might be for Eugenides himself. He constantly seems to be patting himself on the back, such as in this exchange between Mitchell and a stranger in Greece: “You know what Koine is?” “That's the language the New Testament was written in. Ancient demotic form of Greek.” “Wow. Most people don't know that. I'm impressed”. Wow indeed, Jeffrey.
What's worse is that Mitchell is a thinly-veiled portrait of a young Eugenides, one who follows the author through his Brown university education and globe-trotting gap year like a shadow with a thirty-year delay. As the author has unlimited access to his own mind and memory, Mitchell is also bestowed with far more interiority than the other characters of the novel, with the narrative delving deep enough into his psyche to explore his bizarrely self-flagellating masturbatory fantasies.
We spend more time inside his head, even, than in that of the manic-depressive Leonard, or of the ostensible protagonist Madeleine. I say ostensible, because by the end of the novel the perspective pivots, with Mitchell coming closer to a life-changing epiphany than Madeleine, and as a result the closing pages of the book reframe him as the lead character. By naming his character 'Madeleine', after Proust's cakes, Eugenides isn't hiding his own 'search for lost time'.
What's unfortunate is that his past is of little interest to the casual reader. This is a tremendous shame, because the remarkable quality of his previous novels has been their ability to bring to life, and place centre-stage, characters who the author very clearly is not, or has not been. We are treated to no hermaphroditic Calliope as in Middlesex, and no-one close to the fascinating Lux that The Virgin Suicides brilliantly created then destroyed.
To his credit, Eugenides's wry humour often delights (in particular, the parent-figures of the novel are given some wonderfully admonishing lines when talking to their offspring). And the novel does pose interesting questions about intellectual trends; semiotics, deconstruction, and French feminism are all by turns criticised as products of their age, doomed to ossify and become stale in the minds of their exponents.
This translates well to the overarching temporal permutations of the “marriage plot”, and the changing role of marriage in a changed society. But the sad truth is that the waning interest in those movements in the decades since the novel's 1980s context is likely to serve as a regrettable mirror of the reception with which the works of Jeffrey Eugenides are met. If it takes him a decade to write his fourth book, as it did with The Marriage Plot, he may find himself without an audience.