This is a strange book, but deceptively so: one of its strangest features is to appear to be aggressively conventional. In his short, spare first novel, The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides used an elegiac first-person-plural narrative to turn the deaths of five suburban sisters into a myth of postwar American decay. His Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller Middlesex was much baggier, a mock-heroic family saga, though its narrator was also pluralised, a pseudo-hermaphrodite writing as an adult male about his Michigan girlhood and the path a mutated gene took through three generations before reaching him. These two books suggest an inventive writer committed to finding a new structure and voice for each story he tells. That such a writer would then publish a semi-autobiographical coming of age story, following three students of his own generation in the months before and the year after their graduation might not be surprising. But it is puzzling that he tells the story with such structural plainness, in a flat third person.
The Marriage Plot arrives at a time when convention is the fashion, and takes Eugenides to the forefront of a neoconservative movement that views literary experimentation as the God That Failed. Raised on the modernist and postmodernist masters, these writers – among them Eugenides’s contemporary Jonathan Franzen and a younger cohort that includes Zadie Smith and Dave Eggers – have come to believe that too much was lost – in moral and emotional engagement, in readership – when realism was thrown over. As Franzen wrote in the New Yorker, ‘in college, I’d admired Derrida and the Marxist and feminist critics, people whose job was to find fault with modern Systems.’ But ‘I didn’t particularly like the writers in my modern canon … I craved academic and hipster respect of the kind that Pynchon and Gaddis got and Saul Bellow and Ann Beattie didn’t. But Bellow and Beattie, not to mention Dickens and Conrad and Brontë and Dostoevsky and Christina Stead, were the writers I actually, unhiply enjoyed reading.’ More and more ‘the postmodern programme, the notion of formal experimentation as an act of resistance’, began ‘to seem seriously misconceived’. When Middlesex came out in 2002, Eugenides told the New York Times that he and Franzen shared a belief that ‘we’ve gone so far out with deconstructing literature that it’s almost in need of being reconstructed.’ Their generation, he claimed, ‘grew up backwards … We read Joyce before we read Tolstoy. The gods we were told about were Pynchon and high modernism. Experimentation was the norm for us. Then we found out what the modernists were rebelling against.’
Eugenides studied at Brown with John Hawkes and at Stanford with Gilbert Sorrentino, exacting experimentalists who were ‘against order on the whole and against storytelling’. By setting much of his new novel at Brown in the early 1980s, Eugenides returns to the time of the fall; by committing the novel unblinkingly to the conventions of realism, he offers a correction. The clash between postmodernism and tradition is among the novel’s explicit subjects.
One character in The Marriage Plot, Mitchell Grammaticus, shares with Eugenides a Greek-American background, a childhood spent in Detroit, a youthful backpacking trip to India and a stint volunteering with Mother Theresa, but it’s Mitchell’s classmate and the object of his affection, Madeleine Hanna, who experiences the temptation of modernism. She becomes an English major ‘for the purest and dullest reason: because she loved to read’, and worries that her simple tastes make her unhip. Since syllabus is destiny, Eugenides introduces her by describing her bookshelves:
To start with, look at all the books. There were her Edith Wharton novels, arranged not by title but date of publication; there was the complete Modern Library set of Henry James, a gift from her father on her 21st birthday; there were the dog-eared paperbacks assigned in her college courses, a lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope, along with good helpings of Austen, George Eliot and the redoubtable Brontë sisters. There were a whole lot of black and white New Directions paperbacks, mostly poetry by people like H.D. or Denise Levertov. There were the Colette novels she read on the sly. There was the first edition of 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.
Madeleine’s thesis grew out of a seminar in which a teacher argued that ‘the novel had reached its apogee with the marriage plot and had never recovered from its disappearance … What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for separation later? How would Isabel Archer’s marriage to Gilbert Osmond have been affected by the existence of a prenup?’ Madeleine’s interest in such prosaic questions is shaken by the appearance on campus of deconstruction’s foundational text, Of Grammatology: ‘When Madeleine asked what the book was about, she was given to understand … that the idea of a book being “about” something was exactly what this book was against, and that, if it was “about” anything, then it was about the need to stop thinking of books as being about things.’ The effect is immediate: ‘Almost overnight, it became laughable to read writers like Cheever or Updike.’ Instead, students drop names like Derrida, Foucault and Baudrillard. Theory infects every part of Madeleine’s life, as in this exchange with a would-be boyfriend:
On the wall of his living room Billy had painted the words Kill the Father. Killing the father was what, in Billy’s opinion, college was all about.
