Friday, June 1, 2012

The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides

I've just suffered an acrimonious breakup with an author whose two earlier novels -- The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex -- I loved and respected. Now I'm tempted to ask for financial compensation for the hours I spent reading his latest, which I began with bright hopes and which I read to the end with dogged perseverance. Is this a fiasco of a book? Not entirely, but it was so disappointing in comparison to the first two that it felt like a personal affront.

About 2/3 of the way through this novel, I glanced back at its title, The Marriage Plot.  I felt a sense of longing, because I'm fond of plots. And I couldn't seem to identify one in this story. There are three primary characters, all 1983 graduates of Brown University. Madeleine Hanna is the daughter of a retired college president and his wife -- lovely and affluent people, liberal and generous. Madeleine has graduated with a degree in English literature and is unsure what to do next. Leonard Bankhead is from Oregon, the son of a cultured father and boozy mother, and who suffers from manic depression. Leonard would have graduated with a degree in biology if he hadn't suffered a depressive breakdown during the spring semester of his senior year after a breakup with Madeleine (during which he threw a volume of Roland Barthes at her). He has an internship lined up in Provincetown, but after that, he is unsure what to do next. Mitchell Grammaticus has graduated with a degree in Religion and with high praise from his advisor which includes referrals to the best graduate programmes in the country, and an unrequited crush on Madeleine Hanna. He plans a trip to India because, yes, he's unsure what else to do next.

These are three highly intelligent people leaving one of America's finest universities and suffering a not uncommon transition for those without definite plans. It's a rude awakening to realise that the general population is not as clever as the student body at an Ivy League college. But where is the plot? They were floundering at the beginning of the book, and they were floundering no less at its end. I expressed my despair with the novel to a friend and fellow Eugenides fan who had refused to read the book after reading some reviews and interviews. Her reply: "It sounded smug and self-important, the plot more suited to diary entries and agonized chats with friends than a novel..." If his biographical data didn't insist otherwise, I'd have guessed that Eugenides wrote this novel in the year following his own graduation (yes, from Brown in 1983) and that publishers rejected it until he had gained acclaim and a Pulitzer Prize for his later and better novels. This is by far a less mature book. That's not to say it's without skillful characterisation. Madeleine is beautiful, wealthy and self-indulgent, and when she gets to Brown, she perfects her ability to mould her sexual partners into what she needs them to be.
She hadn’t been able to allow herself to enjoy Dabney or even to exploit him a little, but had had to go and be a total girl about it and convince herself that she was in love with him. Madeleine required emotion, apparently. She disapproved of the idea of meaningless, extremely satisfying sex. And so she began to tell herself that Dabney’s acting was “restrained” or “economical.” She appreciated that Dabney was “secure about himself” and “didn’t need to prove anything” and wasn’t a “showoff.” Instead of worrying that he was dull, Madeleine decided he was gentle. Instead of thinking he was poorly read, she called him intuitive.
Then she meets Leonard, who is far from the typical east-coast Ivy League man.
He shaved irregularly. His Skoal had a menthol scent, cleaner, more pleasant than Madeleine expected. Whenever she looked up to find Leonard staring at her with his St. Bernard’s eyes (the eyes of a drooler, maybe, but also of a loyal brute who could dig you out of an avalanche), Madeleine couldn’t help staring back a significant moment longer.
Madeleine develops a bumpy and platonic friendship with Mitchell, who goes off to Europe and India after graduation in search of mystical experiences, or any other sort of guidance as to what he might want to do next. He talks with a priest about converting to Catholicism. A born-again Christian in Athens tries to convince him that finding Christ and subsequently speaking in tongues is the truer path. He tries (and fails) to commune with God in Mother Theresa's shelter for the dying, where Mitchell can barely bring himself to touch the patients. Mitchell Grammaticus is totally unmoored, and in very shallow water.
He remembered a line from Meister Eckhart: “Only the hand that erases can write the true thing.”
Mitchell wondered if he was supposed to erase himself, or his past, or other people, or what. He was ready to begin erasing immediately, as soon as he knew what to rub out...
At a long table directly beneath the mural, a large group was gathered. The men in this group kept their hair short. The women favored long skirts, bib-collared blouses, and sandals with socks. They were sitting up straight, their napkins in their laps, conversing in low, serious tones. These were the other volunteers for Mother Teresa. What if you had faith and performed good works, what if you died and went to heaven, and what if all the people you met there were people you didn't like?
Meanwhile, Madeleine visits Leonard in the hospital, where he has been for weeks as doctors try to get his medications sorted. Leonard has a steady stream of visitors, many of whom try to jolly him out of his depression. Madeleine looks to them for hints on the best way to deal with the mentally ill. 
Maybe Henry was handling this the right way. She was eager for any pointers. But levity was beyond her. She felt painfully awkward and tongue-tied. Madeleine had never been close to anyone with a verifiable mental illness. She instinctively avoided unstable people. As uncharitable as this attitude was, it was part and parcel of being a Hanna, of being a positive, privileged, sheltered, exemplary person. If there was one thing Madeleine Hanna was not, it was mentally unstable.
Madeleine sets her mind to saving Leonard, and she packs him and his things into her new Saab convertible (a graduation gift from her parents) and drives them to the lab in Provincetown where Leonard has his internship. During the following year, she sees Leonard suffer the side-effects of the Lithium that keeps him on a level plane, and she then experiences the mania and crash following his self-directed adjustments to the dosage. Still, for reasons that Eugenides suggests are purely sexual, she agrees to marry Leonard.

