Suspend Your Disbelief

Essays |

We’re in love. It’s complicated.

Marriage is so last century. Natalie Bakopoulos contemplates the demise of the marriage plot and Jeffrey Eugenides's complex, undermining revival of it in his aptly-titled novel, The Marriage Plot. Is love still the ultimate trump card? Dear reader, it is. With some qualifications.


Eugenides versus the marriage plot

 
In Jeffrey Eugenides’s new novel, The Marriage Plot (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), Madeleine Hanna is a student at Brown in the 1980s, and the novel begins with her graduation. She has broken up with moody yet charming Leonard, and we soon learn, as does she, that his absence from her life is due to his psychiatric hospitalization.

the_marriage_plotDuring their time in college, which the book soon returns to, we discover that Madeleine’s senior thesis is on the “marriage plot.” And because Eugenides’s own novel is both operating within the concept of the marriage plot and breaking its rules, it’s fitting that Madeleine’s position on the subject is not particularly stated or argued. The anti-marriage plot, after all, is still a plot revolving around or careening toward marriage.

But if a comedy ends in marriage and a tragedy in death, The Marriage Plot is simultaneously neither and both. Leonard’s acceptance of his life as one of pain and suffering—depression hurts—is perhaps more tragic than a death, and Madeleine’s father likens her eventual choice to marry Leonard to death. “It’s your funeral,” he says wryly (Thanks, Dad!), and in a sense it is the beginning of the end.

In the traditional marriage plot, the choice of whom to marry gave the woman some power, but a promising, intelligent, Brown graduate is powerless in neither wit nor resource, before or after marriage. What Madeleine is powerless against is Leonard’s depression, a fact she realizes acutely once married since she cannot simply walk away from it. We are left with the sick sensation of being trapped.  And this feeling becomes more complicated because Leonard has our sympathies—at least, this reader’s sympathies.

Madeleine is not broody but there is a sadness to her from the beginning: she is a little bit of a loner. When we first meet her, it’s after a long night and she hasn’t changed her clothes, and there’s a coldness from her roommates, not to mention none of that morning-after gossip and laughter that for me persisted way beyond my college years. We rarely see her interacting with other women, and her friendships are not very strong to begin with, or seem to fade away. When she is at Pilgrim Lake, where Leonard has a biology fellowship following graduation, she finds the women scientists either beyond her in age (though this shouldn’t preclude friendship, it may) or intellect (condescending and dismissive).

Still later in the novel, after Leonard goes missing and Mitchell, Madeleine’s other suitor (if we’re using traditional “marriage plot” terminology), is staying at her house, Madeleine spends time with old friends from high school, and here we actually see her enjoying herself, shopping and swimming and reverting perhaps back to her pre-Brown and pre-Leonard self. When they leave, though, “Madeleine [becomes] intelligent again, as lonely, misfortunate, and inward as a governess.”

I can’t help but wonder why a little shopping, tanning, and swimming automatically makes Madeleine unintelligent, but again I’m aware of a little winking, and what I’m focused on here is word “governess”; in this context one can’t not think of Jane Eyre. Though Madeleine is privileged and well bred, in her isolation she is more like a governess, both a part of things and on their periphery. Leonard’s antisocial behavior and lack of desire to hang out with his colleagues had isolated them both.

But whether or not we are sympathetic to Leonard, we see Madeleine is trapped in the relationship.

There comes a moment, when you get lost in the woods, when the woods begin to feel like home. The further Leonard receded from other people, the more he relied on Madeleine, and the more he relied on her, the deeper she was willing to follow.

Until he doesn’t allow her to. Leonard’s departure allows her escape. His disappearance has set her free.

***

In his introduction to the anthology My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead: Great Love Stories, from Chekhov to Munro, Jeffrey Eugenides writes:

A love story can never be about full possession. The happy marriage, the requited love, the desire that never dims—these are lucky eventualities but they aren’t love stories. Love stories depend on disappointment, on unequal births and feuding families, on matrimonial boredom and at least one cold heart. Love stories, nearly without exception, give love a bad name.

