“And you may say to yourself, my God, what have I done?”– Talking Heads, “Once in a Lifetime”
One of the nicest things about being a book reviewer is the “Christmas all year” effect of receiving books in the mail. I suspect more famed reviewers, deluged by advance review copies, may not share this sentiment, but receiving those thick envelopes in my post office box has never ceased giving me a thrill.
I schlep my now-heavier bookbag to the BART station. Sometimes I open the envelopes right on the platform. What is it? Who sent it? The crisp new book smell momentarily eradicates the fug of too many bodies and urine vapors in the subterranean air. I open books backwards, searching for acknowledgements, reading the note on the type, checking out the author photo. No matter how badly my day went, I am immensely cheered.
Such was my feeling when, leaving work early with stomach flu, I stopped to get my mail (the only thing worse than stomach flu is nothing to read while having the stomach flu) and there, friends, was the new Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot. At 406 pages, the book promised escape, enjoyment, a happiness similar to biting into summer’s first real tomato: well worth the wait. (Eugenides’ last book, the Pulitzer Prize winning Middlesex, came out in 2003. More on this later.) I went home in a peculiar state of happy misery and dove in.
I was not disappointed, and you won’t be, either, unless you are the kind of person who reads Discipline and Punish at bedtime, in which case you aren’t reading this, anyway.
Eugenides turns his considerable talents and wit on Madeleine Hanna who, at the beginning of The Marriage Plot, is about to graduate from Brown University. Madeleine is very much a product of privilege. Her father, Alton, is a retired college president, her mother, Phyllida, the type of polished chatterbox too easily dismissed as stupid.
Eugenides, who hails from Grosse Pointe, a wealthy, WASP-y Detroit suburb, nails Madeleine, whose uptight fastidiousness has worked both for and against her. She is a successful literature student with grad-school aspirations, a careful beauty who takes off the “freshmen 15” as quickly as she gained those extra pounds.
Yet the seamier side of life repulses her. Mental illness, homelessness, anything less than a sparkling living space with clean sheets sends her running. This puts her in a particularly dicey position when comes to her great college love, Leonard Bankhead.
Bankhead is everything Madeleine is not. His alcoholic mother resides in Portland, Oregon. His father has fled the States for Europe. Not for Leonard the charming home, the parents who drink heavily yet hold their liquor elegantly, the money smoothing every rough corner. Leonard has made it to Brown for one reason: he’s a genius.
In addition to his genius, he’s handsome and a good listener, making him quite popular on campus. His sexual exploits soon make him an envied personage amongst his male classmates.
Mitchell Grammaticus doesn’t just envy Leonard: he despises him. Mitchell, like his creator, is also from Grosse Pointe. The Grammaticus family has slightly less money than the Hannas, but are far better off than the Bankheads, both fiscally and parentally. That Mitchell met Madeleine before Leonard entered the picture is yet another source of jealousy.
Mitchell encounters Madeleine at a freshman orientation toga party, instantly falling in love. Madeleine does not return the sentiment. Mitchell is a friend, a good friend, good enough to bring home with her over Thanksgiving Break, where he charms her uptight, elegantly hard-drinking family and falls ever more deeply in love with her. Madeleine remains unmoved; their relationship jolts along in spurts of affection, blowouts leading to periods of silence (which Mitchell suffers mightily), and passing reunions.
The story is set in and around 1982, a time of economic insecurity but before paralyzing international fear became commonplace. The terrible things that will happen are far in an unimaginable future, and these college students are remarkably if unwittingly fortunate in their naïveté: their primary worry is themselves, their lives, and what they’ll do with their futures.
This is not to diminish their concerns. Of the three, we know immediately that Madeleine, whatever the story’s outcome, will succeed: she was born into advantage and therefore exists within a miniscule strata of people untouched by the economy, poor education, or lack of access to early dental care. Madeleine has all these things, and more. There’s nothing the world can do to her but make her cry, which it does, but girls like Madeleine aren’t constitutionally suited to endless tears. They cry, then don tennis whites and play a few rousing sets.
Mitchell and Leonard are not so fortunate. Mitchell is beset by the kind of existential angst peculiar to college students, who contend with their unanswerable questions by dropping out, majoring in Philosophy, doing lots of drugs, or majoring in Religious Studies. Mitchell opts for Religious Studies with a smattering of weed, making a reputation for himself as a slightly kooky but brilliant guy.
