Christopher Beha

  • The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
    Fourth Estate, 406 pp, £20.00, October 2011, ISBN 978 0 00 744129 7

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:

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