I would add that “lucky eventualities” are not stories at all. “If you want a compelling story,” writes Charles Baxter, “put your protagonist among the damned. The mechanisms of Hell are nicely attuned to the mechanisms of narrative. Not so the pleasures of Paradise. Paradise is not a story. It’s about what happens when the stories are over.” The Marriage Plot is a compelling story for sure. And its disappointments and sour tricks of fate and biology make it a love story, too.

By writing a marriage plot with an awareness that it can no longer be written, and setting it at Brown in the 1980s, when the sexiness of semiotics reigned in the English department, Eugenides has deconstructed from within, subverting both the “madwoman in the attic” and “the angel in the house,” not to mention their brooding Byronic hero, while remaining hugely aware of their presence. What is interesting is that they take different forms at different times. Just when we think the signs point to one we become aware of another.

If key features of the Victorian novel, particularly as written by women, are, as noted by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar in their seminal The Madwoman in the Attic,

images of enclosure and escape, fantasies in which maddened doubles function as asocial surrogates for docile selves, metaphors of physical discomfort manifested in frozen landscapes and fiery interiors … along with obsessive diseases …

Eugenides has taken them all, mixed them up, and allowed them to emerge in both new and familiar ways.

Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar actually appear in the novel, in another layer of winking, and a male writer bringing in their ideas about female writers and female characters is intriguing and exciting, particularly in this book’s context. While Gilbert and Gubar interrogated the way women writers felt compelled or obliged to write their women—as angels or as monsters—Eugenides, not on the basis of his sex but because of the freedom of his imagination and the depth of his insight, challenges this.

The_Virgin_SuicidesIn fact, Eugenides has been challenging this all along: we have in The Virgin Suicides the reverent, pious Cecilia and the lusty, rebellious Luxe, having sex not in the attic but on the roof, away and out of reach but also outside the boundaries of the home. Cecilia floats around the house, her own gothic manor, in a shredded old wedding dress and eventually throws herself out the window, impaling herself on a fence. Some might argue that the girls in The Virgin Suicides come off as archetypes, but it is their mystery and the way the boys piece together who they are—the driving question of the novel—that allows this.

Finally, it’s Old Mrs. Karafilis, though portrayed as slightly crazy, who arguably serves as the moral center of that novel. Although she is not hidden away in the attic, she does spend most of her time in the dark and gloomy basement, and her judgmental observation that Americans are overly concerned with happiness may be the most true, sane observation of the book.

And such melding is obvious in Middlesex: Who can forget that beautiful, heart-wrenching scene where the young Calliope looks up the word “hermaphrodite” and finds it defined as “monster”? “What’s wrong with me, Daddy?” she asks.

Many critics of The Marriage Plot have said that all the imagination and witty flourishes, the compelling voice of The Virgin Suicides and the lyrical, witty acrobatics of Middlesex would be hard to top, but it seems that once you consciously try to outdo yourself, your work becomes gimmick. Both The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex grew out of their material; their style seemed right for the subject matter. But what passes for imagination should not only be the boldness of story or the quirkiness of content but the intricacies of the characters’ lives and the way they interact with and bump up against the chosen setting.

***

I should note that I generally don’t like to classify characters as “likeable” or “unlikable.” It seems a strange way to talk about both characters and people. I certainly don’t like when people comment to a writer that their characters are unlikable: would you tell someone their children were unlikable, even if it were true? But as a friend of mine recently said at a reading of her first novel, quoting the writer Stacey D’Erasmo, “I don’t read fiction to make friends.” That said, let’s talk about the characters I like! Leonard I love the most, in all his self-destruction. His most poignant moments occur not in the way Madeleine deals with him, but in the way he deals with himself. Mitchell is my least favorite, and I say this as if he were an acquaintance, and with endearment: he’s the weird quasi-spiritual guy who’s always at parties, starting arguments and trying to pick up girls.

As characters, I adore them because of their complexities even though I wouldn’t necessarily want to hang out with them at that party. As a character I feel for Mitchell in his desperate love for Madeleine, but often I’m left wondering if he’s in love with Madeleine or in love with the idea of Madeleine. This judgment might be based on the novel’s structure—we rarely see them actually interacting—or simply because early in the novel we learn,

Mitchell was the kind of smart, sane, parent-pleasing boy she should fall in love with and marry. That she would never fall in love with Mitchell, precisely because of this eligibility, was yet another indication, in a morning teeming with them, of just how screwed up she was in matters of the heart.