Leonard, who arguably has so much—charm, brains, looks—suffers from Bipolar disorder, and must take Lithium to control his moods. But the Lithium causes unpleasant side effects, including torpor, weight gain, and clouded thinking. So Leonard, a budding scientist, experiments on himself, messing with his drug dose. The resulting mania is initially wonderful, but that wonder rapidly escalates into bizarre behavior culminating in disastrous results. Leonard cycles back into paralyzing depression, but not before Madeleine has fallen hopelessly in love with him.
There are some very funny moments in The Marriage Plot, many of them set in academia. Early in the novel, Madeleine, a lover of Austen, Eliot, and Colette, finds herself hopelessly out of literature’s most fashionable loop: suddenly everyone, it seems, is reading Derrida’s Of Grammatology. Madeleine finds all she hold dear about literature, particularly the notion that a book be about something, turned on its head:
“If Restoration was getting you down, if scanning Wordsworth was making you feel dowdy and ink-stained, there was another option. You could flee… the old New Criticism. You could defect to the new imperium of Derrida and Eco. You could sign up for Semiotics 211 and find out what everyone else was talking about.”
Madeleine does sign up for Semiotics 211, and Eugenides’ sly remarks, issued from behind his well-meaning heroine’s uncomprehending, ultimately disgusted mien, are hilariously funny. Eugenides has clearly read (endured?) his Derrida and Baudrillard, making him the rare writer erudite enough to make fun of the Deconstructionists and get away with it. Semiotics 211, meanwhile, is every seminar English majors alternately squirmed through or, recalling their supercilious classroom remarks, squirm to recall.
Mitchell may be miserable without Madeleine’s romantic attentions, but this doesn’t slow his intellectual trajectory. Penning a take-home final for a Religious Studies course, he realizes his classmates’ rejection of religious feeling may be hasty. With the lyrics from the Talking Heads “Once in a Lifetime” running through his head:
“… Mitchell kept bending his answers toward their practical application. He wanted to know why he was here and how to live. It was the perfect way to end your college career. Education had finally led Mitchell out into life.”
Mitchell’s post-collegiate plan is to embark on a world tour of sorts with his friend and roommate, Larry. His professors have suggested graduate school; Mitchell isn’t certain he wishes to attend. He ends up instead in India, in a house for the dying run by Mother Theresa. There he finds himself seriously misplaced, unable to bring himself to do much beyond speak to the hopeless cases waiting for death.
Leonard is also faltering. Madeleine follows him to a predoctoral stay at Pilgrim Lake Laboratories, allowing Eugenides a scathing send-up of scientists and the pecking orders of science labs. Eugenides also manages to work in a study of saccharomyces cerevisiae—yeast—that ever-popular organism of scientific scrutiny. None of this is much help to Leonard, who once again responds to the siren call of tinkering with his Lithium dose.
Parents write nervous letters and pay nervous visits. Mitchell’s mother, Lillian, sends an unwittingly hilarious letter penned while up in “Herbie”, a small plane piloted by Mitchell’s father, Dean. Phyllida visits Madeleine and Leonard, Madeleine’s sister Alwyn in tow, for a particularly disastrous afternoon. Leonard’s family remains conspicuously absent, save one phone call that explains his complete lack of regard for his relatives.
In the 16 September edition of the New York Times, Dwight Garner chides Eugenides for his slow pace. Only three books in 18 years? How are we, as readers, expected to remember writers like Eugenides and fellow slowpokes Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, and Donna Tartt, who seem to produce only a book a decade? (Or, heartbreakingly, never again?) Garner posits them as novelists who, unlike their speedier brethren, eagerly taking on popular culture in a Twitter minute, prefer ascending to a mountaintop, where they pronounce from on high to their hapless readers. To Garner this is a dangerous position, for slower writers run the risk of—gasp–losing cultural relevancy.
I counter that good writing is not a race, and the notion that Eugenides, Franzen, and Tartt better hurry it up is ridiculous. (If only we could level this accusation at Wallace.) If Garner wants rapid writing, let him read Joyce Carol Oates, anomalous for the incredible speed with which she produces. Or better yet, Nora Roberts, whose webpage of new releases promises a book a month.
As for “cultural relevancy” to a story what it is, and who defines it, is outside the scope of this review. (Semiotics 211, anyone?) Suffice to say The Marriage Plot is wonderfully written. It’s an apt, canny, capacious portrait of three individuals finding their way, wherever that may lead.
Meanwhile, if we have to wait a decade between Eugenides books, then wait we will. The payoff is worth it.