No one thought it was possible for Jeffrey Eugenides, author of The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, to write an "ordinary" novel. The first two novels possessed a "mythical quality," as Patrick Condon (AP) puts it -- those were edgy, controversial books employing innovative narrative techniques. These are the expectations we bring to the third novel.
But The Marriage Plot, with its standard third-person omniscient narrator, following a year in the life of three liberal arts graduates, is an ordinary, potentially disappointing book. For some, the disappointment is that it's so familiar: part love triangle, part family drama, part campus novel. Mitchell is bright if not hip; Madeleine is pretty and privileged and (to redeem her) a lover of literature; Leonard is brooding and brilliant. The characters struggle and develop as the comforts of life at Brown are switched for the complications of life in the real world; their fates cross as they fall in and out of love with each other. Mitchell loves Madeleine, Madeleine loves Leonard, Leonard is essentially lost inside himself. And all the while, it has been said, Eugenides's character development verges on the dull. We learn what tea Madeleine likes best ("her favorite blend [was] Earl Gray") and why her glasses are slightly crooked ("she'd lost the case years ago"). Again, where's the "mythical quality," the allegorical edge of the two previous novels? No encoded messages, nothing visionary here. This is straight-up realism, a wannabe Victorian novel arriving over a century too late!
Which brings us to another common reaction, to my mind intertwined with the first: that The Marriage Plot is "too literary," that the book has the power to alienate its readers with frequent highbrow allusions. Isn't this a contradiction, that the book is at once "ordinary" and "too literary"? I don't disagree; examples for both points can be cited from the text. But that very tension may be what makes the novel brilliant. We follow Mitchell, Madeleine, and Leonard as they attempt to forge the painful details of their past and the hopes for their uncertain futures into a livable present. Because they are bright, they each engage with a specific discipline. Mitchell goes to India in search of religious truth, Madeleine prepares herself to study Victorian literature in graduate school, and Leonard works as an assistant in a prominent New England biology lab. Eugenides uses these passions to explore the tension between his characters' ambitious ideals and the disappointments of their everyday lives; the dramatic focus always remains on the characters themselves.
When Madeleine introduces her mother to Leonard for the first time, for example, he launches into a detailed account of his work in the biology lab studying yeast cell DNA. We can think about the yeast cells if we want to, but the primary focus is the tension between Leonard and Madeleine's mother. Similarly, Mitchell studies religious texts, travels to Calcutta, and volunteers for Mother Teresa's clinic, but we view this spiritual journey through the lens of his changing feelings towards Madeleine. When he responds to essay questions on his philosophy exam, "He kept writing the names Heidegger and Tillich but he was thinking about himself and all his friends." It's not necessary to know who Heidegger or Tillich are, nor must you have read Roland Barthes to feel the heartbreaking emotional thrust of Madeleine's obsession with his work, A Lover's Discourse, as she matches episodes of her frustrated love for Leonard with provocative passages from the book. The in-depth exploration of his characters' disciplines serves not to alienate readers but to develop the main characters and the environment in which they know each other.
That being said, the novel is exceedingly literary and will not apologize for it. The underlying premise, suggested by one meaning of the title: the future of literature, like the future of its youthful main characters, is uncertain. Madeleine, conveniently, is a nostalgic reader. She takes a seminar on Victorian literature called "The Marriage Plot," taught by a Professor Saunders. Early in the novel, Saunders theorizes that the novel at large has no more use in contemporary society:
The novel had reached its apogee with the marriage plot and had never recovered from its disappearance... Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely... As far as Saunders was concerned, marriage didn't mean much anymore, and neither did the novel.
The Marriage Plot, written in an age where the meaning of marriage has diminished ambiguously, and where the novel is an obsolete art form, establishes for itself an impossible task: to surmount its own uselessness. This is one of the reasons why so many have been struck by the "ordinary" surface of the finished product -- the novel is a reaction to the past century and a half of literary trends.
At the same time, it's not so serious. We're meant to laugh both at the absent-minded Saunders and the other professor whose theories represent a threat to literature, Professor Zipperstein. Professor Zipperstein teaches Madeleine's Semiotics seminar as part of his mid-life crisis. She is stumped by the opaque writings of avant-garde French literary theorists like Jacques Derrida and Barthes (it was Barthes who wrote the 1967 essay that "killed" the author). Eugenides describes how academics like Zipperstein, as they became obsessed with the French theorists, began to shun straightforward, realist literature: "Almost overnight it had become laughable to read writers like Cheever and Updike, who wrote about the suburbia Madeleine and most of her friends grew up in." Suburbia is a favorite topic of Eugenides, so you catch the drift. Professor Zipperstein would probably laugh if handed a copy of The Marriage Plot, while Professor Saunders would simply find it outmoded and useless. The novel throws this barely implicit question up into the dramatic background: What is the point of literature, of any of these modes of thought -- philosophy, religion, science -- when the degeneration of society's values has given way to an unforeseeable future?
The existential crises of the main characters mirror this uncertainty in the future of literature. So it is no accident that Madeleine's literary taste, unfashionable but abiding, corresponds to the novel's own style. For all its disappointing realism and ostensible ordinariness, The Marriage Plot is just the sort of novel Madeleine would love: "Madeleine felt safe with a nineteenth-century novel. There were going to be people in it. Something was going to happen to them in a place resembling the world." Madeleine would spend a Friday night getting lost in this book, identifying with Mitchell and Leonard and her own character in their simultaneous search for meaning. And this is a revolutionary act -- reminding us why we read at all:
What made Madeleine sit up in bed was something closer to the reason she read books in the first place and had always loved them. Here was a sign that she wasn't alone. Here was an articulation of what she had been so far mutely feeling.
Madeleine's way of reading is Eugenides' counterargument to the naysayers, the Saunderses and the Zippersteins, at whose hands the idea of the novel would have stopped with the 19th century. But the threat to literature was never very serious. In The Marriage Plot, Barthes becomes another way of enhancing the story, just as the marriage plot is a theory the story revolves around. So it seems, while we find ourselves disappointed by the novel's ordinary surface, that Eugenides has been chuckling in the shadows, devising the novel's greatest irony -- spoiler alert -- that this novel isn't even a marriage plot!