So, Leonard. Many reviewers and readers seem hell-bent on comparing him to David Foster Wallace, proving their inside knowledge with more subtle variations on, Hey, we get it! We know David Foster Wallace was depressed and wore a bandana! But any time you make such assumptions you miss the actual character’s inherent complexities. Leonard’s own volatility and profound sadness give him dimension and depth; any passing resemblance to a revered and adored and tragic writer may be a nice parallel but does not change the way I read him. It’s the same sort of myopia that makes people so quick to ask, which character is most like you? Most writers will tell you that they are all of them. A novel with one protagonist may more thinly veil it but a polyphonic novel is still written by one person.

Besides the fact that I imagine Leonard to be the Ivy League version of Riggins from Friday Night Lights what, dear reader, is not to like?—the characters we like, much like the people we fall in love with, the friends we keep, the clothes we wear and the music we listen to, is generally about personal preference. “Madeleine had become an English major,” we learn, “for the purest and dullest reasons: because she loved to read.” Which brings us to the question of taste.

In his essay “On Taste,” Marcel Proust writes:

There are people for whom it is enough to enjoy the books that please them, as they enjoy flowers, fine days, or women. Others, tormented by an inordinate regard for truth, spoil their pleasure by wanting to make sure of its depth and justification. They are forever asking themselves: Is it really my mind which is so delighted by this book, or just my taste for what is in fashion, the copy-cat instinct which makes for so much unanimity in the tastes of a generation, or some other contemptible preference?

The characters at Brown, at least the ones enrolled in the Semiotics seminar, seem a bit “tormented” in this regard, to say the least. The playful satire of the stylishness of literary theories and ideas is wonderful, as is the study of the self-righteousness that arises when literary theory becomes ideology. And here, in these sorts of moments, Eugenides’s wit dazzles. When Madeleine finds a roommate’s boyfriend reading Derrida’s Of Grammatology, she asks him what it’s about, and he tells her that “the idea of a book being about something was exactly what this book was against, and that, if it was ‘about’ anything, then it was the need to stop thinking of books being about things.”

This, alone, is funny. It’s funny! But what’s funnier is the deadpan of the subsequent line: “Madeleine said she was going to make some coffee.” Eugenides is a master of comedic timing. And on the first day of her semiotics seminar, when her classmate states that he cannot introduce himself “because the whole idea of social introductions is so problematized,” I’m roaring. When it comes to books I am analytical and earnest and thoughtful and take great pleasure in the nerdy and intellectual, yes, but this kind of self-importance makes me want to walk into an academic conference and do a keg stand. Eugenides captures the anxiety of thought, or of taste, and the beautiful self-consciousness of a particular type of person. To discuss literature in this way feels a little anhedonic. Overintellectualizing can strip the joy out of life’s great and simple pleasures—much like the anhedonic numbness that often accompanies depression. It is gentle satire at its fictional best: the judgment of wit served up with the compassion of recognition.

Wonderful winking fills the book, but what makes these winks so effective is that they are not just for the sake of the tease. You can’t write a marriage plot any more? The book is a marriage plot. Juxtaposed against trendy Semiotics at Brown. Madeleine is reading and quoting from Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse, for God’s sake. And when she notes the campus river that, years before, had caught on fire, she muses: “…how, exactly, do you douse a burning river? What could you do, when the retardant was also the accelerant?”  Here, of course, is a wonderful metaphor for her relationship with Leonard, or maybe even Leonard himself, but Eugenides isn’t going to give us that one too easily. He wryly adds: “the lovelorn English major contemplated the symbolism of this.”