‘Who’s your father?’ he asked Madeleine. ‘Is it Virginia Woolf? Is it Sontag?’
‘In my case,’ Madeleine said, ‘my father really is my father.’
‘Then you have to kill him.’
‘Who’s your father?’
‘Godard,’ he said.
To ‘find out what everyone else was talking about’, Madeleine enrols in Semiotics 211. Eight of the ten students in the seminar have already taken a semiotics course and all eight arrive at the first class ‘in black T-shirts and ripped black jeans. A few had razored off the necks or sleeves of their T-shirts.’ A boy who has shaved off his eyebrows introduces himself by saying: ‘I’m finding it hard to introduce myself, actually, because the whole idea of social introductions is so problematised.’ Like the ‘kill the father’ bit, this is funny, but it’s also cheap. It’s in the nature of students to be fatuously enthusiastic about all sorts of things – politics, love, religion, exercise. In The Marriage Plot they are fatuous only about things Eugenides portrays as fatuous in themselves, and the same is true of their teacher:
Semiotics was the form Zipperstein’s midlife crisis had taken. Becoming a semiotician allowed Zipperstein to wear a leather jacket, to fly off to Douglas Sirk retrospectives in Vancouver, and to get all the sexy waifs in his classes. Instead of leaving his wife, Zipperstein had left the English department. Instead of buying a sports car, he’d bought deconstruction.
One week, the seminar discusses Jonathan Culler’s On Deconstruction, and Madeleine finds its accessibility a relief. ‘Culler boils everything Eco and Derrida are saying into a digestible form,’ she says. She is embarrassed when the others all dismiss Culler for using a ‘discredited’ rationalism to explain the ‘revolutionary’ mode of deconstruction. But Eugenides must anticipate a similar charge against himself: he has chosen the winner in the debate by choosing the terms of the discourse. It would be more sporting if at least one campus theorist could be seen acting in good faith. Instead, experimentalism is only ever a fashionable gesture. Arriving at a party, Madeleine looks at the host’s bookshelves and notes ‘the usual Kafka, the obligatory Borges, the point-scoring Musil’. We never meet the host, but we don’t need to, since the desire to score points is the only conceivable reason for reading The Man without Qualities. It may be that these views belong only to Madeleine, who can’t imagine any sensible person really believing in all this stuff. But Eugenides never allows us to see it as anything but a pose. It’s in the nature of this kind of theory that its worth can be conveyed only with signs. But Eugenides might have chosen signs other than the leather jacket, the sexy waif and the glamorous allure of Vancouver.
Madeleine admires one of her classmates, the only other student who isn’t dressed in black. Leonard Bankhead is a philosophy major studying semiotics because of the academic importance of language theories, though his real interest is in the ‘eternal verities’. He chews tobacco, for which he keeps a spit cup always at hand. He is brilliant but socially awkward, dishevelled and uncombed but physically magnetic. He turns casual conversations into investigations of the nature of time. When Leonard pulls out a blue bandanna and puts it over his head, ‘tying it in back and making a number of small, precise adjustments until he was satisfied’, all the details coalesce into a portrait of Eugenides’s late contemporary David Foster Wallace.
I want to call Leonard a ‘tribute’ to Wallace, whose suicide presumably occurred while Eugenides was in the middle of writing the book. But most of the time Leonard is an unpleasant character. Mitchell Grammaticus particularly dislikes him, and though his view is coloured by their competition for Madeleine’s affection, we are tempted to agree with him. Leonard shares Wallace’s suicidal depression, and during bad spells, spends long hours on the phone, draining the store of his friends’ goodwill in a way reminiscent of both Wallace’s short story ‘The Depressed Person’, and, by many accounts, Wallace himself. Leonard, like Wallace, stops taking the drugs with which he manages his depression, in part because they deny him access to the ‘upper registers’ of thought. The disastrous results of this decision, less for Leonard than for Madeleine, provide most of the action after the characters leave university and Madeleine and Leonard enact the titular marriage plot. Finally, after he has sufficiently complicated Madeleine and Mitchell’s lives and they have learned the lessons his suffering teaches them, Leonard is ushered off the stage. By then, The Marriage Plot seems less a tribute to Wallace than a cautionary tale about the risks of falling in love with him.
