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Summer Reading Part 4: Split Narrative In 'The Marriage Plot'

Posted: 06/13/2012 4:31 pm

It has been said that New York Magazine's Vulture blog doesn't leave any of my farts un-sniffed, meaning they write about anything I do or say. But sadly, the blogosphere seems to sniff only the farts that have to do with pop culture. If I lip synch to Carly Rae Jepsen or write about Kristen Stewart, they report the news as if it's the most important thing going around, but they never deign to take a whiff when it comes to literature. At the very least I hope my fellow bloggers report on this, even if all they do is complain that my posts are written at the level of college papers -- and even if they do so in language that could easily be found on a junior high school student's Facebook page.

There is a great book by David Markson called This Is Not a Novel and a new book of contemporary poetry named after the movie Alien vs. Predator. This Is Not a Novel is a book that uses pithy literary references to create a unified book that works without a traditional narrative or characters. It is for anyone who loves books and writers while at the same time having a penchant for deconstruction and new approaches to these odd things we call books. Alien vs. Predator is a complex collection of poems that uses literary references alongside pop culture references to weave a strangely penetrating web of poetry. The tension in these poems comes from the reworking of the familiar, whether the familiar be quotes from songs, films or books. I have also been reading Jeffrey Eugenides' (The Virgin Suicides, Middlesex) new book, The Marriage Plot, and like his other books he structured it in a complex and satisfying way.

In The Marriage Plot, Eugenides alternates between two protagonists as they wind through their lives toward each other. By braiding these two protagonists together, he is able to link them emotionally even though their physical paths hardly cross for a large portion of the book. Eugenides has relieved himself of the burden of writing a bunch of scenes that involve the two characters, or even scenes where one character is thinking about the other character; the title alone sets up an expectation about these characters' fates, so the vacillating narratives are free to move in opposite directions for long sections of the book while still feeling connected. The two characters, Madeline and Mitchell, are both educated young people; at the beginning of the book they are about to graduate from Brown, Madeline in English and Mitchell in Religious Studies. Because of these majors, Eugenides is able to weave some heavy literary and academic references into his otherwise fluid prose style. I suppose that this delving into other texts, although they are usually modern books, is also an influence of the 19th-century romance novels that undoubtedly influenced the plot and style of the rest of the book.

Madeline is the first character to be introduced, and because of that she feels a little more like the main protagonist, at least for the Brown section. Her section starts, fittingly, with a list of books, because she is a book lover. The list is made up of the books that drew her to literature -- Edith Wharton, Dickens, Austen, George Eliot, the Bronte sisters -- which set the tone for the rest of the novel, albeit in a contemporary setting. The Marriage Plot is as much a bildungsroman as it is a book about relationships, very much like the books written by the authors above. Both Madeline and Mitchell are at stages in their lives when they are becoming adults -- interestingly, they come of age in their early twenties, while many of the protagonists in 19th-century novels do it at a much younger age. Youth has been stretched out in our modern times.

But what has been added to the 19th-century formula is the contemporary setting and ethos. Not only is marriage a decaying institution at the time of the novel, the 1980s, but the references and the way the young people come of age are different than those of the 19th century. (Eugenides himself graduated from Brown in 1983; as in The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, this autobiographical flair helps ground the book in actual experience, whether or not these events actually happened or happened in this way.) The way that other texts are referenced, texts like Roland Barthes's A Lover's Discourse, reminds me of an exercise that one of Eugenides' undeniable influences, Vladimir Nabokov, had his students perform: While studying Austen's Mansfield Park, he would have them read all the texts that the characters read and referenced in the book. Eugenides provides an undergirding of literary references that is very connected to the character of Madeline, but that also provides a richer experience for the reader if the texts are familiar. My guess is that most readers of The Marriage Plot will not have read the majority of the books referenced, but it's nice to see Eugenides pushing his readers to know more. The dense inclusion of references makes it clear that the marriage plot device isn't the only thing that has disappeared from the modern novel; the assumption that readers are well-read has also disappeared. What reader nowadays would have a grasp on all the books Thomas Mann cited?

Because of the expectation that the characters will come together at the end of the book, specific readings of their dalliances and coming-of-age experiences are created. The title of the book creates expectations, as does Madeline's line of study -- the marriage plot in literature -- but the brief, sexually charged friendship that Madeline and Mitchell share at the beginning of the book really crystallizes the hope that these two will come together. While visiting Madeline's family, Mitchell has an epiphany that he will marry her. Whether this is the foolishness of youth or madness or true love, because it is given space and emphasis in the book we are forced to hook onto it as a moment of destiny. It is one of those moments when the little thoughts we have in our own lives are given the spotlight of significance and the weight of divine possibility. The two characters have other relationships or flings at the beginning of the book -- more prominent is Madeline's relationship with Leonard, an intelligent philosophy/science major with severe depression -- but these relationships all appear as sidebars because the hope that Mitchell and Madeline will unite is established at the beginning. Similar to the familiar plot device in a romantic comedy film in which a character is with a person who is obviously not the right one, the reader doesn't get invested in Madeline's relationship with Leonard as much as she is invested in Madeline's experiences trying to date someone as exciting and crazy as Leonard. The readers are really waiting for Madeline and Mitchell to come together, and because of that Eugenides has bought himself much space to allow his characters to wander and come of age without great pressure to directly develop the relationship between Madeline and Mitchell. The characters can develop in disparate spheres while still feeling connected.

 
 
 
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