Her parents gently encourage Madeleine to consider the implications of marrying a manic-depressive. They don't forbid it, and they are neither cruel nor closed-minded. Madeleine, however, is outraged and more determined than ever to marry Leonard.. The newlyweds go off to Paris and Monaco on their honeymoon (which Alton, Madeleine's father, paid for). Leonard has another manic episode and disappears from a casino. Madeleine of course phones her parents. Alton rings up an acquaintance in the US Embassy, and Madeleine's mother, Phyllida, hops onto a plane to come and assist her daughter. When they finally get Leonard into and then out of the psychiatric hospital in Europe, he returns to Madeleine's parents' home to recuperate. They sleep in her childhood room, which her mother had papered with custom-made Madeline wallpaper years before. It's yellowed and peeling in spots, but there is Madeline, Nurse Clavell and the lion to whom Madeline says "pooh pooh!" This is a young woman who seems unlikely to ever grow up.

Madeleine applies to graduate programmes in English literature, having decided that she wants to be a Victorianist. She chooses Columbia, and Leonard at first agrees to live in New York. When it comes time to search for an apartment, however, he finds that the city gives him anxiety attacks. Madeleine encourages him to come look at the 'perfect' place, but he balks, partly because it's expensive. She tells him not to fuss about that, since she'll (in other words Alton will) be paying for it.  After signing the lease (Leonard refuses to co-sign), she begs him to come with her to a party at a friend's apartment, just for a few minutes. Not surprisingly, he wants nothing to do with a party but allows her to drag him there, and he promptly vanishes into the bedroom.

As they're leaving, she asks him the most stupid question imaginable: Had he enjoyed the party? 
Madeleine tried to take in what Leonard was saying. She felt warm from the bourbon and hot from the city. Now that they were downstairs, back on Broadway, she was disappointed to be heading home. For over a year she'd been taking care of Leonard, hoping for him to get better, and now he was worse than ever. Having just come from a party where everyone else seemed happy and healthy, she found the situation grossly unfair.
Maybe I knew too many Madeleines from my years of study at Wellesley, or maybe I simply have no tolerance for pampered and privileged princesses who make ill-advised and self-indulgent decisions, and then expect everyone else to clean up their messes for them.

Evidently Leonard reached the same conclusion at the same moment. He describes his discovery in terms of the yeast cells he'd been studying in the Provincetown lab and, not surprisingly, Madeleine isn't interested in discussing yeast cells.
Suddenly Leonard's face took on a strange expression, as if he was darkly amused. "If you and I were yeast cells, you know what we'd do?
"I don't want to hear about yeast!" Madeleine said. "I'm sick of yeast."
 "Given the choice, a yeast cell's ideal state is to be diploid. But if it's in an environment with a lack of nutrients, you know what happens?"
"I don't care!"
"The diploids break into haploids again. Solitary little haploids. Because, in a crisis, it's easier to survive as a single cell."
Moments later, as he'd read that Muslim men do, he declares "I divorce thee, I divorce thee, I divorce thee!" and vanishes into a subway station.

Madeleine returns to the apartment where they'd attended the party only minutes before, and she finds Mitchell, just returned from India. Of course Madeleine phones her parents for help.
He and Kelly took Madeleine into the bedroom and closed the door. While the party swirled outside, Madeleine told them what had happened. Later on, after Madeleine had calmed down a little, she called her parents. Together they decided that the best thing to do, for the moment, was for Madeleine to take a car service back to Prettybrook. Since she didn't want to be alone, Mitchell had volunteered to ride with her.
Shortly thereafter comes the end of The Marriage Plot. Leonard has returned in his haploid state to a remote cabin in Oregon. Mitchell has neither found God nor a graduate program, and Madeleine is back in her childhood bedroom with Madeline and Nurse Clavell.

Call me old-fashioned, but one of the requisite qualities of a novel is that its characters must undergo some sort of change from the beginning to the end. They must grow, or learn, or die. I don't need to like them or agree with their choices, but they can't just flail about spouting Brown course material for several hundred pages. Sorry, Mr. Eugenides, you get a failing mark from me on this one. 

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