Jim Cullen: Review of Jeffrey Eugenides's "The Marriage Plot" (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2011)
Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN. He is the author of The American Dream: Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation (Oxford, 2003), among other books. He is completing a book currently titled The Arc of American History: What Hollywood Actors Tell Us about Ourselves. Cullen blogs at American History Now.
Is it possible to write a successful novel with unappealing characters? I don't mean a novel in which a protagonist is repellent in an avowedly provocative way, like the unnamed narrator of Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground (1864). I mean people who it appears an author really wants us to like, but who we find tiresome. This is the question I found myself asking while reading Jeffrey Eugenides's latest novel, The Marriage Plot. My answer, finally, was no: you can't really write a compelling novel this way. But as failures go, his is an interesting one.
One reason: Eugenides is a virtuoso writer with an extraordinary capacity to render an array of topics with great authority and clarity. In this regard, he's is sort of like Jonathan Franzen with a warmer heart. Eugenides showed such brio in his multi-generational saga Middlesex (2002), and he does it again here. Whether the subject at hand are are the mating habits of the intelligentsia, the pharmacology of mental illness, or the labor force of Mother Teresa's mission in Calcutta, Eugenides renders the details of subcultures with a sense of verisimilitude that impresses and informs. He has a wonderful sense of history, and in some subjects, his talents are dazzling. I can't think of another writer who can talk about religion with the unselfconscious ease he does, for instance. And his command of literary theory, in particular the 1980s mania for poststructuralism, is so sure that he can weave it in as a subtext for a novel that's also a metacommentary on bourgeois fiction of the 19th century. The ending of the novel in particular a delightfully clever.
The problem, again, are the people we're saddled with for this ride. They're a set of Brown students, class of 1982, whom we meet at that unlovely moment in the life cycle: the months following college graduation, when cosseted young adults are suddenly expected to make something of themselves. There's Madeline Hanna of the fictive Prettybrook, New Jersey, a Holly Golightly figure with a yen for literature who finds herself in a love triangle. She's close with her buddy, Midwesterner Mitchell Grammaticus, who pines for romantically. But she's in love with Leonard Bankhead, a brilliant but volatile Oregonian who wins a prestigious science fellowship but struggles with manic depression. We meet these people on graduation day, flash back to their undergraduate years, and move forward as Hanna and Leonard try to find equilibrium in their relationship while Mitchell grapples with his unrequited love by taking a global sojourn that turns into a spiritual quest. The narration rotates between the three characters, and we hear some of the same situations described from more than one point of view.
But this device gets tedious, because these characters are tedious. Madeline is beautiful and smart and rich, and she has a passion for English authors like Jane Austen. But she seems like a highly conventional person, a product of her class in the broader sense of the term, and it's a little hard to reckon what either of the other two men see in her. Leonard's manic depression is rendered with sometimes harrowing detail, but it's hard to separate his grim persona from his illness, and while you find yourself wondering whether his unattractiveness is a function of your own hard-heartedness toward the mentally ill, that's not enough to make you like him. Mitchell, who appears most like a stand-in for the author himself, is a more broadminded figure. But his visionary potential is undercut by his callowness, most evident in his feelings for a girl that we find ourselves wondering, long before he does, whether she's worth all that.
It's a tribute to Eugenides that despite all this, you keep reading. But I doubt this will be seen as his best work. The Virgin Suicides (1993) has its partisans. But for my money, Middlesex is the place to begin. The Marriage Plot is, at best, a subplot in his ouevre.
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