Over the New Year weekend, I decided to take on Jeffrey Eugenides’s new book, The Marriage Plot. I’d been hearing buzz about it for some time, and had been told it was an Important Book. I’m not always so fond of the chosen ones of literary fiction (let’s face it: they’re pretty much always white men), but I gave this book a go. It was an interesting read, but less because of it’s incredibly predicable plot than because of Eugenides’s deeply strange characterization choices.
Let’s get the elephant in the room taken care of first: The Marriage Plot may just as well have been called Jonathan Franzen’s Plot. Eugenides essentially reconstructed Franzen’s Freedom–college-aged kid are all sleeping with one another, but they want to be sleeping with different people. None of the sleeping with turns out to be very satisfactory, and everyone is having crises about this sleeping-with situation. That’s all. Eugenides does toss in a little lightweight literary theory and cuts out the saggy middle-aged bits that Franzen includes, but we’re looking as the same, fundamental book.
But whereas there are authors–like Franzen–who put their characters through grave trouble and suffering of all kinds, then allow the characters to escape, grow, and triumph in some small way, there are also authors–like Eugenides–who put their characters through troubles, and then proceed to mock them; not only is The Marriage Plot a low-calorie version of Freedom, it’s also pretty snide.
In a plot about college kids outgrowing school life and moving toward adulthood, we can, and perhaps should, expect that hindsight will make both author and reader cringe a bit at the characters’ (and, by proxy, our own) childish antics. But for many who were lucky enough to attend college, the experience still holds a bit of sweetness. An honest rendering of the collegiate experience should, I believe, tread the line between recognizing silliness without wagging a withered finger at it. Julien Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending treats this same subject matter with remarkable maturity and grace, but Eugenides seems to sneer and leer and guffaw at young people’s lives in a way that seems tantamount to mocking an infant because it doesn’t yet know how to eat spaghetti. That kind of writing doesn’t enlighten us much about the subject scorned, nor does it say much for the humanity of the one doing the scorning.
However unwise the choice, Eugenides seems to openly loathe his characters. It’s not just that he puts difficulty in their way, as any good writers should, but that he seems to truly dislike them on a fundamental level. Of the three main characters, female lead Madeline gets the worst of Eugenides’s down-the-nose look. Her life path seems about as robust as that of Bella Swan of Twilight; Eugenides gives us a character who doesn’t think herself very bright or capable, relies heavily on a male characters to give her a sense of worth, and throws away her future to spend time with a boyfriend who’s a drain on her in every sense. Eugenides tells us that she smells bad. He tells us that she’s unintelligent. He tells us that she only has professional opportunities because of her father’s connections. And Eugenides seems to suggest a pathetic life of tying herself to unworthy boys is the best that Madeline deserves as a rich child of privilege who goes around calling her mother “mummy.”
Then there’s Leonard, a bipolar scientist. Leonard fares a bit better than Madeline on the scorn quotient, but Eugenides appears to take a great deal of pleasure in detailing Leonard’s dysfunctional childhood, manic break, and subsequent battle with lithium (rather than with his bipolar disorder). Poor Leonard is doomed to fail, apparently, because of his mental illness. It would probably come as a surprise to a lot of folks who suffer from bipolar disorder that they will never have healthy human relationships or be able to hold down jobs, but that’s the picture Eugenides paints for our man Leonard.
The only character Eugenides seems to hold any kindness for is the one who’s a thinly veiled version of himself–the Greek-American kid from Detroit who briefly considers a career in religious studies. This poor knucklehead, Mitchell, goes about the business of loving the unworthy Madeline from a distance, even from India where he serves in Mother Theresa’s home for the dying and destitute, where he is apparently so deep and complicated that he’s unable to help with any tasks more involved than the pushing of the medicine cart (and then going off to drink a weed smoothie). Eugenides is nicer to Mitchell than he is to anyone else; even though he may not get the girl in the end, he at least, unlike the other characters in the book, is allowed some personal agency and some freedom from cliched tropes of the rich girl or the handsome madman.
Add quite a few pointless, sweeping loops of backstory and some fairly inelegant expression throughout, and this book begins to seem more like an unfortunate draft than the great American novel. With so many chattering enthusiastically about this book, I’d really like someone to explain this to me: is this really the direction we’re going in literary fiction? If so, I think I want off this bus.