Still, Leonard as being his own retardant and accelerant is something to consider. His manic highs and depressed lows almost suggest two different people. Twice he refers to himself as Superman, after he leaves Madeleine alone in the apartment to write. “The problem with being Superman was that everybody else was so slow. Even at a place like Pilgrim Lake, where everyone had high IQs, the pauses in people’s speech were long enough for Leonard to drop off his laundry and return before they finished their sentences.”  And then, after a pint of Guinness at one bar he finds himself in a taffy shop, aggressively flirting—okay, harassing—the young girl behind the counter. “Maybe it was her blush, or the tight fit of her sweater, or it was just part of being a Superman in reach of a super girl, but for whatever reason, Leonard felt himself getting hard at five paces.”

And then he swoops back into his apartment like Superman, lifting Madeleine off the couch and into the bedroom. Afterwards, Leonard utters those words that we both feared he would and simultaneously were waiting for, if for no other reason than the book’s title: “Marry me.”

And, dear reader, she does.

From the moment I learn that Leonard is bipolar I am already thinking of him as Madeleine’s “madwoman in the attic,” and in a sense I was let down by the utterance, quite late in the novel: “It turned out Madeleine had a madwoman in the attic: it was her six-foot-three boyfriend.” Only days after reading this line, I was teaching and some students pointed out that they hated when the author gave away what they had felt so proud of themselves for realizing sooner: “Let me feel like the smart one,” one student exclaimed, after reading a Jhumpa Lahiri story. And, even if this never came up, by the time Leonard, at their wedding, toasts to Madeleine as his “ministering Victorian angel” most readers will have made the connection.

As writers I think we all do it; while the plot and causality and the characters we’ve crafted are moving us in a certain direction, sometimes those insights are as organic and free as the wild first draft. The reader may have already gotten it because it’s so beautifully there, but the writer might not realize it until that moment. This may not be the case here: I wouldn’t put the double-feint past Eugenides, more of the book’s winking. Leonard is both Rochester and Bertha, Heathcliff and Catherine. The moodiness, sexual prowess, and self-aggrandization of famous Byronic heroes could easily be DSM-IV diagnosable as bipolar disorder. But in the Victorian novels Madeleine so loves, only the women are mad.

Eugenides at National Writers Series, 10/20/11. Cr: John L. Russell

Eugenides at National Writers Series, 10/20/11. Cr: John L. Russell

Madeleine is the novel’s protagonist but Leonard is her shadow (oh, and what to make of Mitchell, then, with his own adventures and searching, which though I don’t discuss here are certainly rich and worthy of attention). Leonard has the duality of a super hero, a face to the public and a face with which he saves the world. When Leonard decides in Paris to buy a cape I both groaned and cheered at Madeleine’s poignant confusion. What to make of this now, she must be asking. But every superhero needs a cape, after all. I picture the Heathcliff who exists in my mind, shielding his craggy face from the rain with his cape, an image I might have in my head from the movie or from an old book jacket or from something I’ve completely imagined, I don’t know. There is Rochester in his riding cloak, his face stern and his brow heavy. Leonard is the modern-day Byronic hero, from his often troubling sexual energy to his brooding soul and cocktail of anti-depressants: a true superhero, with two fully-formed identities in conflict.

The Marriage Plot contains less elegiac longing than Eugenides’s previous novels—Mitchell excepted—but that doesn’t mean it lacks pathos. Madeleine’s demeanor is generally calm, overly so, and her mood swings have to do with Leonard, a byproduct of the huge emotional space he occupies in her life. She grows depressed, then marries him in an almost maniacal state, fueled up on the endorphins of sex and attraction.

But this relationship leaves scant room for her emotions, and yields a cool passivity, at once believable and heartbreaking. I want her to throw something, I want her to walk into a taffy shop and behave inappropriately, and in all those beautiful boutiques in Paris I want her to buy something extravagant and weird.

But she can’t. Her yearning has been, in a sense, muted, frozen, like the campus of Pilgrim Lake and so many chilly landscapes in the novels she adores. She can’t even have a fiery, mad alter ego because Leonard fills that role, too, both charge and chief. But within her burns, at least at times, her physical desire. The marriage comes out of all that sexual energy, and Madeleine, with her obsession over what love is, wonders: “Did it all come down to the physical in the end? Is that what love was?” And it’s in this physical rapture that Leonard and Madeleine become engaged. Very slowly and all at once. I can’t help but think of Darcy’s observation in Pride and Prejudice: “A lady’s imagination is very rapid; it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony, in a moment.”