Wallace was the earliest and subtlest of his contemporaries in taking on the postmodern legacy. Nearly two decades ago he was writing in the Review of Contemporary Fiction about ‘irony, irreverence and rebellion’ and how they had ‘come to be not liberating but enfeebling in the culture today’s avant garde tries to write about’. He warned how useless these tools are ‘when it comes to constructing anything to replace’ what they have destroyed and didn’t believe the destruction itself could be undone. In the end, he took writers like Gaddis and Pynchon seriously, as Eugenides or Franzen refuse to do, and he couldn’t ignore their critiques of realism any more than he could ignore their shortcomings. The problem with realism, in Wallace’s view, was not that there was something naive about the desire to capture reality but that reality itself had changed in ways that realism couldn’t capture. Metafiction, he wrote, ‘was nothing more than a poignant hybrid of its theoretical foe, realism: if realism called it like it saw it, metafiction simply called it as it saw itself seeing itself see it.’
Wallace didn’t believe that this self-consciousness could be put back in its box or neutralised by the prelapsarian gestures of a book like The Marriage Plot, and sought to marry the formal mechanics and self-consciousness of postmodernism with the moral and emotional engagement of realism. To some, his humanised brand of post-postmodernism looked too much like the same old stuff, and many who might have been sympathetic to his aims were turned off by the results.
The Pale King, Wallace’s posthumous novel, suggests that he was struggling towards a synthesis of the warring elements in his work. Many took his death as a sign that the effort had defeated him. If you believed that the project of reconciling postmodern methods with the classical aims of the novel had destroyed Wallace, it would be a short step to seeing the entire undertaking as doomed. Eugenides’s depiction of Leonard Bankhead seems in part a refutation of this view. Leonard is smart, but he isn’t destined for groundbreaking work. His problems begin and end with the fact of his mental illness, but it isn’t a generational sickness: it’s all in his head.
During Wallace’s lifetime, Eugenides seems to have been among those who believed that he was part of the problem: ‘The moves people make today to seem antitraditional,’ Eugenides wrote, ‘are enervated in the extreme: the footnote thing, the author appearing in the book etc. I am yawning even thinking about them.’ The ‘footnote thing’ seems a particularly pointed allusion to Wallace. Wallace’s death may have caused Eugenides to reconsider. Near the end of The Marriage Plot, Mitchell has a conversation with Leonard in which he recognises him as a kindred soul, a spiritual seeker, rather than the cad he has taken him to be. But it’s too late: Leonard is already slipping away.
One has to admire the audaciousness of all this, even if it makes one uneasy. To borrow some terms from Semiotics 211, Eugenides has written a book that is at once ‘readerly’ and ‘writerly’, a book that never stops being a coming of age novel, that is forever winking through the mask but never lets it drop. He can’t be faulted for lack of ambition. He too is seeking a way forward rather than a mere retrenchment. The Marriage Plot doesn’t fail because it is ‘merely’ a realist novel, it fails because it is so often a pedestrian one. It makes every argument in favour of the tradition except the only one that matters.
The Marriage Plot is littered with coy metafictional gestures, but they are mostly embedded in Madeleine’s consciousness, so they never break the realist frame. When she is embarrassed in class and the blood rushes to her face, she thinks: ‘People blushed in 19th-century novels but never in contemporary Austrian ones.’ When she looks at Leonard, ‘there were all kinds of outmoded, novelistic words to describe how she was feeling, words like aflutter.’
It is filled with the kind of flat, clichéd lines that give realism a bad name: ‘Though Madeleine hadn’t arrived at college sexually inexperienced, her freshman learning curve resembled a flat line.’ ‘Leonard stood rooted to the floor.’ ‘Madeleine reacted as if she’d been slapped.’ ‘The words hit Leonard like a physical blow.’ Characters ‘opine’ or ‘cry’ or ‘insist’ instead of just saying things. If they do say them, they do so ‘suddenly’ or ‘brightly’ or ‘angrily’ or ‘futilely’, or else there is a participial phrase attached – ‘leaning in for a kiss’ or ‘gazing into his glass’ or ‘cackling mirthlessly’. Sometimes the language breaks down grammatically, with modifying phrases misplaced or set off improperly.
The Marriage Plot reads like a realist novel written by someone who knows the genre only from having had it described to him by Hawkes or Sorrentino. Leonard and Madeleine and Mitchell work well enough as characters when they are being Wallace and Franzen and Eugenides, but they are unconvincing when they are just three confused college kids. The troubled marriage of Leonard and Madeleine lacks emotional significance for exactly the reason Eugenides warned us about: modern matrimonial culture dictates that a childless union can be ended with a simple no-fault procedure. To tell us at the start of a book that in the modern age the ‘marriage plot’ is no longer possible, only to spend the next 400 pages demonstrating as much, is not the work of a reconstructionist.