The Marriage Plot
Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 406 pp., $28
For a while there, it looked like the novel was a goner. This was after the French theorist invasion, when the ideas of Lacan and Derrida caught fire with American academics, turning the study of English inside out. Language was slippery, its meaning elusive, narrative old-fashioned, they said; the straightforward march of an imagined story across a page was a sham. In the early 1980s, Charles Dickens was out; Donald Barthelme was in.
This is the world in which Madeleine wakes up, hungover, on her graduation day in Jeffrey Eugenides’ new novel, “The Marriage Plot.” She’s at Brown, a hot center of postmodernism, yet Madeleine can’t shake her affection for unfashionable novelists like Jane Austen and Henry James. From the distance of 2011, we know that such novels have survived just fine, thank you very much, but Madeleine is trapped inside her time, feeling that she’s falling short. That’s why she took a class from a famed semiotics professor, where she met Leonard, the handsome biology student who has left her brokenhearted and rudderless. Meanwhile, her old friend Mitchell pines for Maddy, convinced that someday he’ll marry her.
Eugenides switches points of view among Madeleine, Mitchell and Leonard, edging the plot forward slightly as he fills in the back story. Maddy, tall and beautiful, was brought up by a private university president and his always-proper wife; she tries out different aspects of her personality through various college boyfriends. Leonard had a dysfunctional childhood in Portland, Ore., with alcoholic parents and late-breaking academic success. Mitchell’s middle-class youth outside Detroit left him sartorially challenged, but it was firm enough to launch him into a philosophical study of religion. As the summer begins, Maddy and Leonard reconcile and Mitchell takes off to backpack for a year in Europe and India, still carrying a torch.
All is not easy for Madeleine and Leonard. He’s wildly intelligent and cut a unique figure on the Brown campus, wearing a leather jacket, chewing tobacco and being magnetically moody. But he has a hard time staying balanced: He’s got a case of manic depression severe enough that both his highs and his lows can be crippling. She checks him out of a hospital, medicated, so he can begin a prestigious science fellowship on Cape Cod. Lithium, the standard at the time, left many of its patients somnambulant and dull, and Leonard is dogged by the sense that he can’t keep pace with his new colleagues.
In love with Leonard, Maddy is attentive, devoted and frustrated. Her mother sends cautionary articles about getting involved with a man who is mentally ill. She is bored and lonesome on Cape Cod, where she hasn’t got much to do but take care of Leonard, who’s gotten fat and miserable. She finally attends a conference of Victorian literary scholars, sparking a new intellectual excitement and leading her toward graduate school. Eventually she admits to herself that a chance encounter with Mitchell before he left for Europe had a definite romantic component.
Far away and trying not to think of Maddy, Mitchell has no idea how difficult her relationship has become. He and a friend go to Paris, where his friend hooks up and he does not. It happens again in Greece. Eventually, he departs for India on his own, heading to Calcutta to volunteer for Mother Teresa. As he travels, Mitchell strives for clarity and a connection with the divine, humbly aware of his own failures. His forward motion — and his conviction that he and Maddy must end up together — provides a needed momentum to the story, which slows when it spends too much time in the past.
The love triangle is a throwback to Austen, and Eugenides seems to be casting his lot with the classic novel. “What exquisite guilt she felt, wickedly enjoying narrative!” he writes. “Madeleine felt safe in 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.” This is a license to enjoy exactly what he’s delivering: three college graduates and their hopes, moving from a realistically gloomy spring day in Providence to an elite scholarly retreat and the Home for the Dying, all leading to a moment of common resolution.
But is that all there is? Certainly, the rhetoric from the semiotics professor and his acolytes is mostly nonsensical and funny, bound to tickle anyone who has read in the field. Yet no matter how dirty the bathwater, the postmodern baby is still there, smiling. The ideas are debated, names like William Gass appear in the text, a Joycean reference gleams like a beacon for English majors, and Maddy is devoted to “A Lover’s Discourse” by Roland Barthes. When the brilliant, manic-depressive Leonard ties a blue bandanna on his head, he moves beyond being a fictional character to becoming a double of David Foster Wallace, a brilliant, manic-depressive, bandanna-wearing writer.
It’s a heavy meta-textual weight to carry: Wallace, whose landmark novel “Infinite Jest” employed footnotes as a postmodern formal device, committed suicide in 2008 at age 46. Eugenides’ earlier books are evidence that he’s no retro artist — the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Middlesex” was part lush immigrant story, part coming-of-age of a hermaphrodite, and “The Virgin Suicides” used the first-person plural narrative voice (“we”) to tell a story of thwarted teenage sexuality. In “The Marriage Plot,” Eugenides lauds and exploits the pleasures of traditionalism while sneaking in a little postmodernism on the side.
In this way, the Wallace echo is enriching, but it is also distracting. The deeper Eugenides explores Leonard’s mental illness, the less comfortable it is to associate him with the doomed writer.
If there is a writer to whom Eugenides appears connected, it is not Wallace but Jonathan Franzen. They are less than a year apart in age, and while Franzen got a head start, the two, who are both with the same publisher, are on similar publishing schedules. Last year, Franzen’s “Freedom” was a bestseller; like “The Marriage Plot,” it’s a robust, rich story of adults in a love triangle. Eugenides benefits by the comparison: This book is sweeter, kinder, with a more generous heart. What’s more, it is layered with exactly the kinds of things that people who love novels will love.