Madeleine does not see her leap immediately. It’s not until after they marry, while on their honeymoon in Nice, that, “The weight of marriage pressed down on her for the first time.” Funny, because the second Leonard uttered those words, “Marry me,” their weight takes over the novel.

Eugenides never abandons the meta-awareness of his novel being a novel about novels. Mitchell asks Madeleine at the end of the novel:

From the books you read for your thesis, and for your article—the Austen and the James and everything—was there any novel where the heroine gets married to the wrong guy and then realizes it, and then the other suitor shows up, some guy who’s always been in love with her, and then they get together, but finally the second suitor realizes that the last thing the woman needs is to get married again, that she’s got more important things to do with her life? And so finally the guy doesn’t propose at all, even though he still loves her? Is there any book that ends like that?

Madeleine tells him no, and he asks if she thinks it would be a good ending:

And Madeleine kept squinting, as though Mitchell was already far away, until finally, smiling gratefully, she answered, “Yes.”

There you go. Now, of course, there is.

Deconstruct love all you want, deconstruct the novel, tell yourself it’s not important, that  these stories have been told before, that people have fallen in love before. But we all know the satisfaction, admit it or not, of a well-told story with an enthralling climax and a thoughtful resolution; we know the heart-stopping clatter of love. We can declare love insignificant. Through force of will, we can disavow it. But the second our vigilance flags we’re thrown back in, in thrall to it, in spite of ourselves. Barthes may paint love as a silly, laughable thing, but even so I can’t help but think of the male politicians who rail about homosexuality as an abomination and are later found getting blow jobs from boys in airport bathrooms. Hate and scorn always have a bit of love involved; love a touch of repulsion. One chapter’s epilogue references Plato’s Phaedrus: “the lover is intolerable (by his heaviness) to the beloved. “ Indifference is love’s true enemy.

Hate and scorn and love. Madeleine’s loves embody urge and uncertainty; she hovers always in-between. Leonard blazes at his seductive height – his most dangerous state – at manic extremes. In the aforementioned essay, Proust pities taste-questioners as those who “grope painfully on in quest of beauty, the mock of those who enjoy books as they enjoy flowers, fine days, women, and call these anxious migrant lunatics and neurotics . . . an anxiety quite as taxing as a high fever to these souls athirst for what heaven alone, perhaps, can grant, for what here below only artless simple-mindedness can lend.”

Perhaps true beauty lies in being en route: to enjoy a book with the simple pleasure of a fine day, but to also feel the racing pulse of inventiveness and endeavor. With wit and sincerity, Eugenides takes the two – lover and beloved – and marries them into one satisfying recombinant jewel.


Further Links and Resources:

  • If you’re a NYRB subscriber, read Lorrie Moore’s New York Review of Books essay on the pleasures of watching Friday Night Lights: “Very Deep in America.” (Or Willa Paskin’s roundup in New York Magazine for a very brief overview.)
  • New York Magazine‘s fascinating piece on the complicated friendships and (sometimes) rivalries between Eugenides, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen and Mary Karr: “Just Kids” by Evan Hughes.
  • Click here to watch FWR’s editor-in-chief, Jeremiah Chamberlin, in a live, on-stage interview with Jeffrey Eugenides as part of the National Writers Series in Traverse City. Note: To skip the introductions, fast forward to the 15-minute mark.

Join the Discussion

  • This is brilliant! I feel as intellectually invigorated and emotionally satiated as I did when I read The Marriage Plot.

  • Best review of The Marriage Plot I’ve read–by far. Natalie does the literary equivalent of a keg stand at MLA!

  • Josie

    Being a thesis-writing English major myself I’ve resisted reading The Marriage Plot just yet, but I loved this review and I look forward to picking up the book just as soon as I can put down my own self-consciousness. Great, funny essay. (and lovely references-the thesis director would be proud, ha)

  • Charlotte Boulay

    Bravo! Natalie, this is a tour-de-force.

Literary Partners